Born: March 22, 1944
Died: October 9, 2017
Benjamin Charles Hawkins was born March 22, 1944 in Newark. Ben lived in the city’s Weequahic neighborhood, which was in transition at the time. Many longtime Jewish residents were moving to the suburbs, replaced by African-American families like Ben’s. Big, fast and strong, Ben starred for the Weequahic High football team before his family moved to Nutley. From there, Ben—aka Benny, aka The Hawk—went to Arizona State University on a gridiron scholarship.
Ben did it all for the Sun Devils, playing receiver and cornerback, and returning kicks and punts in 1963, ’64 and ’65. He was a big-play pass-catcher, averaging 15.5 yards per reception, and intercepted 9 passes for ASU. He led the Western Conference with 42 catches, 719 yards and 5 touchdowns as a junior and was first-team All-Conference as a senior. In 1966, Ben was drafted by the AFL Jets and NFL Eagles. He signed with Philadelphia and became an immediate fan favorite, who loved how he played with an unattached chinstrap.
After struggling with drops and fumbles as a rookie, Ben cracked the starting lineup in 1967 and a season for the ages. He caught 59 passes, scored 10 touchdowns, and led the NFL with 1,259 receiving yards. Ben racked up 187 receiving yards and 66 return yards in a 34–24 win over the Steelers—including the game-winning touchdown—and also had a 197-yard game in a loss to the Cardinals. He had a 151-yard game against the Redskins, scoring twice on pass plays of 60-plus yards from quarterback Norm Snead. The following season, he set a team record with a 92-yard touchdown catch—one of 8 he scored that year.
Though cheerful and soft spoken off the field, once Ben stepped between the sidelines, he was not averse to showing up the defensive backs he victimized. His taunting and celebrations would hardly be noticed today, but in the 1960s many opponents considered him a showboat. Tom Landry called him the most dangerous receiver in the league.
Ben played six more seasons for the Eagles, finishing with 261 receptions and 32 touchdowns. His most memorable play came during the 1970 season, when he caught pass against the Packers. The defender attempted a head tackle and ended up holding Ben’s helmet while he race down the field, afro blowing in the wind, for a 78-yard touchdown. All those year playing with a loose chinstrap finally paid off.
Ben broke his leg in 1973 and the Eagles traded him to the Browns in 1974. He played two September games before being released. In 1975, he returned to the Coty of Brotherly Love with the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League for his final season as a pro.
After his playing days, Ben hoped to get into coaching. He returned to his old college stomping grounds as a receivers coach for the USFL Arizona Outlaws, and then for the San Antonio Gunslingers before the league folded. He moved back to the Garden State, settling in the Jersey Shore town of Belmar. He became a popular local figure in town and on the Boardwalk, partnering in various businesses and holding down a handful of different jobs over the next three decades—and was known as a great lover of animals. He passed away at the age of 73 in 2017.