Hawkins just thankful for chance with Bengals after long road to NFL

by | Senior NFL Columnist

When I mentioned to a Cincinnati Bengals assistant that I was going to speak to wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, he told me, "You're going to love him." He was right. Hawkins was gracious, cooperative, patient and talkative, willing to retrace his life story even when it meant retelling familiar anecdotes.

I did love Andrew Hawkins. My question is: Why didn't everyone else?

I think you know what I'm talking about. Andrew Hawkins is more than a marvelous interview; he's a marvelous football player, and it doesn't take long to notice. Only it took the NFL nearly four years to wake up to him, and I would like to know why.

After leaving the University of Toledo in the spring of 2008, he wasn't drafted. He wasn't invited to the scouting combine, either. OK, it happens, and it can happen to guys who, like Hawkins, are no bigger than 5-feet-7 and 180 pounds. But this is someone so quick, so explosive and so talented that "he jumps off the screen when you watch him," as one NFL coach put it.

But it wasn't until Cincinnati came to his rescue last year that he had a chance to show us who or what he is, and that's when then Bengals began to look a whole lot smarter than everyone else.

"He's not only a great receiver," one scout told me, "but when he has the ball he runs like a running back to make people miss."

I can see that. So can you. My question is: Why couldn't everyone else?

"He's probably stereotyped because of his size," one scout said.

Not good enough.

"Sometimes guys with no size try so hard at workouts their nerves can get the better of them," said another. "Or it could have something to do with the program."

OK, we're getting warmer.

"Well," said a third, "sometimes teams just miss."

Now we're talking.

The Cleveland Browns gave Hawkins a tryout after college but they never called back. The St. Louis Rams signed him last year but then they released him before he had a chance to play. Detroit was intrigued, too, but not as a player; it offered him a job as an intern for its personnel department.

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I think you get the idea. The NFL wasn't interested, and it wasn't alone. Shortly after finishing his career at Toledo, where he was the school's first two-way player (wide receiver and cornerback) in 48 years, Hawkins had tryouts with two Arena League teams.

Neither offered him a contract.

"I guess that's just how it is," Hawkins said. "I'm not the biggest guy, obviously, and I didn't have a crazy amount of production in college. I'm just happy I was able to make my dream happen."

But look what it took to get there. After college he worked at a wind-turbine factory, sweeping floors, stocking shelves, running forklifts, doing whatever he could, sometimes for a 16-hour shift. That, of course, was when he wasn't working as a caddy at a local country club and when he was sleeping nights on a friend's couch.

He worked as a graduate assistant at Toledo, coaching the team's wide receivers while he completed his degree. He served as an assistant in the Texas vs. the Nation all-star game. He wrote for Internet football sites. He scouted for the Lions. Essentially, he did what he could to pay the bills, hoping that someone, anyone, would give him a chance.

His break came when the CFL's Montreal Alouettes signed him to a two-year contract, with the Als jumping after Hawkins finished second on Michael Irvin's Fourth-and-Long reality-TV show. The winner of that program, Jesse Holley, went on to gain a tryout with Dallas, but he's out of the league while Hawkins ... well, he's the next best thing in Cincinnati to A.J. Green and Andy Dalton.

Roll the videotape to last weekend's defeat of Washington, and you'll see Hawkins catch a short pass from Dalton, then accelerate through the Redskins' secondary, leaving defenders behind en route to a 59-yard score -- his second touchdown in three games of more than 50 yards.

Hawkins is a perfect big-play threat for Cincinnati ... heck, for anyone ... but only the Bengals and St. Louis were interested after his CFL stint, and we already know what happened in St. Louis.

The Rams cut him.

In fairness to St. Louis, the Rams looked at Hawkins as a return man who could fill in as a fourth or fifth wideout, but he struggled fielding punts and they needed another cornerback. So they signed the cornerback, released the wide receiver and opened the door for Cincinnati, which claimed Hawkins off waivers.

"I wish we had had more time," former St. Louis GM Billy Devaney said. "Who knows? If we could've been more patient maybe [something might've worked]. But those things happen."

Unfortunately, they happened all too often to Hawkins. But not anymore, they don't. He not only made it to the NFL, he's one of its highlight heroes, averaging 17.3 yards per catch and emerging as a playmaker to take the heat off Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham.

For Hawkins, it's all too good to be true. He grew up a Bengals fan and his brother, Artrell, was a starting cornerback for the club. He worked hard to get where he was, but sometimes wasn't sure what he was working for. So, as a practicing Christian, he prayed, and his prayers were answered.

So, for that matter, were the Bengals' prayers.

"There were difficult times," Hawkins said, "when I didn't know what was going to transpire. My thing was to just keep working out, though I didn't know what I was working out for. But [I'd tell myself] I just want to do this so I'm going to keep working and hope something happens. You hope for so much more, but God puts you through things for a reason. I'm just happy everything happened the way it did."

Hawkins is sincere. He holds no anger or resentment for what took place and insisted he wouldn't be where he is now without the hardships. As for those teams that passed on him ... well, he pointed out they at least gave him a look when others didn't, so he's thankful for their interest.

In essence, he's this decade's Kurt Warner.

"Kurt Warner is someone I looked up to," Hawkins said. "When I was discovered I would look back at Kurt Warner's story and how he continued to have faith, and it motivated me to keep going."

So he kept pushing forward, and there's a lesson there. First of all, good things can happen to good people. Second, never quitting on a dream can make it realized. And third, size doesn't matter. At least it didn't here, and it didn't with guys like Drew Brees, Darren Sproles, Ray Rice, Wes Welker and Russell Wilson.

"You have something to prove to the teams that weren't interested?" I asked him.

Hawkins shook his head.

"Not really," he said. "I take a little different approach. After I lost Michael Irvin's Fourth-and-Long competition, a former coach told me, 'You fight so hard that my only advice to you would be: Don't spend all your time trying to prove people wrong. No matter what, it's not going to be good enough. You're trying to prove people who really don't care about you anyway. So just work hard for yourself and enjoy it.'

"So that's the approach I've taken, and it's made a world of difference in my career. ... I admit there were a lot of times when I didn't think where I am now would be possible. But I'm a spiritual guy, and I just believed that, if I put the work in, God would work out a plan for me. I didn't know how it was going to happen. I didn't know what was going to happen. For whatever reason, something just kept me believing it, and I'm glad I did."

Bengals fans should be, too. Because, like me, they know that Cincinnati assistant was right. One look at Andrew Hawkins ... one conversation with the guy ... and you have no choice but to love him.

"I literally thank God every day for what I'm doing right now," Hawkins said. "I wouldn't change the way I got here at all. It taught me so much. It made me a better person and a better man. I'm just so thankful for where I am, and I wake up every day and thank God for it."


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