Thursday, September 20, 2007

SF Chronicle: Cal's Hawkins improved more than his play

Lavelle Hawkins had just played what he called "the worst game in a lifetime," and, like most any 20-year-old, he wasn't in the mood to talk about it. The Cal receiver stormed past reporters after last season's 24-20 loss to Arizona, but recruiting assistant Kevin Parker didn't stand for it.  "We all have tough days," said Parker, who jumped on the team bus and pulled Hawkins back to address the media. "I just wanted him to realize that he couldn't run away from it. He had to face it like a man and find a way to bounce back."  Hawkins has done more than bounce back. He caught a touchdown pass in the Bears' next three games and leads this year's team in receptions (19) and receiving yards (220). Maybe even more important as Cal prepares for a rematch with Arizona, coaches and teammates have seen Hawkins change his demeanor.  "He has matured in every realm of the game," Parker said. "You can see it in his attitude, how he approaches practices and meetings and how he's becoming a better overall person and player." The transition started on that November day in Tucson, when Parker insisted that Hawkins face the uncomfortable music. At the time, Hawkins simply said, "It was my fault." In actuality, there were a number of things that didn't go Cal's way, but Hawkins was in the middle of a couple of the plays. The then-junior was called for a block-in-the-back penalty that nullified a 79-yard touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch. Hawkins also appeared to have an easy romp into the end zone that would have tied the game 24-24, but he stumbled and fell at the 1-yard line.

"It was tough, because I was mad and I was really embarrassed," Hawkins said Tuesday. "It bothers me to this day. I will never forget that. That's going to follow me for the rest of my life." Back then, Hawkins knew the Bears had missed a chance to move into the national championship picture, but he had no idea how haunting the loss would be eventually. When USC lost to UCLA three weeks later, it was that loss that resulted in Cal yet again being denied a Rose Bowl berth.

"All I could think was, 'We done let this team mess up the whole thing we had going,' " Hawkins said. "It was crazy, man." Maybe as a reminder of that feeling, Hawkins wore a red shirt - a sartorial no-no at Cal - after Saturday's 42-12 win over Louisiana Tech, during which he returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown and caught seven passes for 87 yards. "I can wear whatever color I want," Hawkins said Saturday. "When you play like this, coaches can't say anything."

He went on. "Of course, I'm the fastest guy on the team," he said. "I'm faster than Jahvid (Best). I'm faster than DeSean (Jackson). They don't want to race me. "Make sure you put some ha ha has on the end of that."

That's how times have changed. Four years ago, Hawkins was a Parade All-American at Edison High-Stockton accepting an offer to play for national champion LSU. He always felt like he was the best. He transferred to CCSF and finally to Cal, always maintaining his probably impractical goal of zero drops for a season. Sometime between the Arizona loss and this summer, when Hawkins implored fellow receivers DeSean Jackson and Robert Jordan to work extra hard, Hawkins grew up. He now softens his comments with humor and recognizes the importance of his teammates. "Lavelle had never known anything but being 'The Man,' " Parker said. "He has matured to the point in which he can share the attention. As a receiver, you have to want the ball, but he's not complaining anymore when he doesn't get it." In fact, he has taken it a step further. When a fan approached him Tuesday, Hawkins introduced himself as Jackson and told the man to wear Jackson's No. 1 jersey to the game. That move fit his season-long effort to keep the spotlight on his Heisman-hyped teammate. "I'm just the other guy," Hawkins said. "I hope (opponents) don't figure it out. Keep putting the camera on DeSean, and let me just sneak by you." Even the new team-first Hawkins can't miss an opportunity to get attention from one group, though. "Please put this in the paper," he said. "Tell the fans to please do the Hawk dance with me. I'm feeling lonely out there. "I'm hearing the DeSean Jackson chant. Even Robert Jordan gets a chant. I don't need a chant. I just want them to do the Hawk with me."

No comments: