Entering his senior year of high school, Brad Hawkins had his future neatly laid out in front of him.
Hawkins, a four-star wide receiver prospect from Camden, N.J., committed to Michigan in June 2015. In 2016, he was set to join his high school teammate, Ron Johnson, in Ann Arbor as a fixture of the budding New Jersey-to-Michigan recruiting pipeline.
But that vision wouldn’t materialize — at least not right away.
In Camden, Hawkins attended two high schools; the first didn’t submit his transcript to the NCAA, a Clearinghouse issue that casted doubt over Hawkins’s eligibility heading into the Wolverines’ 2016 summer program. Both his status and potential for a seamless transition were at risk.
The situation left Hawkins scrambling. A post-graduate year emerged as a feasible option, which is where Suffield Academy entered the picture.
Suffield is a small, private preparatory school tucked away in rural Connecticut. It’s quiet, with an enrollment of roughly 415 students but also has a strong cultural imprint, housing students from over 20 states and 25 countries. It’s a far cry from Ann Arbor and the swelling crowds of 109,000 fans jam-packed into Michigan Stadium.
In a coincidental circumstance, Suffield boasts a bevy of strong Michigan ties. Charlie Cahn, the school’s headmaster, is a Michigan alum. Drew Gamere, Suffield’s football coach, is close with former Wolverines’ defensive coordinator Don Brown, who entrenched a strong recruiting presence in the New England region.
Most importantly for Hawkins’s sake, Suffield had an open roster spot — an unusual position considering that Hawkins decided he would take a post-graduate year unusually late in the recruiting cycle.
“On film, he’s the type of kid that you certainly get excited about,” Gamere told The Daily, recounting his first tales of Hawkins. “The tape speaks for itself.”
Suffield, though it touts its rich athletic history, prioritizes more than athletic merit. Hawkins had to check additional boxes pertaining to his character and personality.
When he first toured Suffield with his family, those qualifications were instantly evident.
“He’s quiet, but you could tell right away that he’s a great person,” Gamere said. “The disappointment of maybe not going to Michigan right away turned into excitement, and he saw potential in a great year. From day one, he embraced being here. I think that takes some maturity.”
As expected, Hawkins flourished as a dynamic, explosive wide receiver, making a sudden impact on Suffield’s varsity team. He reeled in 868 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Hawkins’s mentality, though, proved more impressive.
“Every drill was run hard, it didn’t matter whether it was a practice or a game,” Gamere said. “When younger players see that from one of your better players right from the start, they respond. And, when one of your best players is also one of your hardest workers, as a coach, that means a lot.”
That drive manifested itself in different ways. He battled through a painful rib injury, showing few ill-effects on the field. On the basketball court, Hawkins embraced his role as the team’s sixth man, playing every position from point guard to forward, often surrendering several inches in height to battle in the post.
“Whatever his role was, he was there for it,” Jeff Depelteau, Hawkins’s basketball coach, said. “You never had to ask. All the little things that mean so much to winning teams, he was eager to do them. It sets such a tone for everybody else. It helps your culture and your program.”
It helped Suffield’s culture as a whole, too. Hawkins took an acting class, prompting a prominent role in the school’s musical, Sister Act. In short order, he became one of the top tour guides, showcasing Suffield to prospective students.
“I’d go to see third or fourth-level basketball games and he’s there in the crowd cheering on freshmen,” Cahn said. “Here’s the captain of our football team, supporting those kids, not just with the starters and the key contributors, but with everybody. It’s humility. It’s genuine.”
Prior to Hawkins’s arrival at Suffield, Gamere coached Christian Wilkins, a unanimous All-American at Clemson and a first-round draft pick by the Miami Dolphins in 2019. Dabo Swinney, the notorious Tigers coach, imparted a font of wisdom while on one of several visits to scout Wilkins at Suffield.
“Dabo said, ‘I want great people to have passions to be great football players’, ” Gamere said. “Brad is definitely one of those guys.”
That much is evident at Michigan, especially now, as Hawkins’s long-winded collegiate career churns to an end in its fifth season.
He’s emerged as the vocal leader of the Wolverines’ secondary and one of the figureheads of the defense in general. When Michigan held a players-only meeting the Monday after the loss to Michigan State, Hawkins was among the most outspoken. In the aftermath of the Wolverines’ resilient win at Nebraska, Hawkins authored the teamwide “not flinching” mentality which has since come to define this iteration of Wolverines.
It’s worth a reminder that, with just one home game remaining in his career, Hawkins always aspired to be at Michigan, NCAA Clearinghouse hiccups and all.
“Other schools came to recruit him to see if they could change his mind, but he was totally unwavering,” Cahn said, recalling the frenetic end to Hawkins’s recruitment. “He was just laser-focused.”
Now, with Hawkins doubling as an alternative captain and keynote to a resurgent Michigan defense, the year spent at Suffield may be viewed as merely a footnote. But, it’s a formative part of his football journey.
“It’s a perfect symbol of the power of patience,” Cahn said. “He’s just waited and worked, and now it’s such a great story.”