Hawkins headed to NSIC Hall of Fame

In the fast-paced and physical game of football, the relationship between a quarterback and his receivers revolves around timing. When precise route running and accurate passing come together in unison, breathtaking plays can result.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the timing was perfect for the Southwest Minnesota State University football program. A collection of some of the most talented players to ever put on a brown and gold uniform joined forces on the field and enjoyed what still stand as the two most successful seasons in Mustang football history in 1990 and 1991.

Lightning-quick receiver Wayne Hawkins was a key player in a pass-happy offense that thrived in an era when nearly every other team in the region was grinding out yards on the ground. As a senior in 1991, Hawkins had one of the best single seasons in NAIA history when he caught 126 passes for 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns during a school-best 9-1 season for SMSU, then known as Southwest State University. His 12.6 catches per game that season still stands as an NAIA record.

Tonight in St. Cloud, Hawkins will become the 22nd individual from SMSU to be inducted into the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Hall of Fame. Reflecting on his time in Marshall, Hawkins said the people around him had a lot to do with helping him become one of the most prolific pass catchers in conference history and also helping the program achieve unprecedented success. He said it seemed almost like fate how lives converged for those special years.

“It was kind of, well, I don’t really want to say a fluke that we all ended up there,” said Hawkins, who was also an NAIA All-American in track at SMSU. “There were quite a few guys from Florida there as well and we just kind of all ended up at the same destination. Right place, right time, you know?”

A native of St. Anthony, a suburb in the Twin Cities metro, Hawkins climbed all the way to the NFL, spending two seasons with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the seventh round in 1992. His football beginnings, however, didn’t scream stardom. At 5-foot-10, Hawkins only got up to around 155 pounds when he was playing in high school and was initially advised to avoid playing football.

“Actually, I was a track guy. That’s why I trained so hard at football,” Hawkins said. “I was told, ‘you’re too small’ or ‘you’re going to get hurt.’ So I just put my track speed to good use and I worked hard on getting my hands better and things of that nature.”

Hawkins stuck with football and became an all-state kick returner at Columbia Heights. He went to St. Cloud State to play in college, but said it didn’t work out for him there and he left after redshirting his freshman year. He wound up at Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights where he joined forces with a quarterback named Jeff Loots and a head coach named Brent Jeffers to help break into the junior college record books.

But after Hawkins’ first year at Inver Hills, the school’s administration shut down the football program. Hawkins garnered attention from Division I programs Idaho and Wyoming. He was also getting recruited by Southwest Minnesota State and eventually made a pact with seven other Inver Hills teammates, including Loots, to go play for the Mustangs, where Jeffers was hired as an offensive coordinator.

The rest was history.

Loots still holds several SMSU records, including the career marks for passing yards (10,116) and passing touchdowns (102). He had the luxury of throwing to standout receivers Alvin Ashley, Hawkins and Preston Cunningham, who sit 1-2-3 in program history in career pass receptions.

With their history together in junior college, Hawkins said he had a special chemistry with Loots and said he was like a brother.

“He was a pretty quiet guy who liked to get the job done and worked hard,” Hawkins said of Loots, who was inducted into the NSIC Hall of Fame in 2009. “With both of us together, with the idea of ‘Let’s put up as many points as we can,’ I mean, all we wanted to do was throw the ball. That’s the mentality we came with from (junior college) and we wanted to see how far we could take this thing.

“… A lot of teams were just pounding the ball and here we came with a five-receiver, no-back set and just started airing it out. I think we shocked a lot of teams with that.”

Hawkins had a stellar junior season with the Mustangs in 1990, finishing with 830 yards in a year the team finished 8-3 and made the NAIA playoffs. Jeffers wanted to feature Hawkins more for the 1991 season and made it goal to put the ball in his hands 20 to 25 times per game through a combination of receptions, runs and kick returns.

The plan worked to perfection. Hawkins led the nation in receiving yards with 1,515 and his total of 126 catches in a season remains the best in NAIA history in 10 games or fewer.

To watch Hawkins in action meant seeing a player who was operating at a different level than just about anyone else on the field.

“You heard of this player at Southwest that possibly was an NFL prospect, and you wouldn’t have to sit in the stands and ask, ‘Well which one is he?'” Jeffers said. “His speed was so much more superior than anyone else on the field. Defensive backs would have angles on him and he would just run past them. He had that kind of talent and it was obvious to anyone as a spectator to notice it.”

Several of those spectators turned out to be NFL scouts, who had no choice but to put Hawkins on their radar due to his incredible statistics.

“That wasn’t our plan when we went into it, we were just there to have fun,” Hawkins said. “Then, all of the sudden, going into my senior year, I think there were only 28 teams in the NFL at the time, and out of those 28 teams I think like 24 or 26 teams came to Marshall or I met them in the Twin Cities. It was exciting just going through the process.”

Jeffers said it wasn’t just Hawkins’ speed that made him an elite talent. Hawkins took the time and effort to hone his skills and he had a desire to do whatever was needed to help the team.

“The thing that I’ve always remembered about Wayne was he was probably the hardest working player I’ve ever been around myself as an athlete or a coach,” said Jeffers, who replaced Gary Buer as SMSU’s head coach in 1993 and led the team for four seasons. “He put up a lot of stats as a receiver, but what people forget was he was on the punt team as the guy who would try to block the punt and he was on the field goal block team because he would come off the edge and dive in front to try and block it. He also played on the kickoff team.

“We actually had him play every position of the eligible receivers. He would line up at both running back positions, he played tight end, both receiver positions, and he was actually our backup quarterback.”

Jeffers and Hawkins developed a close bond with each other, which was good for them because they spent a countless number of hours together. Jeffers not only coached Hawkins in football, but also in track. The pair helped rejuvenate the SMSU track and field program in 1990 after it had been disbanded for four years. They initially traveled around the region, just the two of them, searching out meets to have Hawkins run in. Eventually, other athletes saw the success Hawkins was having and the track program grew.

Hawkins was an NIC champion in the 100- and 200-meter dashes in both 1990 and 1991. He was also an NAIA Outdoor All-American in the 100 and 200 both years, and an NAIA Indoor All-American in the 60-yard dash in 1991.

Hawkins and Jeffers not only spent indoor and outdoor track seasons and the football season together, but also the summers together since Hawkins stayed in Marshall to train. Hawkins credited Jeffers for aiding him in becoming the best athlete he could be.

“Brent was my mentor and my coach, like a second father for me at that point of my life,” Hawkins said. “We hung out and just did our thing. It was fun.

“He was the coach, the mastermind behind it and I was part of the sculpture, or the masterpiece, that he was creating.”

Hawkins went on to play two seasons with the Patriots, though he only saw the field in preseason games. When Bill Parcels took over the team, Hawkins was released and pursued a career in arena football for three or four years. He joined forces with Loots and Ashley to play with the Milwaukee Mustangs, then later the trio asked for their release so they could play closer to home with the expansion Minnesota Fighting Pike in 1996.

Now living in Plymouth, Hawkins has five children with his wife Kari. He owns a commercial cleaning company that he started 17 years ago and also dabbles in other entrepreneurial ventures.