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Illini CB Terry Hawthorne made the easy decision to stay in school

Terry Hawthorne

Terry Hawthorne

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Updated: October 7, 2012 8:07AM

CHAMPAIGN — Officially, Tim Beckman met at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with four Illini who were thinking about skipping their senior year to pursue their NFL dream. Excited about helping the Beckman era get off on the right start, linemen Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Graham Pocic and cornerback Terry Hawthorne opted to stay in school.

Unofficially, Hawthorne wasn’t going anywhere. Because his mission fit hand in glove with Beckman’s.

“The word was going around; everybody said I was leaving,’’ the senior from East St. Louis said. “I never even thought about leaving. I always wanted to come back and graduate.’’

A recreation and sports tourism major, Hawthorne is on track to finish his classwork in December and graduate in May.

“It’s tremendous,’’ said Hawthorne, who was named the nation’s top high-school receiver by Parade Magazine. “It’s really important to me — to be from East St. Louis, to come to college and finish school. That was a big thing back home. Everybody always says we have great athletes, but we don’t have great enough athletes to go to college and finish college and move on to the next ­level. I want to be one of the first ones to do to that and prove everybody wrong.’’

Former Illini great Dana Howard — an East St. Louis product who went on to win the 1994 Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker before going onto the NFL and successful career in ­financial services — beat the odds.

Two of Hawthorne’s teammates on the Illinois state Class 7A championship team have not been as fortunate. Tommie Hopkins signed with Illinois, but was shot during his senior year of high school and was only at Illinois briefly. Kraig Appleton, who went to Wisconsin, also was shot in East St. Louis last year after being suspended from the Badgers program.

“You’ll get shootings every night,’’ Hawthorne told a Downstate reporter. “People getting robbed in broad ­daylight. You never know what you’ll get out there.’’

Illinois’ new defensive coordinator, Tim Banks, knows what he’s got in Hawthorne.

“He’s been a pleasure to be around,’’ Banks said. “He’s a kid who’s always looking to get better. He’s very sharp, and he’s leading the younger guys, teaching them how to practice. He’s being a great example.’’

Beyond his mean-streets background, another big hurdle Hawthorne has had to overcome is a tendency toward injuries. Before his freshman season, he suffered a broken hand. As a sophomore, he broke a bone in his foot that lingered. This fall, an apparent ankle sprain has been a concern.

“We have to keep him healthy. That’s the biggest thing,’’ said Beckman, who has tabled plans to use Hawthorne occasionally at wideout to take advantage of his speed. “[Illinois’ other cornerback] Justin Green’s probably the fastest. But [Hawthorne] is one of the fastest, no question.’’

Receiver might be more glamourous, but Hawthorne said he has no desire to ­return to offense.

“I came in at wide ­receiver; that’s’ what I was loving then,’’ he said. “But I’m locked in at cornerback all the way now. I just feel that my future is at cornerback.’’

Quarterback Nate Scheelhaase said he’d love to throw to Hawthorne.

“He’s a playmaker,’’ Scheelhaase said. “He’s made plays since he’s been here. He’s also an unselfish guy that wants to do whatever for the team, a guy that came back this year to better the team. And he’s a good person to be around in the locker room, someone everyone enjoys, for sure.’’

Hawthorne, who led the ­Illini with eight tackles in their 17-14 victory over ASU last season, could have another busy night on Saturday. That’s not a worry for him or his teammates.

“Terry brings a lot of leadership to the defense,’’ linebacker Jonathan Brown said. “He brings a calm mentality. He’s reassuring.’’

When you’ve seen the things Hawthorne experienced growing up, football is just a game.

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