The Fall of a Gridiron Great, Part 1


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!


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.


4 thoughts on “The Fall of a Gridiron Great, Part 1

  1. It must be hard to go from being a star, movie, athletic or what ever, to being just a regular person.
    Some just can’t handle it. Maybe that was part of his problem.

    • Sherry — I believe you’re right, it’s probably pretty hard for people to go from adulation and any small degree of fame to an “ordinary” life. I put ordinary in quotes because I suspect there’s no such thing. I find people to be pretty extraordinary, each in his or her own way.

  2. anticipating the second part/conclusion..the guy was an all American square john that obviously had a secret jones for B & E,especially if he was stealing furs,jewelry,….and toasters!,which if you come to think of it in context,were luxury items,but not high end luxury items,and not even trying to get rid of them…i guess he was a precursor to the athlete that went wrong which culminated 70 years later in OJ,they’re big shots for either their academic or professional career,until their false reality comes crashing down…hard

    • Devlin – Sadly that scenario happens pretty often, but in this case I think it might be a little different. Of course you’ll draw your own conclusions 🙂

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