USC great Alex Hawkins battling illness

rspear@ thestate.comMarch 5, 2014 

There have been better football players at the University of South Carolina ... maybe.

There have been more colorful football players to wear the garnet and black ... maybe.

Combine the two – skill and shenanigans – and forget the “maybes.” Alex Hawkins stands alone in Carolina lore.

One scribe once borrowed a thought attributed to war correspondent Ernie Pyle and labeled Hawkins “as colorful as a tree full of owls.”

He was that. He was more. He was the Atlantic Coast Conference football player of the year. He played offense and defense and kicked extra points, spending perhaps 50 minutes or more a game on the field. He made All-America teams. He was the 13th player taken in the NFL draft. And check out this rare statistical double: He led his college team in both passing (1957) and receiving (1956). And that’s without mentioning scoring (1956-58), punt returns (1957-58) and interceptions (1956).

He also drove coaches wild. Carolina historian Don Barton once described him as a coach’s nightmare Monday through Friday and a coach’s dream on Saturday. He challenged Warren Giese in college, Paul Brown in the Senior Bowl and both Vince Lombardi and Don Shula in the pros. He was Captain Midnight and Captain Who. He brought the folksy Don Meredith style to telecasts before Don Meredith.

He always had a story, many of them self-deprecating.

Through it all, then, the Hawk marched to a different drummer. He adhered to the lyrics of a song popularized by Faron Young in the 1950s, during the time Hawkins and King Dixon formed a formidable halfback combo for the Gamecocks: “I want to live fast, love hard, die young and leave a beautiful memory.”

He missed out on the die young part; he’s 76. But he did live fast and he did love hard and he did leave beautiful memories.

Alas, those memories are mostly for us and not for the Hawk. Today, he is in the clutches of a cruel condition called dementia.

FUN PERSON

Alex Hawkins, football’s free spirit, is in an assisted living facility called the Haven in the Summit in Northeast Columbia. Charlie, his second wife, said that considering his circumstances, “He had been doing quite well before he fell the other day. He’s in a wheelchair for now, but we hope to get him back on his feet before long. He can still have company anytime.”

He has heard from Dan Reeves and Jeff Van Note and no telling how many others he met on the trail from his native West Virginia to his college days at Carolina to the pros in Green Bay, Baltimore and Atlanta. He recognizes some and not others. The NFL’s Plan 88 is providing some assistance.

But laughter still remains part of his persona, and that’s as it should be.

“He’s always been such a fun person,” Charlie Hawkins said. “I’ve never been bored around him.”

Nevertheless, they probably saw this day coming. About five years ago, Hawkins took part in a study on memory loss by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes conducted at the University of North Carolina. He noted then that he had experienced memory problems and said, “It’s getting worse every year.”

This is the latest chapter in physical challenges for the Hawk. He has battled bladder cancer, undergone a procedure to clear his carotid artery and suffered a stroke.

Charlie tried to keep him at their home overlooking the Edisto River near Denmark, but she has physical issues of her own. She brought in help to assist, but that did not work, either.

But knowing the Hawk, he would not want his fans and friends to dwell on the now. Remember the good times, he would say. And there were many.

CAPTAIN WHO

An all-around athlete, he made West Virginia’s all-state basketball squad that included a guy from another high school named Jerry West. In fact, Hawkins had more basketball scholarship offers, including one from Clemson, than he received for football.

In reminiscing about old times a decade ago, Hawkins talked about being a couple of years ahead of West in high school, then, during his Carolina days, “My brother called and said West (and the University of West Virginia) would be playing in Charlotte and I ought to go see Jerry. I told him, ‘Why should I do that? I always outscored him.’ My brother said, ‘Not anymore.’ West scored like 44 that night.”

Stories like that became the Hawk’s stock-in-trade. He would spin a yarn on almost any subject, drive coaches crazy with his carousing – thus the “Captain Midnight” moniker – and talk proudly – with himself the butt of the joke – about becoming “Captain Who.”

“(Colts coach Don) Shula decided he wanted a captain for the special teams to go with Johnny Unitas (offense) and Gino Marchetti (defense) and pointed to me,” Hawkins would say. “Well, the officials came over to the sidelines and met us and said hello to Unitas and Marchetti. Shula said, ‘here’s our special teams captain, Alex Hawkins.’ The referee said, ‘Captain Who?’ ”

The Carolina faithful cherish his performances for three seasons – freshmen could not play on the varsity in those days – that helped the Gamecocks compile a 19-11 record and earn then-rare national ranking. He considered himself a better defensive player than offensive, but his best moments came with the ball in his hands.

In a fourth-quarter rally to beat Texas 27-21, Hawkins scored on runs of one and 18 yards and threw a 36-yard halfback pass to Dixon for the winning touchdown. In his final college game, he threw three touchdown passes, all to Dixon, in a victory against Wake Forest.

Still, he felt his best game came in a 29-26 loss to North Carolina State. Hawkins outgained State’s All-American Dick Christy, who scored all his team’s points. The Hawk’s touchdown pass and extra point tied the game late, then he intercepted a pass and returned the ball 70 yards before being tackled on the game’s final play. But a penalty against Carolina gave State an extra play, and Christy kicked the only field goal of his career.

“I played my finest game and he was the hero,” Hawkins would say.

On and on the stories would come ... about how only the bold trespassed in old Preston dorm that the football players occupied, about the “little extras” he was promised to attend Carolina and were eliminated by Giese, about his frustrations with Giese’s ball-control offense, about his brief encounters with coaching legends Brown and Lombardi and longer ones with Shula, still another member of the Hall of Fame, and ... the list is endless.

One not many people may know: News of Unitas’ death brought tears to the eyes of fun-loving, devil-may-care Alex Hawkins. “Call me back later,” he said, his voice choking with emotion.

After football and a little TV, he did a bit of everything, including waste disposal. He would answer his company phone this way: “Let’s talk trash.”

Many of his achievements have been reduced to small print in the record book and seem overshadowed by the mountain of yardage today’s game produces. But make no mistake, the Hawk could play, and those memories should never dim. They’re beautiful.

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