It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in Berkeley, as the 2015 Cal football team takes the field for its season opener against Grambling State. Students, not yet burdened by the weight of midterms or projects, fill the stands at California Memorial Stadium to see the promising Bears led by future No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff — buzzing with the anticipation of what is sure to be a winning season.
All goes according to plan, and Cal delivers a resounding win, thrilling fans and bolstering promises of more to come. But at the team’s next practice, head coach Sonny Dykes announces that the win comes at a cost.
Freshman Jaylinn Hawkins, who entered the game as a cornerback for his first collegiate outing, sustained a serious shoulder injury in the win. What was sure to be a successful inaugural season quickly turns into one in which Hawkins won’t see any more playing time — he’ll need surgery and will have to redshirt his freshman year.
But the slight stumble didn’t bring him down — today, he’s solidified his place as one of the most hawkish (pun intended) safeties in college football.
“Through that experience, he grew a lot in a lot of areas that were very necessary, which has helped to shape him into the person that he is today,” says Jermaine Hawkins, Jaylinn’s father. “You know, it happened for a reason. He would say it’s a blessing in disguise in a lot of different ways.”
Before that injury, however, Hawkins’ life was on an extremely smooth trajectory. In high school, he excelled both academically and athletically. By the time he had to choose a college, he had amassed 15 total offers — many of which came from talented Pac-12 conference teams.
In the end, his choice was obvious.
“I just waited for a long time and finally made a decision because I felt like I was at home at Cal,” Hawkins says. “The atmosphere, the education, the school, Memorial Stadium, Bears Territory… I fell in love with that all.”
Jermaine explains that Cal offered Hawkins a combination of three vital factors — first on that list and perhaps most important to Hawkins? The close proximity to his family.
Hawkins grew up in Buena Park, California, a small city in the northwestern part of Orange County. He was the first child of Jermaine and his wife, Angie, who had Jaylinn when Jermaine was just 20 years old. That forged a close bond between Hawkins and his parents — a bond that continues today.
When asked about his family, he gives a long list of names, explaining that they’re all part of what he calls “Hawk Row.” Clearly, there’s nothing but love between Hawkins and those who share his blood.
“We’re all tight, and we all support each other in everything that we do,” Hawkins says. “Same with my parents — they’re a hell of a support system. I just am thankful to have them in my life.”
Hawkins knows that, beyond simply providing support, his family helped imbue in him a love for the game of football. Jermaine played football in college and trained and coached Hawkins for much of his young life. Hawkins explains that, in his family, it’s not merely enough to walk through life as a normal person would — for the Hawkins family, excelling at something is essential.
Luckily, Hawkins was naturally gifted at the game of football, and eventually, his love for the game carried his passion from there.
“I fell in love with just everything. … Football is the best sport ever,” Hawkins says. “Football brought me closer to God, teaching me so much character, helping me out so much. Just as a person, playing football helps your life skills.”
Reason No. 2 to come to Cal? The offer was a dual one: Hawkins would be utilized by the Bears on both sides of the ball, as a wide receiver and a safety.
Growing up, Hawkins naturally excelled at the receiver position. With killer speed and solid hands, he had an innate savvy for lining up in the slot.
“When I started out in flag, I was good,” Hawkins says. “A lot of people knew I was good because I was scoring a lot. I was faster than everybody. And then growing up, I just felt that I had a natural knack for football and the game.”
By the time Hawkins returned to the field in 2016, however, his duality would not be called upon — what the Bears needed was help on a sorely lacking defense. Thus, Hawkins’ number wasn’t called at receiver or at cornerback, but at strong safety — and ever since then, that’s where he’s remained.
His duality is still there, though in a different form, as his experience playing wide receiver has provided him with an insight into offensive schematics that has vastly improved his defensive play.
“It helped me out a lot with ball skills, knowing where the quarterback is throwing, little things like that I just got better at,” Hawkins says.
This season, Hawkins picked off three passes in a span of two games, more than his three previous seasons combined.
Hawkins knows that he has in part been able to excel in the game of football because of his tightknit family; he understands that football is fundamentally a team sport. As such, it’s one that every player has to play for the whole team, not just for oneself.
“They’re my brothers. We love playing together, we love playing for each other,” Hawkins says.
And speaking of brothers, Hawkins actually has some blood relation on the Bears squad. If you are paying close attention, you might notice that there’s another player with “Hawkins” emblazoned on the back of his jersey — this one, ironically, at the wide receiver position. Despite his having been recruited for that position as well, it isn’t Jaylinn — it’s his uncle, Jeremiah.
The familial connection may seem confusing at first, especially given the fact that Jaylinn is a year older than Jeremiah yet still inhabits the formal role of nephew. But the two of them have always been more like brothers than anything else.
“We’re very competitive. That’s my brother, and I love him, but we are just very competitive towards each other, with one-on-ones and everything,” Jaylinn says. “We are just trying to make each other better.“
The family connection is fitting, considering that Hawkins has made a real home for himself at Cal.
Now, more than three years after that first game injury, Hawkins has played in 30 more games for the Bears. Though his collegiate football career began with an injury, it has by no means been defined by one. In fact, that experience has taught him a lot about himself and the game — he probably wouldn’t be the Jaylinn Hawkins he is today without it.
“That was probably one of the roughest times that I’ve had in college,” Hawkins says. “So that was pretty difficult, but I just had to stay strong and believe, have faith and also just do whatever I had to help the team wherever I was. And things started to pan out.”
That’s still the attitude that he has today — he’s focused on helping the Bears in any way that he can. Now, his goal is to bring them some more wins. He’s no longer a fresh-faced newbie on a team with potential — he is an integral part of this team’s defensive revelation.