BEREA, Ohio – The minicamps and organized team activity sessions and workouts all run together after a while. With 90-man rosters, no hitting and many veterans either out on vacation or on the sideline nursing minor injuries, spring NFL football is for the dreamers.
Six years in, Andrew Hawkins is still a dreamer.
He’s just a little more secure dreamer.
Three months ago, the Cleveland Browns pried Hawkins away from the Cincinnati Bengals via restricted free agency. On the first day the Browns took to the practice fields in May, Hawkins took a minute to look around and reflect.
In 2008, he was a tryout player with the Browns, working amongst other dreamers on these same practice fields, and was told he’d get a call back that never came. So he went to work — as a caddie at a high-end country club, in a factory that made windmill engines, as a volunteer at his alma mater, Toledo, in the athletic marketing department — and crashed on a friend’s couch while hoping for another NFL shot.
He still stuck around football. He served an internship with the Detroit Lions player personnel department, a crash-course on the finer points of NFL talent evaluation. In early 2009, Hawkins participated in Michael Irvin’s reality show, "Fourth and Long," that awarded a Dallas Cowboys contract to the winner. Hawkins finished second.
The Browns — then remade from the version he knew in 2008 but still long from today’s version — finally called back in 2010, but not until after he’d signed a contract with Montreal of the Canadian Football League.
"I can honestly say the way I got here was one of one," Hawkins said. "(In 2008) I thought I was close, I was ready. But I waited. I’m very proud of the journey I took and who it helped me become. I wouldn’t trade it.
After the NFL lockout ended in 2011, Hawkins signed with the St. Louis Rams. He was cut after one day.
He was claimed by the Bengals, eventually cut again and placed on the practice squad, then finally got his chance, catching 23 passes in 13 games in 2011. In 2012, he scored his first NFL touchdown against the Browns, turning a short pass into a bobbing and weaving, 50-yard touchdown that blew a close game open.
That led to more chances, and the guy long dismissed for being too small kept delivering big plays. It was during 2012 that Hawkins said "the truth is that I’m 5’7. When I’m trying to get in the NFL, I say I’m 5’9, because nobody thinks anybody who’s 5’7 has any shot of playing in the NFL."
Finally, the Browns are convinced. In March, Hawkins signed a front-loaded, four-year deal worth $13.6 million in all that includes $4.8 million guaranteed and a signing bonus of $3 million.
Three million dollars for signing up to do what he spent so long trying to do.
"I definitely thought about the journey," Hawkins said. "I thank God every day. A lot of people say that, but I do. I don’t have a great day (of practice) every day — nobody does — but I was so close to this never happening. A lot of people never believed it could happen. I’m in awe of the whole situation. I’d love to say it was all me but opportunities come that you don’t plan for and pieces fall where you would have never imagined. I’m just gracious, man.
"I think I have a full tank. I think I’m coming into my prime. I’m excited about the future. I’m so thankful for what I feel is a great opportunity here. I’m grateful to the Browns organization and now I just want to make everything right. I want to be a part of getting this thing turned around."
With almost 90 players on the field the last four weeks, the shortest one has stood out.
"He’s been one of our most consistent guys through spring," Browns coach Mike Pettine said. "He comes out here and he’s one of the hardest workers we have. He doesn’t know any speed other than full speed. He is a guy that is truly trying to get better every day that he takes the field. I think that’s a great example for our younger guys.
"If you had to rate our players in the spring, he’d be right near the top."
In many ways, Hawkins is the anti-Johnny Manziel, the former Heisman Trophy winner and rookie quarterback who’s brought unprecedent attention to the team. He’s the anti-Joe Haden, too, the former first-round corner who just signed a mega-contract extension that included $45 million in guarantees. But Hawkins isn’t worried about the past or how anybody got here — and, frankly, he doesn’t have time to be.
With 2013 NFL receiving champ Josh Gordon potentially facing NFL suspension, the Browns could go forward without their biggest and best target. That could mean another job opens, another Hawkins who started somewhere else or with little fanfare could get a shot.
"I like to think there’s a little something for everybody from my story," Hawkins said. "Now, I’ll never be the guy who stands up and believes he’s the one everybody should look at and listen to. Everybody took a certain path to get here, and you don’t get to this point without having both talent and persistence. Everybody’s story matters.
"Being in that situation more than once, where you have no idea what tomorrow might bring, all I can do is come out here and work my butt off and hope those guys follow suit. The undrafted guys, the rookies, they’re a bunch of good guys with big eyes and big dreams. From my experience, I think the best way to help younger guys get what this league is all about is to see older guys working like they’re not promised anything, either.
"A lot of these guys here right now either have done it on different teams or will have to go to different teams to get that chance they crave. That’s just a fact. The earlier you learn to be a professional and keep those good habits, the more prepared you are when your opportunity comes. And you never know when it’s really going to come.
"I haven’t sat down and had storytime yet. But some of the guys know my story. It comes out. That’s not something I’m worried about but if it can encourage or inspire somebody, I’m more than willing to tell it."