It was eight years ago, but Terry Hawthorne remembers the day well.
On a chilly fall evening at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Nov. 29, 2008, Hawthorne helped the East St. Louis Flyers win a seventh state championship to put the finishing touch on one of great careers in school history.
Hawthorne’s individual statistics in the Flyers’ 33-14 win over Geneva weren’t overwhelming. A fleet wide receiver and defensive back, Hawthorne hauled in a 10-yard scoring pass from quarterback Detchauz Wray and finished the night with two catches for 24 yards.
But one thing is certain: Without Hawthorne, an All-American his senior year, the Flyers wouldn’t have even been there.
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Saturday, Hawthorne will be back in Memorial Stadium—his football home for four years as a member of the University of Illinois football squad. Now an assistant on the staff of Flyers coach Darren Sunkett, he should feel right at home.
Hawthorne counts himself lucky to be able to rejoin the 13-0 Flyers on the sidelines when they take on Plainfield North (11-2) in the Class 7A state championship game beginning at 4 p.m.
“I have a lot of great memories about that year and being a part of an East St. Louis team which won the state championship. It had been a long time between championships for the program,” Hawthorne said. “Now to be back and to hopefully have the opportunity to be a coach of a team to win a state championship, is a tremendous feeling.”
I love coaching, and myself still being able to go out and show and demonstrate to the players how we want things done instead of just telling them, helps them understand better.
Terry Hawthorne, East St. Louis assistant
The state title game will also be the second for Sunkett, who has his Flyers football team playing at its best heading into the final game of the season. Sunkett said Hawthorne’s emergence as an assistant has been a big part of the success enjoyed this season.
“Terry was a tremendous football player here at East St. Louis, and he’s done a great job since he’s come back as one of the assistants of this football program,” Sunkett said. “I think one of the dimensions that he brings is that he’s not that far removed from playing himself, and the kids are able to relate to him better.”
“He’s also a good example for the kids in that he’s a home town product who had a lot of ability, then used a tremendous work ethic to get the most out of that ability. He played four years of college football and was taken in the NFL draft. Terry is also a very high-quality person.”
The 2008 season
After being beaten by Wheaton-Warrenville South in the 2007 playoffs, expectations were high for East St. Louis the following season. The return of Hawthorne, wide receiver Kraig Appleton, Wray and speedy running back Courtney Molton made the Flyers the top-ranked team in the state.
But traveling to football-crazed central Ohio for its season opener against (Huber Heights) Wayne High School, the Flyers fell 20-12. The setback was surprising to Hawthorne and his teammates.
“With all the work that we had put in during the summer and the hopes that we all had heading into the season ... it was a humbling experience to lose the opener. It was a true wake-up call,” Hawthorne said. “But I think it brought us together as a team. We hated losing, and we didn’t want that sour taste in our mouths.”
Hawthorne did his part and more during the next 13 weeks to make sure the Flyers didn’t have that feeling again.
As a wide receiver and kick return man, Hawthorne finished with 19 touchdowns and had 48 receptions for 1,009 yards. As a defensive back he was just as good, finishing the season with 118 tackles, 74 solos with eight interceptions and a quarterback sack.
I have a lot of great memories about that year and being a part of an East St. Louis team which won the state championship ... Now to be back and to hopefully have the opportunity to be a coach of a team to win a state championship, is a tremendous feeling.
Hawthorne was at his best in big games.
Before a near-capacity crowd at Clyde Jordan Stadium, Hawthorne keyed a memorable second-half rally with three straight touchdowns, as the Flyers defeated Chicago St. Rita 35-28 in the state quarterfinals. The next week, Hawthorne again scored three times, catching six passes for 186 yards in a 27-20 semifinal win over Glenbard West.
On to Champaign
Ranked as the No. 6 high school wide receiver in the nation his senior year at East St. Louis, Hawthorne went on to the University of Illinois, where he was a four-time letterman as a defensive back. An honorable mention all-Big Ten selection during his collegiate career, Hawthorne played in 44 games at Illinois, starting 26 and finishing with 163 career tackles. He also had six career interceptions, two of which he took back for touchdowns.
With Hawthorne being a big part of the defensive unit, Illinois won back-to-back bowl games in 2011 and 2012.
With his chances of being an early NFL draft choice at their highest, Hawthorne decided to come back for his senior year.
“My draft prospects were actually higher my junior season than they were following my senior year. But I decided to come back for my senior year to get my college degree,” Hawthorne said. “It didn’t turn out the way I would have liked. There were some coaching changes, but I still ended up getting drafted in the fifth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I have no regrets, none at all about coming back for my senior year. I felt it was the right thing to do. I loved my four years at Illinois and playing college football there. It was a tremendous experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
After being taken by Pittsburgh in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft, Hawthorne suffered a knee injury in the Steelers’ preseason rookie camp. He took another shot at pro football with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.
From player to coach
Although disappointed his professional football career never got off the ground, Hawthorne keeps himself around the sport. He hopes to be a college coach someday.
As for now, Hawthorne is having a great time learning the ropes at his former high school and under his former coach.
Hawthorne has also spent time working with All-American Flyers wide receiver Jeff Thomas.
“I see a lot of myself in Jeff. We’re both on the quiet side. We don’t talk a lot,” Hawthorne said. “He has a lot of talent, a lot of natural ability. I just try to be there for him. I’ve been through what he’s going through now, and it was just a few years ago, so I think I can relate to him.
“I love coaching, and myself still being able to go out and show and demonstrate to the players how we want things done instead of just telling them, helps them understand better.”