Hawkins, who pulled away from all defenders after catching Aaron Brooks’ pass around the Tech 30-yard line, had time to think about his imminent celebration. He originally planned to spike the ball because of some longstanding friction with the Hokies that went back to when he was a high school recruit. A forceful throw to the ground, he thought, would allow him to release some frustration.
“But when I got across that goal line,” he said, “something just pushed me on my knees instantly.”
Hawkins fell to the ground, spread his arms and looked skyward.
Nearby, Mike Ingalls snapped a photo with his Canon EOS Elan II.
An iconic image was born.
In the 25 years since Hawkins made what some in Wahoo circles still call “The Catch,” much has been documented about that legendary play and that legendary game. UVA’s furious rally from a 22-point halftime deficit to stun the Hokies routinely ranks as one of the program’s greatest wins of all-time.
— John Freeman (@JohnFreemanUVA) June 8, 2022
But perhaps what makes the victory sweeter is the picture forever attached to it.
On one side of the camera is Hawkins, then a 19-year-old college sophomore who was not far removed from the toughest stretch of his life. On the other side is Ingalls, then a 33-year-old Air Force veteran and novice photographer working to get a new venture off the ground.
A quarter century later, the pair remains grateful that their paths crossed in that end zone.
For Sirron and Chinelo
Ingalls, shooting for what was then known as VirginiaFootball.com and is now TheSabre.com, captured Hawkins in a pose that has since appeared on a number of UVA promotional materials, including schedule cards, calendars, ticket mailings and media guides. For a long while, the image was part of a mural in Scott Stadium.
UVA sports historian Myron Ripley counts it at the top of the most famed photos in the annals of Cavalier football, on a tier with a scene from John Ford’s winning touchdown catch against Virginia Tech in 1984 and the moment following Anthony Poindexter and Adrian Burnam’s goal line stop of Warrick Dunn to seal UVA’s stunning upset of second-ranked Florida State in 1995.
“You could argue those photos have probably appeared in more media guides for UVA football than any other photos,” Ripley said. “Those three have stood the test of time.”
But unlike the other two, which caught unscripted game action, the Hawkins shot almost appears staged, like he was playing to the cameras.
The reality is Hawkins’ immediate reaction to scoring the biggest touchdown of his career was completely spontaneous. Despite his original inclination to aggressively spike the football, he became somber, dropped to his knees and looked to the heavens.
On his mind in that moment were his late cousins, Sirron and Chinelo Gibson. The two – Sirron was 18 and Chinelo was 20 – were murdered near Hawkins’ hometown of Hampton the previous February. Hawkins said they had planned to be at the game.
“That’s what that photo signified to me, just giving the Most High the praise and showing my cousins that we’re still here,” Hawkins said. “It was a long road, but we’re here. It was giving myself up, because that’s what I had to do to even get back in the right mind, just give myself to God and just trust in him.”
Hawkins, a religious studies major, leaned on his faith often in 1998. A multitude of events that spring semester – his cousins’ deaths, his own ankle surgery and a stint on academic probation – led him into a depression.
What Ingalls captured in the iconic photo was Hawkins seeing a way to move forward.
“All my family members got to see that photo,” Hawkins said. “And it took me to finally tell them what that pose represented.
“Everybody thought it was a celebration. And it’s football, right, you cross the goal line expecting to do some type of pose or some type of celebration. So I understood why people thought it was football-related, and that’s fine, but it meant a lot to me because I knew how important my cousins were to me and what that year signified because I had some dark, dark times that spring that no one really knew about.”
‘I Can’t Believe I’m Getting This Picture’
Among the many prints Ingalls still owns of the photo is a poster-sized version that’s framed and signed: “To my main man Mike. Thanks for the support. Ahmad Hawkins #80”
It was a genuine message for a man who’s had a passion for UVA sports since he was born at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville.
Following the Hoos was easy for Ingalls until he left his hometown and joined the Air Force in the early 1980s. While stationed in locales from Texas to Turkey, often the best UVA coverage Ingalls could find was when his mother sent him VHS tapes of Cavalier football and basketball games.
That irritating experience of an out-of-market fan was what later led Ingalls to begin two websites – VirginiaFootball.com and VirginiaBasketball.com – focusing only on Wahoo athletics and accessible everywhere.
Seeking separation from the dominant news media of that era – print, radio and television – Ingalls’ sites had message boards for fan interaction and covered the high school athletes UVA was recruiting.
In 1996, Ingalls was often at Hampton High School to see, among other football players, the future Wahoo receiver Hawkins.
“Mike wrote a story about me when I committed to UVA,” Hawkins said. “He gave me high praise, and basically put me in the same realm where I could be special like [UVA All-American receiver] Herman Moore. I never forgot that article.”
Ingalls had the opportunity to continue a working relationship with Hawkins when UVA granted press credentials to VirginiaFootball.com prior to the 1998 season, a rare move at a time when college athletics departments hadn’t fully adapted yet to accepting non-traditional media.
It was a decision that took Ingalls from the stands to the field in Blacksburg on that last Saturday in November, stocked with around 20 rolls of film.
With the Hokies leading the Cavaliers 29-7 at halftime, Ingalls considered conserving his supply for another game.
“It was demoralizing,” Ingalls said. “The team walked into the locker room like the game was over. I was sitting down and thinking, ‘Man, I already shot 11 rolls of film of this stupid game. Why waste any more?’”
But as the Hoos began their comeback in the third quarter, Ingalls kept clicking. And as they drove to cut the Tech lead to three points midway through the fourth quarter, he hustled to the north end and stayed there.
“Other photographers warned me that I’d be shooting directly into the sun by doing that,” Ingalls said. “But I was like, ‘Well, I’m going down there anyway. If anything’s going to happen, that’s the place it’s going to happen.’”
It was Ingalls’ first year as a photographer. What he lacked in experience, he tried to make up for with instinct. That sense of opportunity paid off when Hawkins came streaking toward him with around two minutes left in the game.
Through his fixed 200-millimeter lens, Ingalls first snapped Hawkins as he pointed beyond the end zone to Mike Colley, UVA’s then-assistant media relations director who was, according to Hawkins, “losing his mind” in celebration. For years, that image was on a wall at the Cavaliers’ indoor practice facility.
But then Ingalls got the money shot.
“He went to his knees, threw his arms up and I said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m getting this picture,’” Ingalls said, “and I’m just hammering away at the shutter.”
Legacy and Friendship
Ingalls didn’t sell UVA the image. Instead, soon after getting it developed at Stubblefield Photo Lab on Ivy Road, he went to the athletics department and gave them the negative as a sign of gratitude.
“Had they not taken a chance on me and given press credentials to a website,” Ingalls said, “none of this would have happened. I wanted them to have the photo.”
The image first appeared on VirginiaFootball.com as part of a gallery from the game, and it later stood as TheSabre.com’s banner image for many years, including when Hawkins wrote for the site as an analyst.
Hawkins, courtesy of Ingalls, has so many copies of the photo that he carried a supply with him as his career continued in the Arena Football League.
“I basically kept them as business cards,” Hawkins said. “I kept them in whatever vehicle I had. I brought them to autograph sessions.”
To this day, versions of Ingalls’ photo hang in Hawkins’ bedroom, his son’s room, his workstation and in the homes of his in-laws.
“It’s pretty much everywhere,” he said.
Along with his day job working as a health and physical education teacher at the Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention Center, Hawkins, 44, is now a podcaster and part of the broadcast team for UVA football games.
Ingalls, now 58, left The Sabre in 2014 and works for a Charlottesville used car dealership, HoneyCar, where photography and web content are his main responsibilities.
The two friends reunited for a photo shoot recently, days ahead of the next installment of the Virginia-Virginia Tech rivalry, which kicks off Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Scott Stadium. After throwing the football around on the Cavalier practice field, it was decided they should try to recreate the moment.
Hawkins dropped to his knees and looked skyward. Nearby, Ingalls hammered away at the shutter.
“Like old times,” he said.