Michael Hawkins, head coach of the Germantown High School Bears varsity football team, is not feeling too great about the squad’s dismal record this year. They are at 3-8, a difficult position to be in especially before the annual Thanksgiving Day game against neighborhood rival Martin Luther King Jr. High.
But as much as it bothers him to see his team stumbling through the season, Hawkins says that he has other goals on his mind. Most important: preparing his young men for the challenges of not only high school, but what life has in store after graduation.
Twenty players from last year’s squad have graduated from Germantown, leaving only five on the squad with varsity experience. That means when Germantown takes the field, most of the Bears are freshman.
More than the game
Two days before the big Thanksgiving game Hawkins’ players take a knee on the field in a semicircle around him. Hawkins barks about not messing with the cheerleaders, and the proper way to answer a question.
One player learns the lesson on a run out to the 50-yard line.
The squad is laughing even before that player returns, and the conversation turns to the game plan for Thanksgiving. Not just strategies for the big game, but the logistics for pulling off one of his team’s longest traditions – the home cooked Hawkins turkey dinner for the whole team.
Note: these are football players. Very large, very hungry football players.
While it has been a tough season for the Bears, Hawkins said losing holds lessons worth learning too. Lessons about building yourself back up. And whether it’s through the stern demands, the Thanksgiving dinner, or the pasta dinners his wife Valorie prepares for the team every game day, Hawkins wants his players to feel that he and his coaches are there for them when it’s time to do that hard rebuilding work.
“We got a lot of guys, who are inexperienced and haven’t yet developed that intestinal fortitude needed to survive in times when things are not going their way,” said Hawkins.
Hawkins wants his young players to view life in the same vein as they do football. Sometimes you are going to get knocked down but as long as there is time left on the clock, you can always get back up and try again.
“This is a different generation – I like to call it the microwave generation,” Hawkins said of his players. “They want it immediately. And I somewhat understand, but what they need to understand is that if they want it, they got to work hard to get it.”
Besides his role as the Bears’ head football coach, Hawkins also serves as the head of Germantown High’s Physical and Health Education program.
Additionally, he is the dean of students for Germantown, a position he started in 2005. In this role, Hawkins focusses on mentoring and counseling students that fall outside of athletics.
“My main goal with the students is to get them to start thinking seriously about their future,” he said. “And I’m not just talking about the ones that play sports, but the ones I come into contact with as dean. I ask them, where do you want to be ten years from now? And what is your plan for getting there? That usually gets them thinking.”
The mentor was mentored
Hawkins began his coaching career at Germantown High in 1976, after working in the athletic department at Wagner Middle School. He became a permanent fixture at Germantown in the 80s.
Back then he worked under the wing of the legendary Charles Hicks, who in 1982 became the first black high school coach ever to win a city public league championship. After Hicks’ retirement, Hawkins was promoted to department head, and head coach.
He followed in the path of his mentor by becoming the second black coach to win a public league championship in 1999.
His ability to inspire students both on and off the sports fields has landed him on various state and citywide athletics boards including the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, where he currently serves as District 12 vice-chairperson of the board.
But as proud as he is of his professional achievements, Hawkins said that his biggest rewards have come from watching many of his former students go on to college and accomplish great things.
Students like last year’s running and throwing standout, Ramadan Abdullah.
So many standouts
Hawkins remembers Abdullah as a stubborn and playful freshman, who occasionally flaked on his academic studies. Hawkins said that he “stayed on him,” making sure that Abdullah realized the value in his education just as much as he did his running game.
Now Abdullah is the freshman wide receiver for Rhode Island University, playing on a full scholarship.
“He is one of the reasons why I have always enjoyed coaching and teaching at the high school level,” Hawkins said of Abdullah. “I enjoy seeing kids coming in as ninth graders, going through the process for the first time and watching them mature and graduate to do all sorts of great things.”
Over the years, Coach Hawkins has seen thousands of kids grow up in the halls of Germantown High School. From time to time, he bumps into them around the neighborhood as adults with school-aged children of their own. Some even thank him.
“My wife taunts me a lot about not being able to go anyplace without running into one of my former students,” Hawkins said. “It’s impossible to remember all of their names, but I really do take joy that they remember me and appreciate that I tried to get them [to] where they wanted to go in life.”
The Thanksgiving Day game between Germantown and Martin Luther King starts at 10:00 a.m. at Benjamin L. Johnston Memorial Stadium on the 1100 block of Sedgwick Street.