CINCINNATI — After a tryout with the Cleveland Browns in the spring of 2008 didn’t lead to a contract, Andrew Hawkins went to work.
He caddied at a high-dollar country club. He worked at a factory that made windmill engines. He volunteered with the University of Toledo football team and the school’s athletic marketing department, and he served an internship with the Detroit Lions player personnel department, a crash-course on the finer points of NFL talent evaluation.
There, Hawkins learned tricks of the trade that NFL scouts use to find the next superstar and the next short-time contributor.
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There, he learned that the eyes of the NFL generally aren’t looking for guys like 5-foot-7 Andrew Hawkins.
Last weekend, almost exactly four years and four months after participating in that rookie minicamp with the Browns, Hawkins scored his first NFL touchdown against the Browns in a 31-24 Cincinnati Bengals victory.
He scored one for little guys everywhere. And for perseverance.
“This is a moment that definitely makes me reflect on the other ones,” Hawkins said. “I’m so grateful for where I am. I’ve come from the lowest point. Nights crying. I’m trying to accomplish this dream, man, and there were times I never thought it would be possible but here I am.
“From coaches telling me to give it up to me living on a friend’s couch, basically, I’ve seen and heard it all. I heard ‘No’ a lot. You hear no so many times that you get used to it. I just had faith that God had a plan for me.”
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. He then signed with Montreal of the Canadian Football League, where he played two seasons.
He longed to make it in the NFL, though, and he sent his CFL tape to several teams. The Bengals and St. Louis Rams called. After the NFL lockout ended in July 2011, the Rams signed him.
“I made it through one practice,” Hawkins said. “They cut me. They said it was just a numbers game.
“That was a low point for me. I was ready to saddle up and take it back to the CFL where I knew I had a job. I had a son on the way so I needed to have a job.”
Hawkins was placed on the waiver wire, and 24 hours later he was claimed by the Bengals. He got cut again in early September, was placed on the practice squad, then was promoted to the active roster. He played in 13 games last year, catching 23 passes.
Through two games this year, Hawkins has 10 catches for 142 yards. Perhaps the best part of his 50-yard, catch-and-run touchdown against the Browns is that a player who was previously dismissed for what he wasn’t showed what he was.
A really fast, really elusive weapon. A player who can do the unsung dirty work on special teams and take a bubble screen for a big gainer on the next.
“I get chills thinking about Andrew taking the ball for that touchdown,” Bengals backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowkski, Hawkins’ quarterback at Toledo, said after the game. “For all that he’s been through, nobody kept a better attitude. Nobody wanted it more. It’s easy to say you’re going to stay positive and stay after it, but he did. And he’s just getting started.”
He might get somebody in the Bengals’ scouting department promoted.
“What happens is (scouts) get so locked in to prototypical size and the numbers thing,” Hawkins said. “A lot of guys, you can’t measure that way. It really is an inexact science. And a lot of times scouts are scared (to take a chance) because you have someone to answer to if you’re wrong.
“Nobody’s perfect. That’s definitely a profession that’s a tough one to be good at.”
When Hawkins was doing all of that working and hoping, he was sleeping a few hours a night on the couch of Stephen Williams, his former Toledo teammate and the exact kind of player NFL scouts spend months trying to find. Williams is 6-foot-5, with legs like an Olympic hurdler. Williams made the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted rookie in 2010 and again in 2011. He was cut this August.
Hawkins has been there. He doesn’t want to go back.
“I started to think I’d never get to this point,” Hawkins said. “I don’t know why I was kind of written off, but I let it get me down. These NFL scouts, they have a certain type they look for. I’m just thankful. A lot of very talented guys aren’t playing in the NFL. There’s a fine line between starting in the NFL and not playing any football whatsoever.”
He thinks back to that first minicamp with the Browns. Hawkins was good — and he knew it. He kept waiting for a callback. He ended up going back to Toledo after the Browns ended up going forward with players named Nate Hughes and Lance Leggett.
“I was one of 10 or so rookies they kept after they said they were going to sign,” Hawkins said. “I had a former coach from my Toledo days (Richard McNutt) that was there and he was telling me they were all super impressed. The offensive coordinator took my number and gave me his number. The receivers coach, the general manager, they contacted me for two or three weeks afterwards, but nothing ever happened.
“The Browns ended up contacting me once the new GM got there a year later to bring me in but I was already under contract in the CFL. I did have a pretty good minicamp but everything happens for a reason.
“I thank God for the opportunity the Browns gave me. I got that film and sent it to the reality show, which helped me get to the CFL. And even when I sent my film to the Bengals later, it opened up with my highlights from Browns minicamp. Everything happens for a reason. Looking back it’s incredible. Every little thing mattered.”
McNutt, a former Ohio State defensive back, was a special teams assistant at Toledo for Hawkins’ senior year, then broke in as an entry-level assistant with the Browns the next season. McNutt said he remembers putting together a tape of Hawkins playing special teams at Toledo after hearing that some in the Browns personnel department didn’t think he was big enough to play special teams in the NFL.
“He was the best wide receiver we had in that minicamp,” McNutt said. “He showed he can run and compete with anybody. It came down to a question of, was he big and physical enough to play special teams in the NFL? Somebody thought no, and we didn’t sign him.”
McNutt is now the defensive backs coach at Northern Illinois. He pumped his fist when he saw Hawkins running into the end zone on a Sunday night highlight show.
“Andrew was never going to back down from any challenge,” McNutt said. “I know there were times he was discouraged, but he never carried that with him on the field.”
Hawkins said his ability to make people miss and run for his life comes from an early lifetime of “running from my older brothers.” One of those brothers is Artrell Hawkins, a former Bengals defensive back. It was Artrell who told Andrew last summer that the Rams waiving him one day into training camp was for the best because he’d have plenty of time to catch on with another team.
Artrell, who’s now doing radio and TV work in Cincinnati, also kept telling his friends at the Bengals that his brother would have a chance to do big things if they’d get him the ball in space. In space, size doesn’t matter nearly as much as speed does.
Andrew Hawkins has proven that he has plenty of speed.
“I’m 5-7,” Andrew Hawkins said. “When I’m trying to get into the NFL, I’m listed at 5-9. Once I’m here I can tell the truth. I’m 5-7, and I’m just thankful.”