Jim Hawthorne takes his headset off during a commercial break, and it begins. A man approaches, removes his cap and reaches for the broadcaster’s hand.
“Thank you for a heart and head full of memories,” the fan says.
Another follows, asking whether Hawthorne will take a picture with his son. He obliges.
“You’re taking a picture with a legend, buddy,” the father explains.
A new wall of fans forms at every commercial break. Most take selfies with Hawthorne; some lift their children onto the stage to get a photo with the man their parents grew up listening to. Men come bearing footballs, hats and helmets for Hawthorne and longtime color analyst Doug Moreau to sign.
“You were already popular,” Moreau jokes. “Then you go fake a surgery and come back. Now look at you.”
Moreau says this wave of fans is a common occurrence this season. Sideline reporter Gordy Rush can’t recall a crowd this big for a pregame show in his entire time with the LSU sports radio network. Even the band Bag of Donuts stops its set to recognize Hawthorne, who claps along with their cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
To Hawthorne’s left is his 11-year-old grandson Bailey. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his mother, Hawthorne’s daughter Mindy Serigned, and has never seen “PaPaw Jim” work. Bailey shares the same dreams as most 11-year-olds: He wants to be a football player. Defense, specifically, but any way to earn a jersey will do.
Bailey’s brother Justin is nearby sipping a drink. He’s a newly minted 21-year-old with different aspirations. He’s a communications student at Southeastern Louisiana, where he hopes to soon start broadcasting sports with the school’s television station.
“I want to do something like him,” Justin says, admiring his grandfather as he breaks down the Texas A&M defense on the pregame show. “He is the best father figure I’ve ever had in my life. I live my life based on him, and I want to follow in his footsteps.”
Nine members of Hawthorne’s family are on hand for Saturday’s final game in Tiger Stadium, coming from as far as Tennessee and Texas. Finished with his pregame duties in Tiger One Village, Hawthorne leads the brood into the stadium for his final walk up to the press box.
Four weeks removed from quadruple bypass surgery, Hawthorne still moves hesitantly. Justin and Mindy’s husband, Damon, flank him on the walk in, Damon carrying the bag filled with Hawthorne’s game notes and depth charts.
Mindy voices her concern, asking Damon — a hulking man with a mohawk and wearing a No. 12 LSU jersey to step in front and wade Hawthorne through the crowd.
“Don’t worry,” Hawthorne reassures her. “I’m good.”
It was a routine appointment Oct. 29 when the blockage in Hawthorne’s heart was discovered. If not corrected, doctors told Hawthorne he’d die.
And so at 6:00 a.m. Oct. 30, Hawthorne had surgery, causing him to miss the Tigers’ football games against Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss. He still has not been cleared to fly, so he won’t call the men’s basketball game at Charleston on Monday, but he’s hopeful to call everything on the schedule following that game.
“He don’t quit,” said his son, Joe. “Runs in the family. He’s not a quitter. He doesn’t give up — never has, never will. He’s the man.”
Hawthorne leads his family through the press gate when a frantic woman stops him as security guards check his bags. She has forgotten her radio at home and is asking Hawthorne how she can listen to his final call while inside the stadium.
“I can’t imagine this without you,” she coos.
Hawthorne allays her fears, giving her directions before posing with her for a photo. Once inside the press box, an LSU employee pulls him aside.
“It has been my honor and privilege to work with you,” he tells the broadcaster. “I’m going to miss you.”
Speaking before the game, Hawthorne uses an age-old athlete’s adage. Saturday is just another game, though he’s unsure still of how his emotions will handle the night.
“I’m a little bit mentally and physically not 100 percent, but as far as the game itself, right now it’s just a game that I want us to win very badly,” Hawthorne said. “I don’t know when it will become apparent to me that this is the last game I’ll do in Tiger Stadium. It will happen, and it may not happen until I get home tonight and the game is over.”
When his LSU career officially ends at the end of the men’s basketball season, Hawthorne already has an agenda. He and his wife will take an April trip to Australia and New Zealand for 19 days. They’ve been in 32 countries to date and are looking to add more.
But he can’t quite abandon radio. Once a country music disc jockey, Hawthorne said he’ll reprise that role, hosting a Sunday night country music show on WTGE-FM, 100.7. It’s called “This is Country,” showcasing country music from the late 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
Hawthorne settles his family into the LSU Spanish Radio Booth that he has reserved just for them. Bailey, who has never been to an LSU game, is too mesmerized by the view to talk. Justin follows Hawthorne up and down the hall, where a woman asks him to sign her program.
She’s contemplating retirement herself. Hawthorne signs the cover. The woman thanks him and tells him to enjoy his retirement.
“I’m going to,” Hawthorne says.