California Forum

Life in football now lost in dementia

Oakland Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica throws a pass behind guard Wayne Hawkins, No. 65, and Hall of Fame center Jim Otto during Super Bowl II in Miami on Jan. 14, 1968. The Packers defeated the Raiders 33-14.
Oakland Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica throws a pass behind guard Wayne Hawkins, No. 65, and Hall of Fame center Jim Otto during Super Bowl II in Miami on Jan. 14, 1968. The Packers defeated the Raiders 33-14. The Associated Press

Wayne Hawkins can’t tell you where he was last week. Or what he was doing an hour ago. His brain was traumatized by the cumulative concussions suffered years ago as an offensive guard for the Oakland Raiders in the 1960s.

He sits vapidly in his room in the dementia unit of a senior living center, surrounded by the photographs and memorabilia of his playing days for a decade in the American and National Football Leagues. He still thinks he can suit up.

A phone call one night 13 years ago brought Sharon Hawkins to the stark realization that her husband was mentally ill.

“I’m lost,” Wayne said plaintively to his wife. He had left their home in Reno that afternoon to play in a Jim Otto-sponsored charity golf tournament in Auburn.

Wayne played football right guard alongside Otto, Oakland’s Pro Football Hall of Fame center, throughout the ’60s. They were original Raiders. Hawkins was voted an AFL All-Star five straight years and played in Super Bowl II against Green Bay. At 6-feet and 240 pounds, Hawkins was considered small for an interior lineman, butting heads against 300-pounders in the intense combat of football’s trenches.

He arrived at the Auburn charity golf event in time to attend the celebrity golfers’ cocktail party. Returning to his car, he swung out on Interstate 80. Confused, he thought the tournament had already been played and was going to head home. Bewildered, he stopped and called his wife.

“Go to the nearest motel,” she directed him, “and check in for the night.”

“That was the blockbuster,” Sharon now recalls. Four years earlier, in 1998, she perceived the first glimmers of Wayne’s mental instability. He would call his sons Michael and Chris and ask the same question repeatedly.

Michael and Chris also played football, at fabled De La Salle High School in Concord. Michael went on to be a linebacker at University of Pacific, Wayne’s alma mater. Chris was a linebacker at Stanford University.

So Wayne would ask them over and over, “How’d your game come out?” Michael and Chris were more than a decade beyond their playing careers.

After his own NFL tenure, Wayne trained in New York to be an investment broker. Back in Oakland, working for a bank, he effected a quick loan for Ken Behring, a real estate developer building sprawling Blackhawk Country Club in Danville. Behring, who later owned the Seattle Seahawks, was so impressed by Hawkins that he hired him to head the Blackhawk project.

Hawkins broke away to develop his own big housing tract in Hawaii on the island of Oahu, and other ventures, went into the wine business and was in charge of sampling vintages with customers when he wasn’t playing golf. As his erratic behavior commenced and he was plagued by short-term memory loss, he lost a succession of jobs.

Ten years ago, his doctor ordered a series of PET scans that revealed brain damage from the many concussions Hawkins had suffered as a football player – an estimated three or four a year for two decades at all levels of the game.

Against Kansas City in 1963, a violent collision put him in a hospital, where he slipped into a coma for 12 hours and awakened disoriented. Within a few hours, he was released and flew back to Oakland, saw a neurologist and was cleared to play the following Sunday in Denver. In the first half of the game, he sustained a concussion but came out to play the second half.

Against 6-foot-9, 315-pound defensive tackle Ernie Ladd of the San Diego Chargers, his helmet and face mask were crushed against the goal post, and Wayne was knocked dizzy. He still played the entire game. That evening he complained of a toothache and went to see his dentist the next morning.

X-rays showed his jaw was broken from end to end. His teeth were wired together with a space in front for a straw, and he played several games with his jaw wired.

Wayne’s later mental decline – linked to the past concussions by a UCLA brain study in which he participated – made his wife the sole family provider. She is a professional artist who painted full wall murals in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and transformed many of the finest homes and business offices in Reno with her designs and art.

Ten years ago, it became obvious Wayne needed full-time care. Besides daily confusion over simplest tasks – he lost his credit card, his championship ring and couldn’t operate a TV remote control – he slipped walking on ice, landed on his back, broke his ribs and hit his head on a concrete curb, rendering him unconscious for 20 minutes. It put him in a hospital for seven days, and he never really recovered.

Sharon put her art career on hold and became his full-time caregiver. The Hawkinses moved into an assisted living facility, Villa San Ramon in the East Bay. The complex included three small cottages, and they managed to secure one.

It was a harrowing time. Wayne would put metal objects in the microwave, igniting kitchen fires. He wandered off in a drenching rainstorm and was found at the main building, sopping wet. He was incontinent. His blocky build ballooned to 280 pounds; his mobility decreased and he had to use a walker.

She contacted the National Football League’s Disability Office for financial assistance and was summarily ignored: “He has been out of football too long.”

But the NFL’s Disability Board became increasingly cognizant of the concussion issue as it affected aging older players such as Hall-of-Famers Mike Webster, the Pittsburgh Steelers center, and John Mackey, the Baltimore Colts tight end – both died after losing their minds to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the newly researched disease resulting from head injuries. The 88 Plan, named for the number on Mackey’s jersey, was created for ex-players diagnosed with dementia.

Wayne Hawkins was enrolled in Plan 88 in 2007. In July 2015, her own health impaired from grappling 24 hours a day with Wayne, Sharon Hawkins moved them to the Mirage Inn, a senior living center in the Southern California desert community of Rancho Mirage. They would be closer to their longtime friends, Tom and Barbara Flores, of nearby Indian Wells. Tom was the Raiders quarterback behind the protection of Hawkins for seven seasons. Flores was later the Raiders’ head coach and produced two Super Bowl triumphs.

Wayne was placed in the dementia unit for professional round-the-clock care. Sharon rented a small unit in the adjoining independent living sector. Plan 88 now pays them $100,000 annually to cover living costs, to be raised to $133,000 a year in April.

Sharon visits Wayne daily. She ferries him to doctors’ appointments. Wayne, 77, has medical issues beyond dementia. He needs a left knee replacement – water is drained from it periodically – but he had a heart attack several years ago, and the doctors are loath to operate until the cardiac issues are resolved and his obesity reduced.

For a sense of normalcy, Wayne and Sharon, who have been married 54 years, occasionally dine together in the independent residents’ Grand Dining Room. He extends a meaty handshake to all who come to the table. His geniality and even disposition make him a favorite with the little white-haired old ladies. They consider him “sweet.” Wearing an old Raider T-shirt and carrying his battered Raider playing helmet, Wayne won top prize, measured by audience applause, in a Halloween costume contest.

In casual conversation, he stops and looks at his watch and suddenly announces in all seriousness, “I’ve got to go and get ready for the game.”

Which Wayne Hawkins last did 45 years ago.

Murray Olderman is a Hall of Fame sports writer and cartoonist, who wrote features and drew cartoons for The Bee. He has written many books about the Oakland Raiders, and his football murals hang in the Pro Football Hall of Fame at Canton, Ohio.

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