JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Hawaii's C.J. Hawthorne grew up in Biloxi, Miss., a 45-minute drive to New Orleans, where he and the Warriors play in the Sugar Bowl.
Hawthorne finds his way home
Talk to C.J. Hawthorne for any length of time, and he's bound to utter this sentence.
"I'm just blessed."
Now, more than ever, the Hawaii senior receiver has reason to feel that way. When it was announced Sunday that the Warriors will play in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on New Year's Day, the entire team and state celebrated the triumph.
It has extra meaning for Hawthorne, who was an integral piece in the Warriors' run-and-shoot offense this season with 786 receiving yards and six touchdowns. His hometown of Biloxi, Miss., is just a 45-minute drive away, and unlike the team's visit to the Pelican State early in September to play Louisiana Tech, Carroll Joseph will have the time to journey home during the Warriors' improbable return visit to the South to play No. 4 Georgia.
"It's supernatural, I don't think anything will happen again ever like this," Hawthorne said, shaking his head. "It's extraordinary."
His past is one many people would have trouble escaping, let alone returning to face. But the Warriors' unprecedented success has brought him back. It will be his first return home since the summer of 2006, when the Gulf Coast area still struggled to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
That hurricane was just a minor blip compared to other storms he's endured. Hawthorne's parents separated when he was 11, and his mother, Clemencia Williams, left the lives of C.J. and six of his seven siblings when he was in high school. His father, Jerry, died while C.J. was playing junior college ball along the Gulf Coast, and never got to see him play at the Division I level. Various tragedies have befallen several of his siblings over the years, as they were left to fend for themselves.
But that's all in his past. The two years he's spent in the middle of the Pacific Ocean as a Warrior are to be cherished.
"A lot of stuff happened, but I've been so blessed, and I'm going to be the first one (in the family) to graduate," Hawthorne said. "Even this whole journey has given a lot of people back home hope."
He and his fellow offensive skill-position starters were named recipients of the Western Athletic Conference's first Offensive Unit of the Year Award yesterday (quarterback Colt Brennan, and receivers Hawthorne, Jason Rivers, Ryan Grice-Mullins and Davone Bess).
Grice-Mullins, Bess, Brennan, and linemen John Estes and Hercules Satele were named to the WAC offensive first team. Defensive linemen David Veikune and Mike Lafaele, linebackers Solomon Elimimian and Adam Leonard, and cornerback Myron Newberry earned WAC defensive first-team honors. Dan Kelly was the WAC's first-team kicker. Rivers made second-team offense.
They all know of the many trials and tribulations Hawthorne has survived before coming to Hawaii with his wife, Tina, and son, Kobe.
"He's been over here, he's trusted in whatever he saw in our program to leave his life and come over here and share it with us," Rivers said. "We've taken him in, and he talks about his family all the time. I'm sure it's very special and meaningful that he gets to play over there in front of his family and friends."
Brennan, the repeat WAC Offensive Player of the Year, had more to say on Hawthorne's behalf.
"Here's a young man who had a rough childhood growing up, he's already married with his son, he's a college student," said Brennan.
"And he's really been nickel-and-diming his way through life for the past couple of years. For him to have this experience and this opportunity, it feels great for us guys who have had it a lot easier in life, to see him be rewarded and get something he deserves, we're just thankful that he gets to go home."
June Jones, the WAC Coach of the Year, said that Hawthorne would be able to take a personal day to visit family after the Sugar Bowl. Virtually all of Hawthorne's family still lives in Mississippi.
Two of Hawthorne's brothers and one of his sisters will attend the game. He doesn't expect his mother to be there. She hasn't seen him play on national television yet.
"She's proud of me, I know she is," Hawthorne said. "Football's not really her thing, you know. I've talked to her during the season, like, four times. It's all right though. A lot of times, people just go through so much." He paused. "And when she sits down and thinks about it, I think she's real proud of me."