Ben Hawkins was ahead of his time. He was a wide receiver who broke into the NFL in 1966 but he had the flair and the swagger of a Terrell Owens or a DeSean Jackson. He was called a hot dog and a showboat at a time when most players, even the receivers, were more buttoned-up.
The Hawk, that was his nickname, and his trademark was the dangling chin strap. He didn't snap it into place, he just let it hang. It was a habit he acquired practicing in the desert heat at Arizona State under coach Frank Kush.
"I felt like the air got to my face better," Hawkins explained. "I left the strap unbuckled so I could just push the helmet back on my head whenever we took a break. Frank didn't let me do it in games, though, just in practice."
When Hawkins joined the Eagles as a third-round draft pick, the NFL did not have a rule requiring players to buckle up so he left the chin strap undone in games as well as practices. The sight of Hawkins exploding off the line and gliding downfield with his chin strap flapping in the breeze caught the attention of football fans everywhere.
"It was something different," Hawkins said. "People identified it with me so I kept doing it. I didn't worry about (injury). You get hurt anyway playing football one way or the other. I never got hurt because of that."
Hawkins passed away on Monday at the age of 73. He was living in Belmar, N.J., enjoying retirement, and still following the Eagles. He is survived by his longtime partner, Mary Duggan, of 38 years and his two children, Benjamin Michael and Nichole Tamara. He played eight seasons for the team and he still shares the club record for touchdowns in a game with four set against the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 28, 1969.
At one time, Hawkins had the club record for the longest touchdown reception - 92 yards against the New York Giants on September 22, 1968 - but it was later surpassed by Mike Quick (99 yards vs. Atlanta in 1985). It still ranks as the fourth-longest scoring pass in franchise history and it was a prime example of Hawkins' big-play ability. The Hawk was a game-breaker.
Among all-time Eagles receivers, Hawkins trails only Hall of Famer Tommy McDonald in yards per catch. McDonald averaged 19.2 yards on his 287 catches with the Eagles. Hawkins averaged 18.3 yards on his 261 receptions.
"He's the most dangerous receiver in the league," said Dallas coach Tom Landry, who saw him often enough to know.
There is a parallel between Hawkins and current Eagle Nelson Agholor. A first-round draft pick, Agholor struggled in his first two seasons in Philadelphia. He was plagued by drops, the fans got down on him, and he lost his confidence. Now Agholor is playing better and emerging as a big-play weapon for quarterback Carson Wentz. Hawkins went through the same thing.
Hawkins came to Philadelphia with glowing reviews but found the adjustment to pro football much harder than he expected. As a rookie, he caught just 14 passes and dropped at least that many. He also fumbled three times. It was quite a comedown for a kid who played with such great confidence at Arizona State.
"I started pressing which was the worst thing you can do," Hawkins said.
But he worked hard in the offseason and came to Training Camp the next year determined to prove he belonged in the NFL. He exploded that year with 59 catches for a league-high 1,265 yards and 10 touchdowns. He averaged a gaudy 21.4 yards per catch.
He gave the Franklin Field crowd something to cheer about through some dark times in the late '60s and early '70s. How dark? Consider this: Hawkins had 13 100-yard receiving games. The team's record in those games was 3-9-1.
Hawkins was a polite, soft-spoken guy off the field but on the field, he enjoyed flaunting his talents and occasionally showing up an opponent which didn't endear him to other players around the league.
"He's a showboat," Dallas cornerback Mel Renfro said after Hawkins beat him for a touchdown then bounced the ball off his helmet. "He's always trying to show you up."
The play I'll always remember was in 1970, a dreary 3-10-1 season for the Eagles, when rookie quarterback Rick Arrington made his first start. He threw a curl over the middle to Hawkins who made the catch in front of a Green Bay defender. The would-be tackler went for Hawkins' head but the Hawk ducked at the last second. The Packer was left standing in the open field holding Hawkins' helmet while the Hawk sprinted away to a 78-yard touchdown, his stylish Afro resplendent in the autumn sunshine.
"See what happens when you don't buckle up? It helps sometimes," Hawkins said later.
In 1973, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle put in a rule that "all uniforms must be worn properly." Part of the edict was all players must have their chin straps fastened. Hawkins complied but admitted, "It won't be the same."
That season Hawkins suffered his first serious injury and it had nothing to do with his helmet. He broke his leg when he was knocked out of bounds in Buffalo. He did not play the rest of the season and the Eagles traded him to Cleveland the next year. He played two games with the Browns and finished his career back at Franklin Field in 1975 playing for the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League.
Hawkins played and lived like a star. He was a bachelor during his Eagles days and he drove around town in a shiny Aston Martin. I remember interviewing him in his penthouse in the Society Hill Towers. He was looking out the window on a beautiful fall afternoon, taking in the view. He smiled and said, "I'm a lucky man. I love my life."
That's how I'll remember the Hawk.
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here.