The Fall of a Gridiron Great, Conclusion

hawkins_idol_arrested_photoFormer USC football idol, Johnny Hawkins, was arrested for burglary in the home of Biltmore orchestra leader, Earl Burnett. He was found in the living room holding a flashlight and listening to the radio. Hawkins immediately confessed to more than two dozen residential burglaries over the period of a few months, and he told the police that he had committed the crimes because he desperate for money in part because his wife had major medical bills.

Hawkins was about the last guy that anyone would have expected to turn to crime. He had been the captain and quarterback of the USC football team, in fact he was an all around fine athlete playing football, baseball and basketball with equal skill. He could have had a career in any of the sports in which he excelled, but the first couple of years following his graduation from college had proved difficult for Johnny.

Cops were baffled when Johnny led them to the attic of his parent’s Fullerton home and showed them his ill-gotten loot because he had made no attempt to sell any of the items. If he was in serious need of money why would he have kept the loot?

Another odd wrinkle in the case came when it was discovered that about a week before Johnny’s arrest one of his younger brothers, Jimmy, had been taken into custody for grand theft.hawkins_brother_accused

In early June 1928, just days prior to Johnny’s arrest, Jimmy Hawkins had stopped in at the home of Mrs. Betty Sheridan on Normandie Avenue. While Betty was on the telephone with her sister Jimmy disappeared, taking with him $1500 worth of her jewelry. It isn’t clear how Jimmy became acquainted with Betty — she said she knew his father was a prominent citizen in Fullerton but didn’t seem to know anything else about the young man or his background.

Jimmy was taken into custody by the LAPD, and while he was cooling his heels in a jail cell he got a visitor — his older brother Johnny. Johnny delivered a severe lecture to his sibling and convinced the younger man to return the stolen jewelry. The D.A. declined to press charges and Jimmy was released.

Unfortunately, Johnny’s encounter with the law didn’t go nearly as well as his brother’s had and he was charged with thirty-one counts of burglary. If Johnny thought his life couldn’t get any worse he was wrong. His brother Jimmy was arrested again — but this time it was as an accomplice.

The L.A. Times likened Johnny to Fagin, the receiver of stolen goods and leader of a group of thieving children in the Charles Dickens novel “Oliver Twist”. Not a flattering comparison, and it demonstrated how far Johnny had fallen, at least in the eyes of the press.

hawkins_headJimmy didn’t hold up well under interrogation and he confessed, but he shifted the bulk of the blame onto his older brother. He told cops that when he became unwilling to continue the residential crime spree, Johnny became domineering and forced him to continue the illicit activities.

Johnny hired an attorney, Joe Ryan, who appeared to believe in his client. Hawkins had confided in Ryan that he was stealing because he was seized by an uncontrollable mania, which he believed had been caused by an injury to his head while playing football. He had a lump over his left eye that may have been the outward sign of severe brain trauma.

Johnny finally got a piece of good news when his brother Jimmy recanted his confession. Jimmy said:

“I was so sleepy. They (the cops) wouldn’t let me sleep for two nights and I didn’t know what I was signing.”

In August 1928, Johnny Hawkins appeared in Superior Court to plead guilty to five out of thirty-one counts of burglary and to file an application for probation so that he might avoid a prison term. Hawkins’ attorney, Joe Ryan, told the court that his client was under the care of Dr. Cecil Reynolds, a brain specialist, who intended to perform brain surgery to relieve pressure believed to have been caused by a football injury — an injury on which Johnny blamed his recent criminal tendencies.

While awaiting a probation hearing Johnny fainted and fell to the concrete floor of the attorney’s room in the jail and received another serious skull injury.

Despite the compelling argument that his repeated head injuries had caused Hawkins to pursue a brief life of crime there was no recommendation for probation, and Superior Judge Fricke sentenced the former college gridiron great to from five to seventy-five years in prison!

Given an opportunity to address the court, Johnny said:

“Don’t you think I would be a respectable citizen after all this trouble if I were given another chance?”

To which Judge Fricke replied:

“I am sorry, but I am not certain that you would be.”

After the pronouncement of sentence, Johnny shook hands with his counsel, who was also a friend of his from his glory days at USC, then bowed his head and walked from the courtroom manacled to a deputy sheriff.hawkins_prison_term

Nothing ever came of the  brain operation that Johnny had hoped for.

Hawkins served twenty-nine months in San Quentin before he was paroled. For seven years following his release he held a position in M.G.M’s art department; he even coached the studio basketball team to championships.

On May 22, 1939, thirty-seven year old Johnny Hawkins died of an apparent brain abscess. Dr. Louis Gogol, assistant county autopsy surgeon, stated that in his opinion the injury Johnny had received while playing football at USC was the probable reason for the string of burglaries that he’d committed eleven years earlier.  He went on to say that the previous injury was definitely the cause of his premature death.

hawkins_vindicatedIt is profoundly sad that only death could vindicate Johnny Hawkins, but shockingly things haven’t changed much in 85 years. Other than repeated brain trauma, the risk factors for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) remain unknown. The disease can only be definitively diagnosed postmortem.

The Fall of a Gridiron Great, Part 1

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Johnny Hawkins had the kind of college sports career that one can only dream of; he was a gridiron hero who was equally skilled at basketball and baseball. During the 1924 season Hawkins was quarterback and captain of USC’s football team and in 1925, prior to his graduation, he was awarded the Tesche-Davis medal for being an inspiration to his teammates.

Despite his sports successes Hawkins seems to have found the transition from Big Man on Campus to Joe Everyman a difficult one because following his graduation from USC he bounced from job to job.

By 1926 Johnny appeared to be settling into a career; he had signed on as head coach for a South Pasadena military school, the Oneonta Academy. Oneonta was thrilled to have Hawkins on their coaching staff and took out a half page ad in the L.A. Times to announce his hiring.  But Hawkins’ career took a downturn that same year after he organized and played with the Hollywood Generals, a Pacific Coast Football League team that failed fairly quickly.hawkins_coach_academy2

The death knell for Johnny’s post-college dreams of success came on an evening in mid-June 1928 when he was busted in the home of Earl Burtnett, leader of the Biltmore orchestra.

Clarence Thomas, a houseboy at the Burtnett home on South Catalina Street, had seen a man entering the rear door of the house and had immediately called the law.

LAPD Detective Lieutenants Steed, Green and Mole of Wilshire Division answered the call and found Hawkins sitting in the living room listening to the radio!

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Portrait of Earl Burtnett, director of the famous Los Angeles Biltmore. Photograph dated February 16, 1929. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Hawkins wasn’t a hardened criminal and he promptly confessed to dozens of burglaries. He told his interrogators that he desperately needed to raise money because his recent career as a real estate salesman had gone to pieces and his wife, Thelma (his college sweetheart), was in serious need of major surgery.

Hawkins said:

 “I know I’ve got it coming to me, but what torments me the most is the thought of my family and my wife’s family.  I was driven to desperation by financial troubles.”

Johnny had been living with his parents in their Fullerton home while his wife was in Vancouver, Washington for her medical problems.  He said that he had waited night after night until his parents were in bed before going out to commit the burglaries, then returning home to stash the loot in their attic.

Police valued the recovered property at more than $35,000 ($479,252.34 current U.S. dollars), but seemed somewhat surprised that Hawkins had stolen such a hodgepodge of high and low dollar items including: furs, old silverware, gowns, blankets, percolators, typewriters, lingerie and jewelry.

According to Johnny he never carried a weapon, a fact borne out by the arresting officers.  When he was found in the Burtnett home he had in his possession a flashlight, jimmy, ice pick, pass keys and he was wearing white gloves.

It was strange enough that the football idol had perpetrated a series of at least 25 residential burglaries, but it was stranger still that he’d never attempted to dispose of any of the loot. He’d supposedly been committing the thefts for a few months but all of the items, with the exception of a suitcase filled with “presents” for his wife, were accounted for.

If he was as hard up for cash as he’d said then surely he could have borrowed money from his folks or his in-laws.  Perhaps the former gridiron star had been too proud to borrow from family, but being busted for burglary and having his name splashed all over the local newspapers must have been even more humiliating.

What was going on with Hawkins? Why would he jeopardize his freedom and his reputation in such a stupid way?

NEXT TIME: A unique defense strategy.