John Hawkins’ high school experience at St. Joseph’s Catholic was anything but ordinary. He experienced what most teens will not.
Rewind to October 2010. Hawkins played catch with LSU football coach Les Miles in the middle of an empty Tiger Stadium the day before the Tennessee-LSU game.
Hawkins was hardly a blue-chip football prospect. Four years ago, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Stage 4, a cancer of the immune system, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation arranged his meeting with Miles.
PHOTOS: Hawkins honored with ceremony
Hawkins, a football fanatic, was even more devoted to baseball. He was introduced to the sport at 3 years old, when his father pitched to him in the living room. He naturally took to the sport and developed into a skilled player talented enough to start on the varsity high school team as an eighth grader.
“He was always that kid who people were afraid to come to the plate because they knew he’d get a hit,” said St. Joseph’s senior catcher David Marable, who has known Hawkins since age 12.
Now a freshman at the University of South Carolina, Hawkins begins the year far differently compared with when he was a newbie at St. Joseph’s. For one, he doesn’t wear a body cast during classes. He also doesn’t put on a beanie to cover his once bald head.
These days, Hawkins is feeling “better than ever,” he said.
“I’m at a point physically where I can hang with or surpass anyone in just about any activity. There’s no limit to what I can do now.”
Life has notably shifted — only for the better — since Hawkins’ family vacation to Washington, D.C., in August 2009, during which Hawkins recalled feeling constant pain around his upper spine and had difficulty walking around the city.
He went to a pediatrician back home, and tests revealed that his platelet count was at a dangerously low 5,000.
An orthopedic doctor also spotted two hairline fractures in the base of his back, but that didn’t explain the pain occurring at the top. Hawkins was given a body cast that wrapped his chest and back to keep his spine from moving in an attempt to mend the fractures. He wore the cast all day and night, only removing it to shower.
The orthopedic doctor later discovered that Hawkins had a 2.5-centimeter lymph node on his neck. The bad news continued. He also had tumors in his liver, spine, hips and lungs.
“He had no capacity for blood to clot,” said Dawn Hawkins, his mother. “The doctor said if he would have been hit with a baseball, he probably would have bled to death.”
The next step: chemotherapy and radiation, which he endured on and off for nearly four months. Hawkins missed approximately 60 days of school as a freshman and nearly 80 as a sophomore.
Hawkins later resorted to an autologous stem cell transplant, which uses cells from one’s body instead of from a donor. The process involves high doses of chemotherapy to destroy cancerous cells before infusion and requires keeping the patient in isolation to avoid contacting germs.
While in the hospital, Hawkins contracted a 104-degree fever and a Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), an infection of the lungs and breathing passages. That brought on mouth sores, which brought on a lack of appetite, which in turn brought on a 40-pound weight loss on his 5-foot-6 frame. He dropped to approximately 110 pounds.
After 25 days bedridden, he was discharged from Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
“I remember the day I got out,” Hawkins said. “Walking to the car was so difficult. I had to relearn how to walk. I’d get winded after a few feet.”
When Hawkins returned to Greenville, he spent most of his time recovering on the couch and going on 10-minute daily walks with his mother. Once the mouth sores healed, he focused on regaining weight by eating mostly chicken and rice, and drinking up to three protein shakes a day.
As his strength returned, so too did his training dedication. He’d hit and field balls before lifting weights and running.
“If I wasn’t doing school work, I’d be doing something to get into better shape,” Hawkins said. “I’d get winded after everything. It was so difficult, but I had to keep working.”
Miraculously by his junior year, Hawkins started varsity at second base and much to his surprise hit nearly .500.
“He wanted it more than ever since he had experienced the thought of never playing again,” said St. Joseph’s Catholic coach John Barwick.
But the summer entering his senior year was the real turnaround period. Hawkins credits training at D1 Sports in Greenville to helping him get into the best shape of his life. He said he started to feel completely normal and was able to work out with ease. Not only did he change physically, his mental approach also transformed.
“John saw practice as a gift. He took advantage of every moment on the field,” Marable said.
It was evident this past season as Hawkins played a role in the team’s 30-2 record and Class A state title — a glorious ending to his roller coaster high school experience. And yet after the fact, Hawkins said his perspective on life is more grateful than ever because he’s been given a second chance to live it.
“Life can end at any time,” he said. “We can’t take it for granted. Instead, take advantage of every opportunity.”
Hawkins intends to do so at South Carolina. He expects to play on the baseball club team next spring and intends to try out for the Gamecocks during his sophomore year.
“I love being on the field. It’s a place I go to clear my mind — a gateway to get away from everything,” Hawkins said. “I’ve always felt really accomplished on it.”