Nathaniel Alfred Hawkins, better known as Nate, or better yet, just Hawk to his friends, is truly an old school Rebel. In fact, he was such a gridiron groundbreaker that during his freshman year this university – his beloved alma mater – was still known as Nevada Southern.
A three-sport standout at Booker T. Washington High School in Houston, Hawkins was spurned by the Texas powerhouses when it came time to continue his football career. However, a phone call from his head coach to the father of Rebel football, coach Bill Ireland, landed Hawk – sight unseen – a spot on the team being formed on the small, desert campus. Eventually, the young man who chose to trade in the Lone Star State for the promise of a just-launched football program in the Silver State would become, along with running back Mack Gilchrist, an original four-year star for the newest team out west.
Under Ireland those fledgling Rebels of 1968 went an amazing 8-1, only losing their final game by just four points to Cal Lutheran. As a freshman, Hawkins was already known as a tireless worker as he ranked second on the team with 25 catches for 405 yards, which were big numbers in the late '60s.
"I met Nate on the first day of practice in 1968," said original Rebel quarterback Bill Casey. "He was an 18-year-old, very raw, but talented freshman receiver and I was a 22-year-old Division I transfer quarterback. He gravitated toward me immediately and wanted to know everything I knew about route running and begged me to stay after practice for rep after rep. He brought his work ethic here with him from back home – nobody had to teach him that."
Hawkins led the team in catches as a sophomore, gained 665 yards as a junior, and hauled in a career-high 35 passes, including seven touchdowns, as a senior. His most gaudy game came in 1970 when he burned Idaho State for 173 yards through the air, including a school-record four touchdowns against the Bengals in a game played in Pocatello.
"Nate was always in shape and ready to play," said Ron Nix, a two-year teammate and half-century-long friend of Hawkins. "He was a team leader — always going hard in both practice and games. That's what helped him get to the pros."
Indeed, Hawkins, who never played on a losing team in Las Vegas, made more history on Feb. 2, 1972, when at the Essex House hotel in New York City the Pittsburgh Steelers penciled his name on a notecard to make him the very first UNLV football player drafted into the NFL. Selected 403rd overall as part of the 16th round, Hawkins will forever be known for that unique honor and, after knocking around the league for a while, finally caught on with his hometown team, the former Houston Oilers. Playing alongside legendary receiver Billy "White Shoes" Johnson under another memorable NFL character, head coach Bum Phillips, Hawkins appeared in 11 games in 1975. He hauled in his one and only NFL catch from the arm of quarterback Dan Pastorini that went for 35 yards.
Enshrined in the UNLV Athletics Hall of Fame as part of the inaugural class as both an individual and a member of that unforgettable 1968 squad, Hawkins in a way never really did leave campus. Or at least his heart stayed in Vegas. Eventually a successful businessman back in Houston, Hawkins made at least one trek back to town to watch his Rebels each fall — and never missed a year.
His visits, more often than not, would also mean stopping by Rebel Park to check on the team – his team.
"Hawk would return every season and always come out to practice and speak to the current players," said former longtime UNLV receivers coach and fellow Houston native Cedric Cormier. "I always looked forward to listening to Rebel football stories and receiving a text from him before the Fremont Cannon game each fall."
In 2019, Hawkins was here for Homecoming as usual but made a second trip back to campus for what was the final home game at Sam Boyd Stadium. It was a facility – then known simply as Las Vegas Stadium – that Hawkins helped inaugurate in the middle of his senior season.
After Hawkins and all former Rebels in attendance took the field before the game to serve as honorary team captains to help say goodbye to their stadium, UNLV won that 299th and final game at Sam Boyd in thrilling fashion over San Jose State.
Hawkins would have celebrated his 71st birthday Feb. 8. He leaves behind his wife, Jeanette, and their son and daughter – along with a group of saddened friends too many to count. He also leaves a legacy as a groundbreaking student-athlete who thrilled fans in Southern Nevada -- and then never stopped making them smile.
"He was a great player, a great teammate, a great friend," said Nix. "I thank God for allowing Nate to cross paths with me."
Homecoming will forever look different without Hawkins joining in the celebration.
"Hawk will truly be missed," said Cormier. "He was a Rebel through and through."