Running From Trouble : Nordhoff Standout Josh Hawkins Escapes Gang Tackle With Move to Ojai

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He has Fred Astaire's feet, Michael Jackson's hips, the improvisational skills of Robin Williams and can escape whether hemmed in, wrapped up or hog tied, just like Harry Houdini.

OK, so maybe that's overstating the case--a little. Suffice it to say that Josh Hawkins is to high school football what the compact disk is to music. All you would want in a nice, neat, durable package. He is a human entertainment unit. His stage, any grass field. His performance, spectacular.

The Hawkins show plays Friday nights during the fall at sites determined by the Nordhoff High football schedule. There is no warm-up act.

On the very first play of this season, Hawkins ran 82 yards with a kickoff return, slaloming past groping defenders with the resolve of a street urchin with a loaf of bread under his arm. The same game, he scooped up a fumble and raced 50 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the half, as if to provide his audience something else to buzz about during intermission.

Hawkins, a 6-foot, 178-pound senior, is a running back in the same way that, by definition, Elton John is a piano player. Such a singular description doesn't do him justice.

"Josh rarely gets a rest," Nordhoff Coach Cliff Farrar said. "The time he's off the field is when we're kicking off, and if we're playing a real important (game), he'd probably be out there for that, too."

Look for him out there on Friday night, when Nordhoff meets Oak Park in a nonleague matchup of undefeated teams. As tailback, Hawkins has rushed for 361 yards and four touchdowns in Nordhoff's three games. As a cornerback, he has two interceptions--which constitutes a high percentage of the passes opponents dared cast in his direction.

Farrar, who has been coaching football for 23 years, says he has never tutored a runner who could retain his balance after a hit and accelerate back to top speed faster than Hawkins.

And moves?

There was a run that set up a touchdown two weeks ago against Santa Ynez. There was that five-yard gain against Moorpark last season that Farrar said "was as good as any run I've ever seen."

Talk to those who have watched Hawkins most and there is no consensus about which was his best run, his best move.

But ask Hawkins and there is no debate. No. 1 on the charts is the move that brought him to Ojai from Kirkland, Wash. How's this for a cutback against the grain: Hawkins, who lived in the Seattle suburb until he was 13, fled the street gangs of Washington to find peace, serenity and direction in Southern California. "The way it was, I'd have been dead or in jail by now," Hawkins said. Stealing. Drugs. You name it, he probably tried it.

"There were Crips and there were Bloods," Hawkins said. "I was 11 when I started hanging with the Crips--wannabes, actually. I didn't go to school half the time. We'd go to Seattle on school days and break into cars and stuff, just looking for trouble."

After his parents split when he was 2, Hawkins lived with his mother in Kirkland, visiting his father in Ojai only during summer.

One summer, he asked to stay.

That decision as a 13-year-old marked only a stutter-step. Hawkins didn't reverse his field entirely by changing his ways until his sophomore season at Nordhoff.

He was a naturally gifted athlete, but no better than a C student until his father, Chuck, and his second wife, Denise, developed a sure-fire plan for developing better study habits.

They threatened him.

Hawkins' 16th birthday was fast approaching. No grades, no license. Improved grades? Hmmm, maybe a car.

Suddenly, his grade-point was soaring at the pace of the national debt.

"I wanted it," he said of his driving privileges. "My dad and mom told me what I had to do and I was like, 'Well, whatever it takes. I'm driving.' "

Hawkins now tools around town in a very cool 1980 Mustang. And the funny thing is, his grades still are improving, from 3.14 as a sophomore to 3.31 the final semester of last year.

"Getting good grades is something he feels good about," Denise Hawkins said. "Now that he's motivated, he likes to work hard in the classroom."

College has replaced a car on Hawkins' wish list, prompting even greater devotion to his studies.

Not that he has a choice.

Denise, a food service supervisor at Nordhoff, has a support group of teachers, counselors and staff keeping a watchful eye on her stepson.

"I couldn't get away from those people if I wanted to," Hawkins said.

He doesn't want to. Hawkins thoroughly enjoys his stature as a main man on the Nordhoff campus. He is involved in student government. He is co-captain of the football team. And, somehow, his popularity survives with barely a hint of jealousy from his teammates.

"Josh is a good player who works hard," said Dallan Rigby, Hawkins' running mate in the Nordhoff backfield. "He deserves the attention he gets. What matters most to him is that we win the ballgame."

Hawkins takes obvious pride in being a conscientious leader.

After a 18-7 victory over St. Bonaventure last week, he went out of his way to congratulate every teammate he could find--including one with dyed orange hair and several others who emerged from a game played in rain and mud wearing clean uniforms.

"He's a leader on the team," Farrar said. "A lot of times a kid with a lot of speed and talent doesn't take it upon himself to win every sprint at the end of practice. Josh does.

"You watch the way he treats his teammates. You watch and see when Dallan makes a run who's right there first, helping him up, patting him on the back and telling him, 'Nice run.' "

Offensive linemen receive even better treatment. Hawkins provides his blockers with the teen-age equivalency of a steak dinner, wine and a Rolex watch: an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, Gatorade and M&Ms.;

Farrar laughs when recalling that a week ago, before the St. Bonaventure game, Hawkins told friends that his stepmother had offered to sew elastic into the sleeves of Nordhoff's visiting uniforms.

When more than a dozen players lobbed their jerseys at him, Hawkins faced a predicament. Denise couldn't sew that many. "So you know what he did? He handed the others back, and kept the linemen's," Farrar said. "He takes care of his guys."

Truth be told, Hawkins feels much the same way about most of the people he knows at Nordhoff, and his list of college choices are the best evidence of that.

All of them are in California--UCLA, USC, Cal and San Diego State.

"I used to want to go anywhere, the farther away the better," Hawkins said. "Now I'd like to stay close to home.

"This family has done so much for me, I want to be here. I feel like I'm somebody now."

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