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Leading by example: Hawthorne coach and his son inspire their community

“Where’s CJ?”

Just moments after leading the Hawthorne High School football team to its first state championship in school history, Head Coach Cornelius Ingram was looking for the quarterback that took them there.

After hugging his coaches, some of whom played with him as student-athletes at Hawthorne, Cornelius found and embraced his son, CJ, with tears filling their eyes.

“I told you,” Cornelius said while holding his son. “I told you.”

After the team’s starting quarterback transferred following the 2021 season, Cornelius and his staff had some big decisions to make regarding the position. Expectations for the program remained high after back-to-back state championship appearances, but there was plenty of uncertainty as to who would command the offense.

Coincidentally, Cornelius’ son CJ was just beginning his sophomore year and happened to play quarterback.

He was named the starter by his father and head coach and had big shoes to fill as the son of a leading member of his community.

“We were blunt with CJ,” Cornelius said. “We told him expectations haven’t changed. We felt like we could win a state championship with the kids we had returning, and we felt like we could win the state championship with him as the starting quarterback.”

CJ had to grow up fast after being handed the keys to the offense as an underclassman. But the moment never seemed too big for the 6-foot-4 quarterback, as he and his father led the team to an undefeated season.

“I had seen him grow and mature in just a couple months,” Cornelius said of his son. “I think the team definitely got behind him and it was a special run.”

Now that football season is over, CJ has turned his attention over to basketball, averaging 23 points per game for the Hornets -- all while wearing the previously retired numbers that his dad used to wear.

“Every time I walk in the gym to work out or before a game or practice, I just look up at that 3,252 points,” CJ said, pointing to a banner of his father’s basketball scoring record. “It’s a huge motivation, and every time I come in here, it's definitely a reason to go harder.”

It can be hard to live up to your father’s athletic legacy, but it’s even more captivating when it can be followed up outside of sports.

Hawthorne is a rural town of 1,500 people, with nearly 1 in 5 people (17.9%) living below the poverty line, a number that is higher than the national average (12.8%).

Hawthorne is also a place where everybody knows everybody, and everybody knows Cornelius and CJ as leaders within the community.

After graduating from Hawthorne High School in the early 2000s, Cornelius went on to play football and basketball at the University of Florida and was selected in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.

After injuries derailed his playing career, he returned to his alma mater in the town he has called home since he was in second grade. He became the head coach in 2014 and helped the program achieve steady success in each season that followed.

While his accomplishments in sports as a player and coach were noteworthy, what resonated with the Hawthorne community the strongest was his character. While he’s formally known as a PE teacher and a coach, his importance to the Hawthorne community goes beyond titles.

Whether it’s leaving his office door open for anyone who needs advice or holding players accountable with grades, Cornelius strives to be an approachable person who cares for the well-being of his community.

Oftentimes, he supervises students after school and even provides meals, keeping them out of the streets and under his care.

“Once I got into coaching, I wanted to impact lives, not only games,” Cornelius said. “I still wear many hats, and that’s what I signed up for. This is my community.”

One of the main lessons that Cornelius preaches to his players is genuineness. His players have seen him cry, laugh, and even drop freestyles in the weight room.

“Getting on their level is very important,” Cornelius said. “It’s how you get everything you can out of a kid.”

Cornelius has developed relationships with players who played with him, some of whom are a part of his staff, and players that he has coached.

Despite receiving offers for higher-paying positions at other schools, he understands just how he can impact lives in Hawthorne and has chosen not to leave the town he calls home.

“I had middle schoolers writing letters to me telling me not to leave,” Cornelius said. “You wouldn’t believe the phone calls, letters, and text messages I have received from former players saying what kind of impact I have had on their lives.”

Just as Cornelius loves and respects his community, the people he has affected do the same for him. Former players and students always return to the sidelines to support what he and the Hawthorne staff have built, and they never distract him or his players during the game.

Pauline Grimes, 60, is a Hawthorne High School Booster and Paraprofessional of the School Board and has been a part of the Hawthorne community for most of her life. Her three children and her four grandchildren have all graduated from Hawthorne High School. Some of them have played under and won state championships with Cornelius. She believes that the impact that he and CJ have outside of sports is key in bringing families and communities together.

“It’s not all about the sport, it’s about what the community brings to it,” Grimes said. “We have to give more of ourselves to help them out. Think about all of the kids that Cornelius has helped out.”

By watching his father take great strides to impact the place he calls home, CJ was inspired to do his part in the community. Whenever his teammates take part in church events, a play, or youth organizations, he and his dad always show up to support them.

“It’s just a great feeling to inspire them, show them that they can do whatever they want in life, whether it's just sports or making it somewhere in life that’s not sports-related,” CJ said. “Having good grades in class, just not being a follower, being a leader in everything you do.”

It’s been a tremendous year for Cornelius Ingram; he got married, secured the first football state championship in program history, and watched his son grow into a true leader in the community in a matter of months.

Along with all these fortunes, Cornelius considers a handwritten letter he received from a former player to be the highlight of his year.

Grace Huguely is a Hawthorne High School alum who had never played sports until she transferred to Hawthorne in the seventh grade. After transferring from Howard Bishop, she decided to play for Cornelius as a part of the Volleyball and Basketball teams.

Huguely and the team achieved plenty of success, winning a state championship in her sophomore year.

However, by the time senior year came around, she began to doubt herself and considered quitting and solely focusing on school.

As any athlete or student does whenever they seek advice, Huguely visited Cornelius in his office to tell him that she wanted to quit.

He quickly denied this request and helped her look at the bigger picture.

“'It might feel as if you want to quit right now, but I’m teaching you more than about being a basketball player,'” Huguely recalls Cornelius telling her. “'I’m teaching you life lessons, like how to be on time, how to get out of your comfort zone, and to always try your best.'”

Ultimately, she was convinced to stay for her senior season and played a key role for a playoff team.

But aside from the sports aspect, she was better prepared for life as a result.

As her senior year began to wind down, Huguely earned a full academic scholarship to attend Notre Dame with a major in psychology. The decision to attend such an institution required her to travel far away from home into blizzards, but luckily, she was prepared to get out of her comfort zone.

“He didn’t let me quit because he knew later on what I would learn were lessons I could use later on in life,” Huguely said about Cornelius. “I couldn’t be here at Notre Dame without my teachers, coaches, and people in Hawthorne.”

Huguely will be working with children in Kenya this summer through an immersive program.

She keeps in contact with Cornelius, and in a letter she wrote to him last year, she thanked him for believing in her and for the life lessons that she practices on a daily basis.

She also remains close to CJ, who she has known since they attended elementary school together.

Although she no longer goes to school with CJ, she has praised his leadership and development and appreciates how he has grown into the man that he is today.

Cornelius said he admires his son’s dedication to greatness in all aspects. Along with his son’s playmaking ability as an underclassman that compares to what Cornelius was doing as a senior, Cornelius considers his son’s maturity to be light years ahead of what is expected of a 15-year-old.

“He’s an awesome kid,” Cornelius said about his son. “I never had to worry about him in the classroom. Huge heart. He’ll set himself up for a lot of success, and I definitely love coaching him.”

Cornelius and CJ Ingram said they will continue to positively impact the Hawthorne community in all aspects.

Whether it’s on the field, in the classroom, or within the community, Cornelius and CJ will continue to lead by example and serve as a source of inspiration.

Bradley is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.