NEW YORK — Andrew Hawkins has no idea where he is supposed to line up.
In his six years as an NFL wide receiver, that's never been a problem. But now, 20 minutes before his commencement ceremony at Columbia University, he has no clue where his classmates have gathered. In the chaos of finishing up his graduate degree while co-parenting three young children and searching for his next football team, he missed the email containing directions for what to do on graduation day.
He's one of a few stragglers left wandering around Columbia's South Field, which just a half-hour ago was abuzz with scores of students in powder-blue robes climbing on top of iron statues to have their pictures taken. Hawkins' wife, Markisha, thought she'd heard someone say they were lining up in Lerner Hall, so Andrew rushes off in that direction.
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“Excuse me, is this the School of Professional Studies graduation? Do I line up downstairs?” he asks a group of volunteers huddled at the entrance of Lerner.
“Yes, and you better hurry!” they say, shaking their heads in disbelief. They frantically gesture for Hawkins to run down a ramp, where his fellow graduates are lined up by school.
“Hawkins,” he tells the woman seated at the check-in table at the bottom of the ramp. She thumbs through the few remaining yellow notecards, searching for his name. “What is it again?” she asks.
His name isn't in the stack.
Nine years ago, Hawkins didn't walk in his undergraduate ceremony at Toledo because he was too busy figuring out his next football move. He regrets skipping it. A missing name card won't stop him today. He picks up a Sharpie and scribbles his name onto a blank card, which he'll hand over to the speaker just before he walks across the stage.
The procession begins to move slowly toward the door just as he spots familiar faces lined up behind the dark blue banner for the sports management program. A few classmates clap at his last-minute entrance; others urge him to jump in line. Another yells, “Andrew Hawkins is in the house!”
* * *
On the flight to New York the day before, Hawkins borrowed some of his kids' alphabet stickers to spell out a message on his graduation cap:
Just as Smart as I am Quick Shuttle 4.0 GPA 4.0
Hawkins, now a 31-year-old free agent who spent the past three seasons with the Browns, enrolled in Columbia's sports management graduate program in the spring of 2015. His goal: to become a general manager or team president when his playing career ends. “Before it was a dream to play football, it was a dream to be a general manager,” he says.
To make his classes compatible with his NFL schedule, he loaded up on credits during the offseason and took one online course during each of the past two seasons. Last season, he also wrote a 35-page paper on the history and future of analytics in football. He looked at how teams are applying analytics, including Browns chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, and how others in the industry are using analytics in the wrong way. “Relying completely on analytics, that is just as bad as relying on no analytics,” Hawkins says. “My overall summary was that you have to have a balance.”
Hawkins' family knew better than to bother him on Tuesdays during the fall, when he would disappear in the basement of his house. It was the only day he didn't have any obligations to the Browns. “I would literally wake up and be doing school work from sun up to sun down, taking tests, writing out equations, you name it,” he says. There were even a few times when Hawkins had to hurry out of FirstEnergy Stadium after a home game to submit an assignment that was due Sunday at midnight.
Last offseason, he commuted weekly from Tampa, Fla., where he worked out at D1 Sports Tampa, to New York, where he took three two-hour classes all in a row. He'd sneak out of his last class 15 minutes early and rush back to the airport to make the trip home. He only missed his return flight once. “I made it home at like 6 a.m. as opposed to my normal midnight arrival,” he says.
This offseason, Hawkins lived in Los Angeles while interning for LeBron James's business manager, Maverick Carter. Every Monday, Hawkins would take the 6 a.m. flight to New York, take three back-to-back-to-back classes and then get on the 11 p.m. return flight to L.A, spending a total of 10 hours on a plane. “That took awhile for my body to adjust to the time change,” he said. Hawkins is prone to motion sickness and takes Dramamine before flying. But he once forgot to take his dosage and got so carsick on his way to campus that he had to abandon his cab to puke. “I felt weird about throwing up in the cans on the street in front of everyone, so I ran down to the subway and threw up for five minutes,” he says.
What did Markisha think when her husband first broached the idea of commuting to New York to get his masters degree while juggling an NFL career and fatherhood? “I was like, ’Go for it, we got this,' ” she says. “We're used to just up and going, moving around . . . I was asking him, ’When are you gonna sleep, when are you gonna eat?' And he's like, ’I’ll sleep later.' And just so everyone knows, later never comes. Poor guy never gets any sleep.”
Hawkins has always been grinding. A 5' 7” slot receiver who went undrafted in 2008, he resorted to desperate measures in order to get noticed by an NFL team. He put clay on his heels and 2 ½-pound weights in his pockets to add a little extra height and weight for his pro day. At the '09 combine, which he attended as a coach for Toledo, he stalked Jerry Jones told the Cowboys owner that he planned on winning Michael Irvin's Spike TV reality show (he finished second). He also spent two seasons playing in the CFL.
That humbling start prepared him for his internship with LeBron's business empire. For the first few weeks on the job, most employees working alongside him didn't know he was an NFL player. “I would get coffee, I would make copies and do all the things an intern would do,” he says. “But whenever I could, I would provide insight, so as time went on, they were like, Hey, wait a minute . . . and the word got out.”
Columbia's sports management degree requires its students to have a full-time internship, so Hawkins reached out to Carter, whom he first met after joining the Browns in 2014. (Carter is from Akron, Ohio, and they bonded over the Cleveland connection.) Hawkins has been helping in a business development role, focusing on athlete relations and branded partnerships for James and Carter's sports media platform, Uninterrupted.“It's been the most beneficial thing that I've done off the field,” Hawkins says. “They peeled the curtain back, welcomed me and treated me like I have been part of the empire for the last 10 years.”
Hawkins took his 5-year-old son, Austin, to work one day and let him sit in LeBron's office. Even though it was the middle of the NBA season and James wasn't around, Austin turned to his dad and said, “Wow, Dad, this is the coolest job you've ever had.”
* * *
At Columbia's graduation, Hawkins hops in line next to his friend, Josh Carroll, as the group leaves Lerner Hall to take their seats for the ceremony. “I'm about to get my masters, I'm 24, I’m feeling good,” Carroll says. “And then I talk to this guy and he has all these other things in the fire that he's working on, he's coming from California every week, he's interning [for LeBron James], and he's talking about his next steps.”
As impressed as he is with his NFL classmate, Carroll didn't watch a single game Hawkins played in last season. “I couldn’t do it,” he says. “The Browns were so bad.”
Cleveland released Hawkins in February, which he describes as a mutual decision to part ways. Hawkins had several conversations with the front office about the team's youth-focused direction and requested his release so they'd be free to test out the four young receivers drafted in 2016 and he'd be free to join a team closer to winning a Super Bowl. “They have a bunch of talent, they're just young, it takes time for them to mature and by the time they mature my career will probably be over,” he says.
Hawkins says four teams have made offers so far, but none were the right fit. He could retire and step into a front office role, but he's looking to join a contender. He'll be meeting with more teams in upcoming weeks that fit his criteria: good coach and good quarterback. (On Wednesday, Hawkins worked out for the Patriots.)
As Hawkins's name is announced over the PA system, his 5-year-old stands on his chair and bounces up and down on his tiptoes, trying to get a better view of the video screen a few rows ahead. Much to Markisha's dismay, her son's crisp white shirt keeps becoming untucked from his black pants (an outfit that matches his dad's, right down to the gold pin on the jacket lapel). “Daddy! Daddy!” he yells as Hawkins shakes the dean's hand and receives his diploma. Markisha and Hawkins' mother, Aletha, cheer and clap.
After the ceremony, there's no time to celebrate. Hawkins skips the champagne toast at the commencement reception and takes the train to his next destination, Mount Laurel, N.J., where he'll participate in the NFL's Broadcast Boot Camp. Even with a master's degree in hand, the grind never stops.