Each is from the football-fertile state of Texas – Hawthorne grew up in Corsicana, while Babineaux is from Port Arthur. Each flogged long odds to stick with the Seahawks as rookie free agents – Babineaux in 2004, Hawthorne in 2008. Each is a first-year starter – Hawthorne at middle linebacker, Babineaux at free safety. Each has earned a cool nickname since arriving in Seattle – “Heater” for Hawthorne and “Big Play Babs” for Babineaux. Each still carries that motivational something-to-prove chip on his shoulder.
Sunday, during the Seahawks’ season finale at Qwest Field, their common ground – and goal – is to prevent the Tennessee Titans’ Chris Johnson from getting the 128 rushing yards he needs to become the sixth back in NFL history to reach 2,000 in a single season.
“Nobody wants to be that team that lets a guy go into the record book on you,” Hawthorne said. “You take pride as a defense and we’re going to go out there and step up to the challenge.”
The step starts with the two-step that is Hawthorne and Babineaux, because they are the team’s leading tacklers. Each has reached the triple-digit plateau for the first time in his careers – Hawthorne with 107 and Babineaux with 101.
Another common thread: If you had asked in August which Seahawks defenders would surpass 100 tackles this season, these two would have been afterthoughts. That’s because Babineaux was not inserted into the starting lineup until the week of the season opener and Hawthorne is subbing for an injured
“We’ve asked a lot of these two, especially when you consider that we weren’t sure what their roles would be when training camp opened,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said after the team’s New Year’s Day practice. “Have they delivered? Just look at their numbers.”
In addition to the 107 tackles, Hawthorne also leads the team in interceptions (three) and is third in sacks (four). He could become the first player since strong safety Reggie Tongue in 2002 to lead the club in tackles and interceptions.
Babineaux, meanwhile, has two interceptions, six passes defended and 1½ sacks to go with his 101 tackles – which makes him the first Seahawks safety to hit triple digits since strong safety Robert Blackmon in 1996.
The significance of reaching the 100-tackle plateau has not been lost on either.
Babineaux has started games in the past – four at cornerback in 2005, eight at strong safety in 2006 and one last season at cornerback. But this year, he became a fulltime starter when incumbent free safety Brian Russell was released on the final roster cut.
“I think it says a lot, in a lot of ways,” Babineaux said of surpassing 100 tackles. “But for me, knowing that I have 100, I feel like I could have 110. And I’d trade 100 tackles for five interceptions any day.”
On the final day of the 2009 season, Babineaux will be busy in his pursuit of attempting to stop Johnson’s quest. In addition to playing free safety, he also has been lining up as one of the inside corners when the Seahawks use five and six defensive backs in their nickel and dime packages.
“Babs is playing multiple positions,” Bradley said. “So he’s extremely import to our defense, and he’s in positions where he has the ability to make a lot of plays for us. He’s definitely had a good year for us.”
Babineaux has had three games this season with at least 10 tackles and six others with more than five.
Hawthorne was a heat-seeking missile of a big hitter when he arrived out of TCU, but this season he has matured into a complete linebacker.
“What can you say about ‘Heater’?” Bradley said. “He’s stepped into a tough role. Lofa was the leader of the defense and to step into the position when everybody is looking at you and looking to you, he’s grown.”
Hawthorne’s first start came in Week 3 against the Chicago Bears.
“Then it was, ‘You’ve just got to get the call right. You’ve got to get the defense lined up,’ ” Bradley said. “Where now, he’s making checks (before the snap). So he has evolved, and you’re seeing it in his play. He’s more confident.”
You’ve also seen Hawthorne make a lot of plays. In that Chicago game, it was 16 tackles, third-most in franchise history. In the Week 8 game against the Cowboys, it was a pair of sacks. The following week against the Lions, it was two interceptions. In the past seven games, he has recorded double-digit tackles four times.
“It would mean a lot,” Hawthorne said when asked about the very real possibility that he could lead the team in tackles in only his second year, and despite the fact that Sunday will be his 11th start. “It would be something to look back on and say I accomplished a mini-goal.
“As an individual, and as a football player, you always want to know that you’re doing something positive and having some sort of success. So to lead the team in tackles would be an honor for me.”
Each felt they were capable of producing as they have this season, and each takes satisfaction from actually doing it once given the chance.
“The opportunity that they gave me and the faith they showed in me says a lot,” Babineaux. “So not only do I go out each week and want to show the coaches they made the right decision, I actually feel I deserve to be where I am.”
Offered Hawthorne, “This is a ‘show-me’ league. I’m not ultimately disappointed that I didn’t get drafted, I just got put in a situation where I had to go prove to a lot of people that I’m worthy of playing in the NFL.”
And, like Babineaux, making plays in the NFL.