This past Friday it ended. At least I think it did. My best friend coached the last game of his forty plus year career. That equates to over fifty years involved with the religion known as Southern football. Everyone who knows Mike Hawkins, Hawk as he is known wide and far, would have bet he would continue to coach until he drew his last breath. Then, having been carried off of a football field straight into the mortuary for cremation, would have his ashes scattered to the “football gods” over some yet undetermined football field “heaven.” I thought the same thing until I talked to him during the week prior to his “last game.” Mike has mellowed…A LOT…and seems to be at peace with his decision. Saying such, would I be surprised if he didn’t retire? Not at all.
As I begin this writing, I haven’t contacted him yet. I’m afraid to. I’m sure he has met this Saturday morning with a jumble of feelings although I am also sure he would never admit it. If I were writing a book, Mike’s season and career would not have ended on a late field goal during the upper-state championship. If I were writing the ending the Spartans would have blocked the field goal, returned it for the winning touchdown and gone on to win next week’s state championship game. It just goes to prove something I already knew. God could care less about who wins a football game because a win was sure something I prayed for… along with world peace. I still hope to be one for two.
Mike and I were introduced to each other some forty years ago on an athletic field that has dissolved into the fog of time…along with the introduction itself. We would spend the next dozen or so years looking at each other across athletic fields as we attempted to beat each other’s brains out at various sporting endeavors. During those years we probably broke even but who is counting…and it doesn’t matter anyway. Playing a game against each other doesn’t insure you will get to know someone either and Mike is as open as a giant clam. “Quare” is the Southern term I would have used to describe Mike. In the late Eighties I would find myself interviewing at a local swimming pool for the opportunity to coach football and baseball at Riverside and over the next twelve years would learn “Quare” really didn’t describe him at all. As I attempted to write a book on my teaching and coaching career I admitted to a former player that I was trying to write a story about Mike and was struggling. The player commented, “I don’t know why, you should have enough material to write a book.” The player was correct and the amount of material WAS the problem.
Being a bit odd is just a small part of his personality. Mike, despite his hard, old school exterior, has a heart like a marshmallow. Especially for kids…or animals. If you are in dire need Mike will move heaven and earth to help you. That includes friends or enemies alike. He is going to do what is right…well what he thinks is right. Generous and giving is a much larger portion of his personality than his “quareness.” I will always remember catching him sneaking food to the “stadium cat” and “roping off,” with crime scene tape, a killdeer’s nest so we would not run over it while cutting the field. There was even an impromptu celebration when we saw momma killdeer being followed by three minuscule chicks. After my heart attack in 2006 I had a stint surfed into an artery that saved my life. As I came back to the world of the living in CCU I knew I had not died and gone to heaven because the second face I saw was Mike’s. I knew I wasn’t in hell either because Linda, my wife, was the first face I saw. I just appreciated the fact they were both there.
For nearly thirty years Mike and I have coached and taught together, laughed together, cried together, watched each other’s children grow up and had grand-daughters within months of each other. Mike gave me the opportunity to get over a bad time in my life and I would not trade it for gold. I have tried to help him through his own bumpy roads and pray I have helped with his healing…it’s what friends do I guess. We both lost coaching jobs we believed we would never get over and ended up winning state championships with other programs, something that never would have happened had we remained where we had been. Sometimes lemons do make lemonade and I am just as proud for him as I am for me. Mike has been a winner in every definition of the word at every place he has ever been, on or off of the field. A winner with kids, his peers and his friends. I can give him no higher tribute than to call him Coach Hawkins, my friend.
I don’t know what chapters are left in our “book,” I just hope we write some of them together and that they are as memorable as his career. Enjoy a well-deserved rest Mike. It will take a while but you will get used to it. Love you Man!