On the last day of his life, Gayle Hopkins bought a grapefruit tree. That is his real legacy. Growing things, nurturing them. He was in the boys-to-men business.
The UA hired “Doc Hop” a few days before Christmas, 1982 — brought him home, really — and for the next 27 years he worked outside the lines. Whatever the title on his door, it was just a suggestion.
He was that little voice in your ear, a father figure, good cop, bad cop, go-to-guy.
Most of the remarkable UA athletes who put their faith in “Doc Hop” — Sean Elliott, Byron Evans, Tanya Hughes, Percy Knox, David Adams, Sean Rooks, Kevin Singleton — knew little more than Gayle Hopkins was an Olympic long-jumper and an NCAA champion.
What they didn’t know was that he was from the wrong side of the tracks in Davenport, Iowa, who had to enroll at Trinidad (Colorado) Junior College because the Midwest universities of the 1960s didn’t often recruit African-Americans with at-risk academic transcripts.
Do you realize he broke Jesse Owens’ long-jump record at the 1964 Drake Relays?
No. You didn’t know that because he’d never tell you.
I once told him his long jump of 26 feet, 9¼ inches to win the 1964 NCAA championship was better than the jumps that won the NCAA finals for five successive years, 2002-06.
“Tell me something, Greg,” he said. “How’s your family?”
He began his UA career by working two years as a nighttime telephone operator at a dormitory, Graham Hall. His grades were so bad he was put on academic probation. So he went to work at the school’s equipment cage, where he met and worked for the intuitive Ed Thomas, one of the first African-American employees in athletic department history.
That’s when Hopkins’ life changed. He earned a full scholarship; his personality blossomed. He spoke of Thomas not as a mentor, but of someone with a higher calling. He was a life-changer.
And, so, too, was Gayle Hopkins.
“He was an unbelievably good guy,” says Rick LaRose, the UA’s Hall of Fame golf coach. “He was very concerned about minorities and integration; he wasn’t afraid to get involved in someone’s life or speak out. He had a lot of common sense.”
Hopkins was a self-made man in every way. He spent two months touring Africa with members of the ’64 Olympic team. He returned to school, finished his degree, and over the next decade, while starting a family, earned master’s and doctorate degrees in California.
Thus, “Doc Hop.”
When Cedric Dempsey organized an administration that would become a model for Pac-10 athletic departments in the 1980s and 1990s, with Bob Bockrath, Kathleen “Rocky” LaRose, Mary Roby, Tom Sanders and John Perrin, it was Hopkins who set up and operated the school’s first academic support system.
“Gayle never had a negative thing to say about anyone or anything,” says Bockrath, former athletic director at Cal, Texas Tech and Alabama. “He was a loyal team member. He could make tough administrative decisions without passing the buck.”
In 1991, Salpointe Catholic reached the state football championship game. The Lancers’ star player was tailback Chris Hopkins, the only son of Gayle and Pat Hopkins.
Chris went on to become a starting tailback at Arizona State, and has since been a wealth management investor in Los Angeles and now New York City. One of the reasons it wasn’t difficult for Chris to play at his father’s rival school, a Sun Devil, is because his father taught him to be his own man.
“What I admired about my dad was that he didn’t have a Gayle Hopkins in his life,” Chris says. “He was pretty much on his own, taking care of his two younger sisters and his mom. Nobody was giving him anything. But his discipline and his will to succeed got him through. There were no shortcuts.”
When Sean Elliott was inducted into the UA Sports Hall of Fame, he was introduced not by a coach or someone from the NBA, but Gayle Hopkins, a charter member of the school’s Hall of Fame.
Early Sunday morning, Hopkins died in his sleep of causes related to diabetes. He was 74. If he left any unfinished business, it was that he was to be the best man at Chris’ wedding in May.
“Maybe he won’t be my best man,” Chris says. “But he was and will always be my best friend.”