The Vikings are sending thoughts and condolences to the family of Ross Cooper "Rip" Hawkins, who has passed away at the age of 76.
Mary Hawkins, his wife of almost 30 years, met Rip in Denver years after his five seasons with the Vikings. She said his essence was one of "fierce determination, coupled with humility" that kept him from talking much about his playing days and statistics unless prodded by someone else.
Through her own experiences and stories from others, Mrs. Hawkins learned her husband "was the world's biggest Teddy bear off the field but a rhino on the field."
Hawkins was the second player ever selected by the Vikings franchise (15th overall in 1961) and made an immediate impact. The middle linebacker was tabbed as captain of the defense in his rookie season by Head Coach Norm Van Brocklin, opposite third-round pick and future Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton.
Hawkins, a Tennessee native who played collegiately at North Carolina, was tough on opposing receivers, ball carriers and quarterbacks, intercepting five passes as a rookie and 12 during his career that included one selection to the Pro Bowl (1963).
Hawkins was selected 14 spots after Tommy Mason, the first player off the board league-wide. Mason passed away in January.
Vikings Consultant and Historian Fred Zamberletti's continuous run with the Vikings began in 1961 when he was the team's head athletic trainer. Zamberletti, 83, was a "pup" in those days, seven years older than Hawkins. Zamberletti said Hawkins was a "fun guy" who "had that Southern drawl, a deep baritone voice."
"He was really smart. Van Brocklin made Rip the captain of the defense for the year and Tarkenton the captain of the offense for the year, and this was a team that was filled with an abundance of old veterans," Zamberletti said. "It was the expansion draft, and we had a lot of players that had been in the league and had success with other teams.
"He was a strong leader, good character, but he had a mean streak in him," Zamberletti said. "He was a middle linebacker and if you came across the middle, you better have your head on a swivel. If you didn't, he would clothesline you. He loved those receivers coming across the middle."
Zamberletti said Hawkins was the first recipient of an award honoring Terry Dillon, who played for the Vikings in 1963 but drowned while working a construction job in May 1964.
Zamberletti saw Hawkins in 2010 when held their 50 Greatest Vikings Celebration to cap the franchise's 50th season.
"He looked like a million dollars," Zamberletti said. "I was surprised to see him because I hadn't seen him since he left here. He didn't look like he had aged a day. I was really surprised because I didn't know he was coming."
After his playing career, Hawkins was an assistant district attorney in Atlanta, owned a metallurgic business in Minneapolis, and moved to Denver where he worked for an oil company and met Mrs. Hawkins.
The couple moved to Devil's Tower, Wyoming, where they ran a 700-acre MarryHawk Ranch, farming hay and leasing land for cattle.
"It was his absolute dream," Mrs. Hawkins said. "He loved every moment of being there. We moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, about two years ago due to his illness. It wasn't feasible to remain there, so we moved to a bigger city for medical care."
Hawkins was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, which is the second most common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer's disease.
"Our belief is it's a disease, not a disgrace," Mrs. Hawkins said. "It's so important that this come out of the closet as a disease. It's something we need to find a cure for. Rip is donating his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute and Boston University in order to look at diagnostics and hope that some of that information may contribute one day to a cure."
Mrs. Hawkins said Rip remained active, going on 30-mile per day bike rides as recently as a month ago.
"We kept him moving every day, would go to the health club three times a week and would ride bikes," Mrs. Hawkins said. "That's something for a 76-year old. I kept him moving and he loved it. He wished he could run, but the old right knee wouldn't tolerate that, so he conceded to the bike."
Mrs. Hawkins said a celebration of life is planned for Saturday at Wyoming's Curt Gowdy State Park, which was named in honor of the former sportscaster, and a place where Hawkins liked to volunteer for projects and events. The day will include a meal of Southern-style pulled pork barbecue, slaw, beans and watermelon.
"It seemed fitting and is a very beautiful outdoors area. That seems like a great tribute to Rip," Mrs. Hawkins said. "Our celebration will be complete with a Southern meal and the great outdoors. It fits Rip to a T."