Terry Hawthorne: Proof positive
He walks into campustown's Mia Za's Cafe and goes mostly unnoticed. A sideways glance here and there. Nothing more.
Terry Hawthorne certainly looks the part. He's 190 pounds of muscle on a
6-foot frame. He's got the body fat content of a supermodel.
And he's got the signature play, a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. The pick six turned the game in Illinois' favor and earned him the Defensive MVP award.
If only the presumably Illinois crowd knew the importance of the young man, they'd be lining up for autographs and posting pictures on Facebook. Tweeting like they were watching the Olympics.
On this day, they miss the opportunity.
He skips the chance to order lunch and zips upstairs to the larger dining area. He sits down at one of the tables facing the windows. Green Street is below, with Follett's Bookstore across the street. Certainly, there are some No. 1s for sale.
With a tape recorder in front of him, he opens up. He talks about scary fragments from his life and how he avoided trouble. He talks about family, friends and graduation. The December day is just around the corner and he can't wait. But first, there is his senior season, which he could have easily skipped to play in the NFL.
Hawthorne came back. He didn't have to. The pros would have seen him at the combine and fallen in love with his athleticism and speed. And potential.
Why stay? Why risk another injury, which had cost him time earlier in his career?
It's that piece of paper, proof he not only survived college but made it work for him. Something to show the kids back at East St. Louis Senior, especially the ones thinking about dropping out.
"Everyone always says, 'A student from East St. Louis High School can't graduate from college,' " Hawthorne said. "This means a lot to me."
Where he once looked for that role model in his hometown, Hawthorne wants to become the example. Not a footnote or a blip or a "too bad what happened to Terry." He wants to be the story on the wall at the high school with the headline: "Black Cat (his nickname) makes good."
It isn't easy to thrive after leaving East St. Louis. Check out the other Flyers in Hawthorne's recruiting class. Tommie Hopkins signed with Illinois but suffered a gunshot wound during his senior year of high school. His stay at Illinois was short-lived.
Kraig Appleton had scholarship offers from Ohio State, Notre Dame, Nebraska and others. He settled on Wisconsin. After a three-catch freshman season, he was indefinitely suspended from the team in 2010. In June, 2011, he was shot multiple times in East St. Louis.
Hawthorne said he hears Appleton is going back to college.
"He's trying to get himself on the right track," Hawthorne said.
The two were star receivers for a state title team. They were friends, but didn't run in the same circles.
"I always kept myself with a nice crowd that I knew that I could trust," Hawthorne said.
Hawthorne doesn't complain about his upbringing. He grew up on Bond Avenue, a rough section of East St. Louis close to the Mississippi River. That's where the John DeShield and John Robinson housing projects are located.
As a youngster, he saw things we all want to keep from our kids.
"You will get shootings every night," Hawthorne said. "Shootings in broad daylight. You get people walking to the store in between (the projects) and getting robbed in broad daylight. You never know what you will get out there."
His mom, Diane, did her best to help Terry avoid trouble. There were challenges at home, including Terry's older brother Antonio, who was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia at a young age.
Terry hung out with a group of kids that kept themselves active with sports. At a nearby open field, they would play football and baseball. Or they would swim at the local pool.
Did he ever get into trouble?
"No, sir," Hawthorne said.
Diane Hawthorne had some powerful allies when it came to keeping Terry moving in the proper direction. His uncle, Isaac, was there. And so was his godmother, Rebecca Molitor.
"Those three always kept me straight, kept my mind staying focused, kept me active and kept me from running around the projects and getting into things," Hawthorne said.
It would have been easy to make the wrong choice. So many opportunities. But even at a young age, Hawthorne saw the bigger picture. East St. Louis was a starting point, not the end.
Hawthorne looks back and realizes he is one of the lucky ones.
Hawthorne was 7 when he first met Molitor. Recently divorced, she was volunteering with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in East St. Louis.
She was assigned to another young man, whom Molitor got involved in sports. Soon, she was helping Hawthorne, too.
Hawthorne would ask for rides to practices. A lot.
"He was so bothersome that it got to the point where I was just like, 'Don't ask me anymore. I'm coming to get you every day,' " Molitor said. "That's how it got started. He was so determined that he was going to get to the field. He would figure out ways to be where he wanted to be."
One time, at age 7, he walked more than 2 miles to get to a practice. Across a busy highway. Determination squared.
Molitor, a mental health therapist, worked in East St. Louis at the time. She wanted to be involved with children as a mentor and friend.
"I spent all of my late 20s and early 30s being like a soccer mom for baseball and football," Molitor said. "I was at every practice, every game. It was a lot of fun."
Hawthorne's personality made it easy for others to want to be involved.
"He had so much passion as a young kid that he would make people listen and pay attention to him to help him out," Molitor said.
Molitor is part of Hawthorne's support system. If he has a question or concern, she is one of the first he calls.
The commitment between Molitor and Hawthorne has grown since their early meeting. Molitor, who is engaged to retired Illinois State Police detective Joe Bates, travels to every Illinois game, home and away.
"Support is important to him," Molitor said. "It feels good for him, like any player, to have people there."
Hawthorne, the 2008 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year, had all sorts of college options. Some wanted him as a receiver. Others liked him as a defensive back, his eventual position.
He picked Illinois early and stuck to his choice. Even though his future school struggled to a 5-7 record the year before he arrived. But he liked coaches Ron Zook and Reggie Mitchell. And he believed they would help him.
There was an adjustment to his new home. The pace of Champaign-Urbana appealed to Hawthorne. Mostly.
"The town is a little bit of a change coming from where I'm from," Hawthorne said. "I like it a lot. It's just a different atmosphere than where I'm from."
A week before the start of Camp Rantoul, Hawthorne left the slower pace of Champaign-Urbana to spend some quality time in East St. Louis.
One of his first stops: ESL Senior to catch up with coach Darren Sunkett. They talk weekly.
"He always gives me good advice," Hawthorne said. "He said to look where I am right now compared to the other ones who were in the state game with me."
Hawthorne is royalty with the Flyers after leading the team to a 2008 state title.
Last week, Hawthorne talked with the team and later worked out with the high school players.
And he is becoming a big deal in his hometown, a place known for producing great athlete after great athlete. They saw the interception return against UCLA. They know he is going into his final year and a shot at the NFL is a few months away.
"Even some of the guys out on the street, they still know who I am and they still wish me luck," Hawthorne said.
Ask a reporter about Hawthorne and the first word you are likely to hear is "shy."
Those who know him best laugh at the idea.
"He initially is very reserved and quieter," Molitor said. "But people who know him would not describe him as being shy or quiet."
Hawthorne doesn't mind meeting with reporters. He is always pleasant. But you sense it isn't his favorite part of college football.
"I'm not a talkative person," Hawthorne said.
Hawthorne thinks back to his first few weeks at Illinois. He wasn't prepared for the college workload.
"I was stressing," Hawthorne said.
Throw football on top of that, including a move from offense to defense, and Hawthorne was soon thinking about going home.
He talked to Molitor, who kept him calm and convinced him to stay.
"I thank her for that," Hawthorne said.
"I remember we had that conversation," Molitor said. "I said, 'What are you going to do? Your options are limited. You have a choice to continue in school and do whatever you have to do to finish or look around and you tell me what you're going to do in East St. Louis.' "
School has remained difficult at times. But Hawthorne has attacked his classes the way he attacks a tipped pass: all out.
He was struggling with a concept in one of his courses and went to the professor for extra help. It wasn't a move that all athletes would have made.
"That's something I had to learn to do," Hawthorne said.
He tries to pass along the lessons. He gets in the ear of the incoming freshmen, reminding them what they should and should not do.
No. 1 on his "don't" list: "Thinking you are all that."
"They just think it's easy," Hawthorne said. "I let them know how it is. You can come in with the intention of starting as a freshman. But don't come in with a big head."
If the NFL doesn't work out, Hawthorne's got a plan. One that might surprise his teammates: joining the Air Force.
"Just to stay disciplined and stay on top of everything," Hawthorne said.
Plan C is for coaching, another long-term possibility for Hawthorne. Or helping run a rec facility.
When Hawthorne was younger, the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center was booming in East St. Louis. Lately, the center has fallen on hard times. Maybe Hawthorne rebuilds it to its past prominence.
If you want to find Hawthorne during the summer or after practice, check the place he shares with defensive tackle Akeem Spence.
It's a good bet they will be perched in front of the television, playing "NCAA Football '13" and "NBA 2K."
"I would say the majority of our free time that's what I do," Hawthorne said. "I'm better (than Akeem)."
"I win both games," Spence said. "I like playing (NCAA Football '13) with Virginia Tech."
Other than the video game arguments, they get along.
"We're so compatible," Spence said. "We keep the place clean. We both like to cook."
When Hawthorne does leave the house, he'll go bungee jumping or jet skiing. Really.
"I love it," Hawthorne said.
He doesn't have a significant other. Check back later.
"I'm really not looking for the girlfriend thing yet until I graduate and get on with my life," Hawthorne said. "I want to know what I'm doing before I settle down with someone."
He swears the individual awards, the All-America honors, don't mean a thing.
Hawthorne cares about the rubber bracelet he wears, which reads, "12-1-12." That's the date of the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.
"That's a big stage in your college life," Hawthorne said. "That's something I'm looking forward to doing my senior year."