Hawkins thrives from natural leadership gift

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Friday the 13th will be seared in Daphne Hawkins’ memory for the rest of her life.

In a matter of 12 hours on March 13, the two-time Academic All-Conference senior shot putter from the University of Mount Olive received three life-altering pieces of news that would turn her personal world upside down.

First, she woke up that morning to learn that seven of her classmates had been involved in a fatal car crash at 12:45 a.m. Six were members of the school’s women’s lacrosse team and one was a former UMO baseball player. Two of the lacrosse student-athletes were pronounced dead at the scene of the wreck with the former baseball player and another women’s lacrosse player dying just days later.

Then, in news that paled in comparison to that tragedy, Hawkins was informed that her senior outdoor track season had been canceled and the UMO campus was closing due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“My personality is to know everyone on campus,” Hawkins said. “It’s one of the things I love about being at a small college like Mount Olive. So, I was friends with pretty much everyone involved in the accident. I’m still a little numb. I’ve been texting some of my friends, but it doesn’t seem real.”

She joined a vigil for the fallen athletes the next evening on the lacrosse field.

The campus turnout was heartwarming.

“We ran out of candles,” Hawkins said. “It made all of us reflect about being part of a bigger family. I want to be a future educator and hopefully a mother. I could never imagine my senior year playing out like this, under such tragic circumstances and my last outdoor track season canceled. It’s not supposed to be this way.

“I couldn’t even give proper goodbyes to my friends and classmates. Everybody was in a rush to go home.”

Hawkins, the model scholar-athlete with a 3.7 career grade-point average as a social studies education major and coaching minor, drove home to be with her parents and two brothers who live in Emerald Isle on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, about 90 miles from the UMO campus.

Hawkins is grateful for the safe environs at the family home.

However, she can’t help but think of school events that will be missed.

School events that will be missed

Team captain of the track and field team, Hawkins helped organize the first-ever, semi-formal dance in Mount Olive which was to benefit the local Make-A-Wish foundation. It was scheduled for St. Patrick’s Day but was canceled. In addition, Hawkins was forced to end her stint as a student teacher of history at nearby Spring Creek High School.

And, of course, her opportunity to walk across the stage to pick up her college diploma was nixed when May 2 graduation ceremonies were postponed.

“I think a big lesson I have learned is that we are all part of the same Trojan family and when things like this happen, we’ve got each other’s back,” Hawkins said.

She credits her Christian upbringing for building a foundation to handle life’s travails such as losing friends so quickly and tragically and coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. An active member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes dating back to high school, Hawkins also says attending UMO has left its mark.

“It was a natural to come to Mount Olive,” she said. “We share the same values. I also like that the school doesn’t force anything on students. For me, the main thing is to have a relationship with God. That relationship has given me a foundation of faith. It has been so important when coping with adversity like we’ve had this year.”

Both Hawkins’ parents are educators. She grew up in Bristol, Virginia, as a self-proclaimed “mountain girl.” Her mother, Regina, was her eighth-grade home room teacher at Wallace Middle School in Bristol. Her father, Jeff, served as the principal at John Battle High School, where Daphne Hawkins was a multiple-sport star.

“We were raised in a Christian home that also loved sports,” she said. “One of my fondest memories was dad coaching my Little League team.”

Her family, including brothers Major (18 years old) and Chance (13), has been a real source of support and normalcy during these turbulent times.

“Since returning home, my dad is taking me fishing, my mom talks about scriptures and my brothers want to play video games,” Hawkins said. “We’re staying busy and spending a lot of great family time together.”

Like other UMO students, she also is completing her final classes online for the remainder of spring.

History a given

It’s no wonder that Daphne Hawkins’ long-term goal is to become a high school history teacher after graduation. Just look at her own history growing up.

“My dad taught history in high school when I was young,” Hawkins said. “Every single summer, our vacations had a historical aspect to them. We might go to Busch Gardens, but we would figure out a way to also visit places like Williamsburg or Jamestown. My grandfather was also really interested in genealogy, which just sparked my interest more. I even loved going to antique stores so I could look at the old photos. Everybody has a story!”

She said her college roommates used to get tired of hearing her go on and on about history.

“I can remember showing them our thick history textbook and saying, ‘This is just a big story book!’” Hawkins laughed.

She also tells the story about her parents occasionally bringing home different class books. One was on world civilization, focusing on Africa and Egypt. The industrious Daphne Hawkins, then in fifth grade, decided to actually copy the book’s text, writing down every word on a ruled notebook for future reference.

“I guess history is just my thing,” she said.

Towering over most of her teammates at six foot one, Hawkins is also quite proficient as a shot putter and weight thrower on the Trojan track and field team. After setting a school record and finishing second at the 2A Virginia State Championships at John Battle High School, she became a real staple in college.

Hawkins uncorked a personal best of 11.77 meters in the outdoor shot put and 11.40 in the indoor shot, which both rank seventh-longest in Mount Olive history. Recently at the Conference Carolinas Indoor Track & Field Championships on Feb. 23, she unleashed a new personal-best throw of 12.11, which qualified her for all-conference honors and ranks fifth in the Mount Olive all-time indoor record book.

Going the distance

Justin Potter, her position coach at UMO, marvels about how far Hawkins has come as a shot putter and weight specialist.

“She’s come a long way since her freshman year,” Potter said. “When she started, she might get off a good throw on occasion. But now, she’s pretty darn consistent in performing at a high level. She’s always had a push to be a good athlete from her father. Sometimes parents give that push, but handle it in a wrong way.

“Clearly, her dad being a coach himself, it has been done in a good, positive way. She’s been taught that if you’re going to do it, you better do it at the highest level.”

Along the way, Hawkins has amassed a remarkable list of honors at UMO, including twice being named a Division II Athletic Directors Association Award winner and twice earning Academic All-Conference laurels.

Yet, it’s her gift of natural leadership that Potter covets and will miss the most.

“She’s the kind of person you hate to lose from your program,” he said. “She’s just a great human being who cares about everybody. And such a hard worker. What can you not say about her?”

He also mentioned how rare it was for a shot putter to be a team captain. It’s not an easy feat, considering that shot put and weight throwers train in isolation from the rest of the team.

“She goes out of her way to relate with everyone,” Potter said. “Don’t get me wrong, she cares about her own performance and definitely wants to be on the podium. But she wants everyone to do well. She really cares about her teammates, and not just at the track meet but in life.”

The NCAA has granted spring student-athletes an additional year of eligibility due to the cancellation of their 2020 seasons.

Hawkins has decided to forgo that extra year, choosing to graduate and enter her chosen profession.

“I’m really disappointed to see her go, but I totally understand,” said Potter, as his voice began to break. “She needs to get on with her career. It has been four great years with her. See, now I’m getting emotional.”

While Hawkins hates to leave, she thanks her parents for instilling the right priorities as she ventures into the real world.

“My dad always told us to do God’s work and be a good person, good student and good athlete in that order,” she said.

Privately, she shares that she’s contemplating a move back to her birthplace in Bristol, eyeing a teaching position and volleyball coaching vacancy at a small high school in the area.

Bob Rose is a long-time sports public relations executive who has worked for the San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, the NFL Cardinals, Cal, Stanford and other organizations.

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