For years, A.J. Hawk’s long blond hair attracted almost as much attention as his football prowess. But, it was never intended as a fashion statement and it has ultimately served a much higher purpose.
In 2004, A.J. Hawk, then playing for Ohio State University, watched, along with fellow OSU linebackers Anthony Schlegel and Bobby Carpenter, as Arizona Cardinals linebacker Pat Tillman left his NFL career to go fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tillman lost his life in Afghanistan on April 22nd of that year. The three had idolized Tillman, who had always sported a long mane, and as a tribute, they decided to grow their own hair.
Hawk was subsequently drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft and his hair was always a topic of conversation. In fact, some people had recommended he cut it prior to the draft, fearing it might hurt his status. It didn’t. Others joked that maybe, like Samson, that’s where he derived his strength. His wife, Laura, didn’t want him to cut it.
However, by 2012, Hawk was ready for a change.
“I’d been thinking about cutting my hair for about a year,” he recalled. “I was wearing a hat every day because it was too much work. I had stupid, ratty hair. It had kind of run its course. The only reason I kept it long as long as I did was I didn’t know what I would look like with short hair.”
“I always knew I was going to donate it,” he continued, “And it was Laura’s idea to build a foundation around it. I always wanted to find a cause [to commit to], but I didn’t want to just put my name on something that I wasn’t passionate about.”
They discovered that the James Cancer Center in Columbus – both Laura’s hometown and the home of OSU – had a partnership with the organization Wigs for Kids. The group provides wigs to children who have lost their hair due to cancer treatments and other medical conditions.
“We wanted to stay locally,” Laura said. “People want to know where their hair is going. We wanted to stick with a place in Ohio.”
Cutting his own hair was just the first step. The Hawks launched their foundation, Hawk’s Locks for Kids, in 2012 and immediately started an annual fundraising dinner on behalf of Wigs for Kids. Each wig is custom made to fit the exact size and shape of the person’s head it’s being made for. Although hair donations are the most important element, it costs almost $2,000 to make each wig so additional funds are critical to support their creation.
While most of their work takes place in Ohio, they have incorporated the Green Bay area as well. Salons there hold Cut-a-thons where groups of women and teenage girls will have their hair cut for the cause. Hawk attends those, when his schedule allows, walking them through it and giving encouragement during what can be a somewhat traumatic event, even if they are fully committed and understand the process.
All of the monetary donations received by the foundation go directly to Wigs for Kids. The Hawks personally help pay for their annual fundraiser. They also make other gestures affiliated with the foundation, which they also fund themselves – bringing cakes and special packages to the children receiving chemotherapy at The James Center.
Their work has been gratifying. Laura related the reactions they get when the children finally get a wig that makes them look more like themselves and helps them fit in with their peers.
“Kids will tell us, ‘I don’t like being the bald kid in school,’” Laura said. “They get made fun of. As far as their image and self confidence it’s boosted a lot when they look more like other kids.”
The Hawks are also very conscious of the example they are setting for their two young children, especially their three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Lennon.
“It’s a family-oriented charity,” Laura said. “When A.J. heard the stories about the kids who were having image problems, he said this has to be something we do as a family. We want our daughter to understand that you give back and help people. He’s been so overjoyed with our children (they also have a one-year-old son, Hendrix) so anything we did had to include them and teach them a lesson. It’s impactful even at this age.
“With the NFL lifestyle, you can raise them a couple of different ways and sometimes it’s not beneficial for them. They’re used to nice things at a young age. You have to humble them and keep them in reality.”
For more information about Hawks Locks for Kids, visit www.hawkslocksforkids.org.