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Against All Odds: Ahmad Hawkins remembers Virginia’s 1998 win over Virginia Tech

The man behind one of the most memorable plays in UVA history tells the full story behind that iconic picture.

Ahmad Hawkins

It’s a picture of not just arguably the most memorable touchdown in Virginia Cavaliers history, but one of the memorable plays in the annals of UVA sports.

When UVA wide receiver Ahmad Hawkins dropped to his knees, spread his arms, and looked toward the sky in the north end zone at Lane Stadium on the afternoon of Nov. 28, 1998, it was more than celebrating a touchdown to cap the Cavaliers’ stunning rally from a 22-point halftime deficit against the hated Virginia Tech Hokies. It was, in his words, an expression of relief. Happenstance occurrences and a myriad of factors, some more heartbreaking than others, came into setting up that historic score and all coalesced over several years into one final triumphant moment.

Hawkins pulls up a chair in his office at Charlottesville’s Lugo-McGinness Academy, where the 39-year-old is a behavior intervention specialist at the alternative school for troubled middle and high school students. It’s located in the Venable neighborhood, just a few long Lester Coleman punts from The Corner. It may be the Monday before Thanksgiving, but that also means it’s Tech Week, and the Ball Hawk wants to talk. And talk he does. Over the course of a nearly hour-long sit-down with Streaking the Lawn, he talks about the past, present, and future of UVA and the Commonwealth Cup rivalry. During the transition out of his Arena Football League career, he discovered his passion for working with and mentoring kids while substitute teaching in Charlottesville City Schools.

Wearing a gray t-shirt with the V-sabre logo over a long-sleeved tee and a pair of jeans, not once during the chat does he or his wardrobe betray the sense of modesty and matter-of-fact attitude he exercises as a host of his own solo podcast and a pregame analyst and sideline reporter for the Virginia Sports Radio Network.

In retrospect, the 1990s might have been the heyday of the UVA-Virginia Tech rivalry. The Commonwealth Cup trophy came into existence in 1996, and around that time, players like Brooks, Hawkins, Michael Vick, and a host of others from the 757 (Hampton Roads) made the choice between Charlottesville and Blacksburg. The teams split their games during the decade, with each side winning five times. The Hoos weren’t far removed from their status as a regional power under George Welsh; they climbed to No. 7 in the national rankings in 1998 with a 5-0 start. Virginia Tech was on the rise under Frank Beamer, and one season later they would start 11-0 with a national championship 15 minutes away before some guy named Bobby Bowden and the Florida State Seminoles reeled off an 18-point fourth quarter to win the 2000 Sugar Bowl.

Hawkins said that the team was confident heading into the 1998 season because Anthony Poindexter, the Cavaliers’ All-American safety projected to be a first-round NFL Draft pick, decided to forgo the draft and return for his senior year. With Patrick Kerney developing into a stud defensive end in fall camp, Poindexter in the secondary, Brooks in his second year at quarterback, and Thomas Jones (the “bell cow,” as Hawkins described him) in the backfield, the main question for UVA was the receiving corps. Germane Crowell had graduated, so second-year offensive coordinator Sparky Woods had to figure out what kind of setup gave Brooks the best opportunity. The sophomore Hawkins ended up in the slot, Terrence Wilkins was the flanker, and Kevin Coffey was at the split end.

How did Hawkins end up at Virginia, anyway? You can thank the connection Welsh made with his grandmother, affectionately called “Big Ma.” “The fact that she allowed him to sit on the good furniture with the plastic, and the fact that she actually talked to him and the fact that she respected him when he left and had good things to say was the deal breaker for me,” Hawkins said. “My family’s close-knit, and the village raised me,” so it wasn’t all that difficult of a decision between UVA and his second choice, Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators.

The season began with a 19-0 shutout of the No. 25 Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on ESPN’s Thursday Night Primetime. “[To] go to an SEC school and really — it was a statement, it wasn’t close. We put it on them. That really caught everybody’s attention, how we came out and how effective we was on offense,” Hawkins recalled of their big win on The Plains. Maryland, Clemson, Duke, and San Jose State all fell by the wayside after that and the Hoos were suddenly up to No. 7 in the AP Poll heading into Atlanta for a matchup with Georgia Tech. As is wont to happen against the Jackets, Virginia fell on a last-second field goal after taking an early lead.

The next week, disaster struck against NC State. Going in for a tackle, Poindexter blew out his knee on national television during a 23-13 win in Charlottesville. “It took the life out of us, that was tough,” Hawkins said. “That was our backbone. That was the heart of — our identity was Dex. It was one of the most disheartening things that I was ever able to see playing football because I knew the type of man he was and I know what he sacrificed to come back.” The Lynchburg native was never the same; he did win a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens but the man Welsh once compared to Ronnie Lott only played 10 games in the NFL.

UVA remained more or less solid over the rest of the season, going 2-1 in their last three games heading into the bye before Tech Week with the lone loss coming to Florida State on the road. Their record going into Lane Stadium was 8-2.

“Aw, it’s just Tech, man,” Hawkins said while looking down in near-disgust just mentioning their name when asked what the vibe around the team was like in the days leading up to the game. “When you know you playing Tech, I don’t care what the record is ... you can’t send me anything that’s gonna motivate me more to beat Tech. I don’t care what an alum says or a player says. That was the week where we didn’t care about bulletin board material. The bulletin board material was Virginia Tech is next. That’s all that was stressed.

“That week, you playing Tech. All the regular type of practice, ‘be a good practice player’, no, it was full contact. If you were scout team that week, you were Virginia Tech. And we were gonna try to kick your ass ... man, you might be lucky if you get work done in class that week. You might be lucky if you go to class that week,” he laughed. “I’m not saying these guys should skip class, but that was just the mentality. ‘How much more can I really use my 24 hours to prepare for Virginia Tech?’”

That passion and energy failed to carry over to the first half. VT scored 17 straight points to start the game and led 29-7 at halftime. When the Cavaliers retreated to a large equipment storage room at halftime, avoiding a long walk back to their actual locker room, their crutch-wielding superstar spoke up.

Poindexter yelled at the coaches to leave so he could address the team. “We look up and it’s Dex with his crutches, and he slams his crutches down,” Hawkins remembered before Poindexter ripped into the team.

“‘So this is what y’all gonna do? Y’all gonna just not play? Just gonna let somebody kick your ass? Out of all teams, you gonna let them kick your ass in front of all these people? Because I’m not here? I’m just one man. You can’t play without me? I’m here, I’m still here. I may not be playing but I’m still here. They’re not better than y’all.’ He said a lot more stuff that was very vulgar, but it woke us up,” Hawkins said.

Brooks connected with Coffey for a score early in the half on a critical fourth-down attempt to bring the Hoos back to life, but when Byron Thweatt returned an Al Clark interception 52 yards to the house with less than three minutes left in the third, the tide had turned. Still, with seven minutes remaining in the game, the Cavaliers trailed 32-21 after Tech scored a field goal. Brooks was flushed out of the pocket on first-and-10 and threw one up for Jones, who caught in stride while falling to the ground, and after a designed run for Brooks on the two-point try worked to UVA’s favor, they were within a field goal.

With 3:21 showing on the clock, the Cavaliers are pinned inside their own 10-yard line after a successful Tech punt.

“Going into that last drive, nobody thought that we wasn’t gonna win, but it wasn’t something — it was like, ‘we gotta score,’” Hawkins said. UVA gets itself out of trouble, and with less than two-and-a-half minutes to go, it’s first-and-10 from the Tech 47. Woods sends in the play call.

Left Boston.

“Mirror routes — Terrence Wilkins and myself have corner routes. Actually, I wasn’t supposed to be in the game,” Hawkins said. “Kevin Coffey caught a pass on the sideline, and something happened with his contact [lens] and it came out. Instead of waiting to see, I just ran into the game. There was no ‘you sure you supposed to be in here?’ It was just ‘huddle up.’”

Brooks fakes the handoff to Jones. The pocket is stable only for a brief moment, until the Tech pass rush overcomes the Virginia pass protection. Linebackers are bearing down on both sides, but the receivers have already taken off and Brooks has to get rid of it now. Right before he’s brought down, he heaves one up for Hawkins down the left sideline. Tech’s Anthony Midget reaches into try and deflect the ball, but he can’t quite get to it.

The play, in Hawkins’ words:

Hawkins, who played at Hampton High, knew of Brooks from watching his fellow Peninsula native play at the since-closed Homer L. Ferguson High School in Newport News, “idolizing him from afar. It was poetic justice that his last throw in the regular season was to a kid that grew up idolizing him.”

Nobody is remotely close enough to trail Hawkins for virtually all of his 27-yard scamper to pay dirt after Midget falls down trying to make the play. He crosses the plane with his left hand pointing toward the crowd, drops to his knees, and looks skyward.

It’s a miracle that he’s even in that iconic pose.

Hawkins described the prior spring as “one of the roughest times of [his] life.” Before that semester began, the religious studies major was very nearly kicked out of the University due to slipping grades. Torn foot ligaments suffered in the 1997 game against Maryland required surgery, and Hawkins missed his exams before eventually making them up. A professor wrote a letter on his behalf, endorsing his being placed on probation rather than expulsion.

He stayed on Grounds, but a month later, he and his family received horrifying news. Two of his cousins, Sirron and Chinelo Gibson, were found shot to death in Isle of Wight County. Their killers both received lengthy terms, one got 30 years, and the other two life sentences plus eight years.

“Me just playing that year was just a blessing with God because [the coaches] didn’t know how I would really function with the injury that I had.”

The Gibson cousins were supposed to go to that game, or at least one of Hawkins’ games, during that season. “It was just one of the things that, the spirit just took over me,” he said. “So people say ‘oh, that’s a great celebration,’ it’s like, I was actually giving it to [my cousins]. It wasn’t even about the game ... that pose is more than just beating Tech to me, it was overcoming a lot that year and giving thanks.

“That picture illustrates a lot because I’m giving thanks to not just Aaron, not just Coach Welsh for giving me the opportunity, but for Dean Most allowing me to stay in school and play. It’s just so much wrapped up in that pose. Every time I see it, it brings joy to my heart because it’s bigger than football. Football allowed me to use that platform for my two deceased cousins.”

The Streak may not be Clemson-esque in terms of length, but it’s been a microcosm of both programs as one went in the direction of eight straight 10-win seasons to start the streak and the other was, until the halcyon days of late, lucky to still be in contention for postseason play in Week 13. Hawkins is around the team more than maybe any other alumnus, and has seen firsthand how Bronco Mendenhall’s leadership brought the Cavaliers to the precipice of something that hasn’t happened since Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar” topped the country charts.

“I said on my podcast yesterday, the biggest thing I can say that you can’t really say with a lot of teams is [that] every aspect, coaching, development, performance, has improved across the board. You can point to any person on this team and you’re gonna say, ‘damn, they improved.’

“Whether it’s Nick Howell and how he’s calling defense with [Kelly] Poppinga, [inside linebackers coach Shane Hunter], special teams with Coach [Ricky Brumfield], playcalling with [offensive coordinator Robert] Anae, offensive line and how they execute, the depth of guys that are young that are asked to get thrust in the play.”

Football culture at Tech, the old land-grant military school in Southwest Virginia, has always been different from that of Charlottesville’s so-called wine-and-cheese crowd. Maybe the blue collar vs. white collar dynamic hasn’t extended to the teams themselves, but Hawkins says that it has been more of a between-the-ears problem than between-the-sidelines for UVA. “The reason why they’ve been beating us consistently is not because they’ve been better than us, it’s because they had that belief system,” he said. “They always found a way to beat us because mentally they defeated us before we even played. It’s reversed this year ...That’s why this rivalry is back, because our mentality has caught up to their mentality.”

It wouldn’t be for a championship, or even a chance to play for a championship, but few can doubt the impact that a win on Friday in the 100th meeting between the two nemeses would have for the Virginia program in its revival under Mendenhall. “It’s gonna be huge,” Hawkins said. “It’s 14 years of losing to your rival, 14 years of being second fiddle, second-tier, even third-tier, just being disrespected in your money sport, which is football. It does a lot for Coach Bronco and his vision and his progression of the program. It solidifies the mantra of ‘Beat Tech’ that was implemented this year. It does a lot for our seniors. It just puts us on a current even playing field.”

The Hoos are currently 4.5 point favorites according to most sportsbooks. While a win seems more likely now than it has in all of the last 14 years combined, Hawkins warns that a blowout likely isn’t in the offing.

“We’re not gonna blow them out, they’re not gonna allow us to. If we blow them out, we made them tap out. I’m not expecting us to blow them out, because I’ve got too much respect for them.”

We’ll see when the Hoos and Hokies take the field on Friday. The game is set for 3:30 and will be televised by ABC.