TIM PEELER: Hawkeye's difficult path winds back home
BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH – Of all the things that Charles “Hawkeye” Whitney lost during a life-long fight with drugs – his money, his homes, his knees, his freedom, his self-respect – he feels blessed that God didn’t take away his life.
And, for the last six years, the former Wolfpack All-America men’s basketball player has been living clean, quietly rebuilding the pieces in Kansas City, the place where he first hit rock bottom. He once lived on the streets there, wandering among the city’s homeless community.
Now, he’s trying to save at-risk kids from the same sort of fate. And he’s succeeding.
“He brings a special touch, almost a magic touch,” says Valerie Nicholson Watson, the President and CEO of the Niles Home for Children, which is a permanent residence for about three-dozen children who have become wards of the state because of abuse, neglect or abandonment. “Just the way he had that magic touch with the ball, he has the same magic touch with our kids.”
For the 20 years following his departure from NC State, few things Whitney touched turned into magic. In fact, he faced the trials of Job, and then some.
But just a few weeks ago, at the invitation of new men’s basketball coach Sidney Lowe, Whitney returned Raleigh, a home he had not seen since a failed attempt in the early 1990s to complete his degree.
He joyously returned to campus for a weekend in late August, visiting Reynolds Coliseum, where he played all of his home games for the Wolfpack. He toured the RBC Center, the state-of-the-art new home of Wolfpack men’s basketball. He spoke with some current student-athletes at the annual Unity Picnic. And got to know a couple of men’s basketball players, none of whom were yet born when Whitney was filling up the baskets for Norm Sloan’s program in the late 1970s, as a hard-working forward known for his clutch performances.
Whitney, 49, caught up with old friends, which included Lowe, who was three years behind Whitney at both DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., and at NC State. He caught up with Wolfpack assistant coach Monte Towe, who was an assistant under Sloan during Whitney’s playing days. And he caught up with assistant Pete Strickland, who was Whitney’s teammate for four years at DeMatha.
He came back to see old friends, but he is also eager to share his strong message with current athletes: Don’t do drugs – look at what they did to me.
Whitney, a first-round draft pick of the Kansas City Kings, was an early casualty of the NBA’s drug-plagued 1980s, when professional basketball was devastated by too many similar stories. Whitney’s story began during his rookie season when he tripped over Sidney Moncreif’s shoulder while going in for a dunk. He fell awkwardly, ripping up his right knee. He tried to come back the next season, but his professional career ended after just 70 NBA games.
By 1989, he was living on the streets of Kansas City, inhaling cocaine, drinking beer and surviving anyway he could.
He returned to North Carolina in the early 1990s, to get married a second time and take a stab at former head basketball coach and athletics director Les Robinson’s program that offered one-time NC State athletes a chance to complete their degrees. He worked in the offices around the athletics department, but soon succumbed to his addiction again.
By 1993, Whitney was back in his hometown of Washington, living on some of the nation’s meanest streets, addicted to drugs once again.
On Jan. 26, 1996, Whitney’s life completely crumbled. Coerced at gunpoint by a juvenile drug dealer, Whitney helped kidnap a man off the streets of Washington. The two drove the man around town, forcing him to withdraw thousands of dollars from ATM machines.
“I would have never believed that was Hawkeye,” said Strickland. “Until I heard that the man asked how he was supposed to get home. Hawkeye took $10 out of what they had just taken and told the guy to use if for cab fare home.
“That’s what made me believe it – because that was the kind of thing the Hawkeye I knew would do.”
It was Whitney’s misfortune that the person they kidnapped was Mark Fabiani, the personal lawyer of then-First Lady Hilary Clinton. It was also his misfortune that the gun-toting dealer who was arrested with him was a juvenile who could not be charged as an adult.
Whitney took the rap, and was sentenced to 69 months at a medium-security federal prison in Ashland, Ky.
Looking back on it now, Whitney’s six years of incarceration probably saved his life. It got him off drugs. It gave him time to read the Bible. It forced him to reflect on what he once had and all that he had lost.
He was released in the summer of 2000, ready to face the new millennium free of drugs, with God as a sidekick. He worked his way back to Kansas City, remarried and found work as a residential technician at the Niles Home for Children. He’s been there for six years now.
“I have to say that where he is right now in life seems to be very fulfilling for him,” said Watson, the president and CEO of the home. “In terms of his ability to give back, it is tremendous. He has a tremendous impact on our children.
“And it’s not so much that he necessarily shares his story with children. It is more that his own experience gives him a unique insight that makes him so able to have meaning to our kids and to influence them in a very positive way that will have a lasting impact.”
Recently, Whitney was promoted to coordinator of physical activities and recreation. In essence, he is the home’s athletics director.
“Mainly, it is very rewarding for me because I am able to give back,” said Whitney, sitting on the steps of the RBC Center on a hot August evening. “The youth, a lot of them don’t do what they are supposed to do. A lot of them have been in the system, in juvenile. As part of the process, they come back to Niles.
“What I try to do is share my life experience with them. I let them know, if they don’t change what they are doing, that there are prisons waiting for them.”
And then he tells them, first-hand, what prison is like. He doesn’t scare them straight. He just tells them the unvarnished truth.
“My story isn’t scary,” Whitney said. “It is reality. I don’t sugarcoat anything. I just try to discourage them and let them know that if they continue on their current path, this is what they have to look forward to.”
It’s a message that Whitney would like to share with others. That’s why he accepted Lowe’s invitation to come back home for a while, to visit with old friends. He was the center of attention when Lowe hosted more than three dozen former players for a casual dinner, a day of golf and a peek at some individual workouts of current players. The weekend was part of Lowe’s dedication to reconnect with NC State’s storied tradition.
“I want our current players to know who these guys are, and what they did,” Lowe said. “I want them to know that we are one of only 15 or so schools that have ever won two national championships, and that we have 10 ACC championships here.
“I want them to know the players who did those things.”
That meant something to Whitney, who had been turned away from so many things after all he has been through.
“Coming back here means a lot,” said Whitney, who was a two-time first-team All-ACC pick and an All-America selection as a senior. “It lets me know that I am still part of the NC State family. It’s a great thing to be a part of. I can’t speak for other people, but to know that with all of the things I went through in my life, I can still hold my head up.
“You can’t take away what’s already been done.”
For Whitney, that means no one can erase the 1,954 points, the 652 rebounds or the (one-time) school record of 166 steals while wearing red and white. No one can take away his Senior Day game, when he scored 26 points on 11 of 12 shooting for a 63-50 victory over North Carolina, one of the great home performances ever in the series between the heated rivals.
Those things only lend credibility to the message.
“One of the things why I came back here was so the younger athletes can meet me and hear about what I went through,” Whitney said. “Maybe I can discourage them from thinking the wrong way and not doing the right things.
“Coming into college and major universities across the country, you deal with a lot of peer pressure because you come from all walks of life. And sometimes the decisions and the choices that we make are not the right ones. To hear someone who can tell you, who has been through it, will have a greater impact.
“I want to see if there is someone I can help from going down that road I went down.”
Obviously, Whitney isn’t proud of his past. But he’s not ashamed to talk about what he’s been through. And, believe it or not, Whitney believes he has led a blessed life.
“I share with people whenever I can,” Whitney said. “It’s not something I am proud of. But God has been blessing me. I don’t hold my down. I go out and share what He did for me.
“God really turned my life around. I look at how He is blessing me. He has given me back everything that Satan tried to take from me.”
Lowe couldn’t be happier to have Whitney back around the Wolfpack program. There’s a connection that goes even deeper than their shared history at DeMatha and NC State. Whitney was a senior when three green kids from the streets of Washington showed up in Raleigh in the fall of 1979.
He nurtured Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg and Thurl Bailey, creating a foundation that would become NC State’s 1983 NCAA Championship team.
And Robinson, who was let down by Whitney some 15 years ago, is tickled to hear that Whitney seems to have his life pointed in the right direction.
“The most important thing is that Hawkeye has bounced back,” said Robinson, who is now the athletics director at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. “I am as happy as can be about that. People make mistakes all through life. Some people it takes longer than others to grow up. My heart goes out to people who can’t get their act together.
“I am hoping he is straightened out.”
Going forward, Whitney wants to reach out to even more young people. He would like to do some motivational speaking. He would like to stop some of the things that he saw while on the streets, situations that are getting no better.
“I want to continue working with kids,” Whitney said. “Unfortunately, in our society today, we have kids running rampant, with all of this killing and stealing and violence in the world.
“I know you can’t touch everyone and you can’t save everyone. But down the line, if you can save one and they are able to save two or three more… That’s the main thing I am trying to do.”You may contact Tim Peeler at firstname.lastname@example.org.