Coming Up Short

Andrew Hawkins, Contributor - The Players' Tribune

I cry before every game. It’s so bad sometimes I need smelling salts and a towel just to regroup and go out and play — I get that emotional. My teammates are always clowning, “You know Hawk, Hawk’s always crying,” but if God brought you through what I’d been through, you’d get emotional, too. My whole journey replays in my mind every time I put those pads on. I don’t take one second for granted.

I didn’t just work hard, I had to work the system. I had to scheme a little. I had to overcome. I slept on people’s couches, called in favors, and yeah, I got lucky a few times, too. But I did what I had to do to achieve my dream.

What would you do if someone said you couldn’t have the life you wanted? What lengths would you go to to prove people wrong and live your dream?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals

It was Thanksgiving weekend 2007, the day after I played my final college game at Toledo. I’d been debating whether to pursue a pro football career. I knew it was a long shot. A small guy from a small school with small stats — nobody expected me to make it at the next level. I went to the gym to work out and stepped on the scale: 161 pounds.

“That’s not NFL weight,” I thought.

I vividly remember making that decision: despite the odds, I would go for it, but I’d keep it a secret. I’d work out every day and not tell anybody, because I didn’t want people to laugh at me and not take me seriously. It was easy to keep it a secret, too. Nobody was paying attention to me. I wasn’t on any NFL teams’ radars. I didn’t get invited to the combine. Hell, I didn’t even have an agent. Agents only recruit guys they think have a shot at making it to the NFL, so nobody was fighting to represent little ol’ me.

That was the first order of business: get myself an agent. But with no connections, I had to start from scratch. I had to get creative.

I set up a pseudo email account, and posing as an assistant coach from Toledo, I contacted a handful of agents, raving about this undersized Andrew Hawkins kid and how he shouldn’t be overlooked.

Here’s an actual email I sent:

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 12.48.51 PM (1)

Sounds good, right?

I only needed one agent to take the bait, so when Craig Schaeffer called representing a new, up-and-coming agency trying to find diamonds in the rough, I think we were both pretty excited.

Just like that, I had my agent.

Technically, I didn’t lie. Time would show that everything I wrote about myself was factual, just maybe not at that exact moment. Was it the most honest thing I’d ever done? Of course not. I’m not proud of it but that’s how desperate I was. I told myself I was willing to do whatever it takes. I wanted to know that I did everything humanly possible to play pro football, and if I did all I could and still didn’t make it, I could live with that. But I wanted to leave no doubt.

The next order of business was to get the scouts to notice me. With no combine or all-star game invites, the only chance I would have to impress scouts would be my Toledo Pro Day.

The on-field drills were a breeze. I ran a 4.33 40-yard dash (which would have been tied for third-fastest at this year’s combine) with a 38’’ vertical jump and a 3.84 short shuttle. Solid stats overall. But it was the height and weight that concerned me most. I had the speed, agility and explosion, but I didn’t want scouts to count me out because of my measurements. I was a legit 5’6 ½” without shoes on, and even though I was able to pack on a few pounds through my workouts, I was still pretty light.

I had to get creative again.

If I did all I could and still didn’t make it, I could live with that. But I wanted to leave no doubt.

Before my Pro Day, I made a pit-stop at Michael’s — you know, the craft store — to pick up some clay. I bought clay that matched my skin tone, molded it to the heels of my feet and taped my feet up all the way past the ankle, like I would for a game. When it came time to measure me, it gave me about another inch and a half. Then, when I weighed in, I dropped a two-and-a-half pound weight in each of my pockets, which gave me an extra five pounds.

I could have never pulled those tricks at the combine. They’d strip me down to just underwear before measurements. But this was Pro Day, so it was way more relaxed. When all was said and done, I went on paper as 5’8’’ and 182 pounds. A huge step up from the 5’6’’, 161-pound guy that decided just a few months earlier to take a shot at the NFL.

With Pro Day out of the way, there wasn’t room for any more tricks. I knew getting drafted was unlikely and getting signed as an undrafted free agent was a long shot, so I was shooting for the CFL or maybe the Arena League. But first, I needed a tryout, and at a tryout, you can’t fake it. Your game does the talking.

First, I tried out for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL — and didn’t get signed. Then I tried out for the Cleveland Gladiators, an Arena League team, and didn’t get signed there either. They both said the same thing: “You’re super talented. We’ll be calling soon.”

They must have lost my number.

It was a tough time for me. I felt like I was crazy. I’m usually spot-on with my self-evaluation but here I was, not making the cut for the CFL or AFL, and for the first time in my life, I thought, Maybe I’m not as good as I think I am.

I got one more chance — what I thought might be my last — when the Cleveland Browns called me in for a tryout. That year, each member of the Browns coaching staff got to recommend one unsigned player to participate in their rookie tryout. Lucky for me, there was a former Toledo coach on the Browns staff, and he invited me. So my lone NFL tryout came strictly by the grace of God, not because the Browns scouted me. It was also a 73-player rookie camp, including 51 tryout players, competing for just one contract. It was still a long shot.

I killed it at the tryout. Multiple coaches and scouts told me I was the best rookie there. But it was a different time back in 2008. The Wes Welker trend of small slot receivers hadn’t really caught on yet, and when it came down to it, they just couldn’t get over my size. They were interested enough to call one of my coaches from Toledo to ask why they hadn’t heard about me sooner, but I later found out he didn’t exactly give me the biggest vote of confidence and that sealed my fate. The Browns didn’t sign me.

Just like that, shunned by the NFL, CFL and AFL, I was out of options. I was out of hope.

I sat out the entire 2008 season.


A career in pro football looked less and less likely, so it was time for me to start making other arrangements. In what should have been my rookie year in 2008, I went back to Toledo to graduate and served as an assistant coach on the football team. I wanted to get into scouting and eventually work my way up to being an NFL general manager, and through an old contact I got an internship with the Detroit Lions front office for training camp.

My scouting assignment: wide receivers.

The Lions had Calvin Johnson, who was as big a beast then as he is now, but after him, there was nothing to write home about. I would watch the receivers practice and I’d turn in my scouting report each day for the team to use when making cuts, but all I could think was, I’m better than these guys.

In addition to scouting receivers at practice, I was also learning how NFL teams scout college players. Since scouts can’t watch everybody, they rely on college coaches to provide a list of seniors they think have even a small chance at making it to the NFL. As a scout, I now had access to those lists.

I came across Toledo’s list from the year before, my senior year. My name wasn’t on it.

That was a big blow. I don’t know if I was hurt or angry or both, but it lit a fire in me.

The Lions offered to extend my internship with the promise of a possible full-time position down the road but there was a catch: you had to be 100 percent done playing football. You had to be totally committed. I had a choice— I could get my foot in the door as a scout and start what could be a great career, or make another run at the leagues that had already rejected me.

I don’t know if I was hurt or angry or both, but it lit a fire in me.

I knew I was good enough but after learning that Toledo had left my name off that list, it was clear that I never got a fair shot. I prayed on it and I decided I just couldn’t give up on that NFL dream. I couldn’t say I was done. I joined the Lions to start life after football but I actually accomplished the opposite. I revitalized my drive because seeing those NFL players and knowing I could compete with them was confirmation to me that I can play in this league. I had to go back out and prove it.

With the Lions opportunity gone and with a newfound motivation, I was staying with a couple of friends while I figured out my next move. I slept on their couch and used the top shelf of their laundry room as my closet. They didn’t ask for rent, only that I pay the electric bill, which was great for me. I was going to school full time, coaching at Toledo and working as a caddie at a local golf course on weekends for extra cash.

We were sitting on the couch one afternoon watching TV when Pardon the Interruption came on, and the hosts talked about a new reality TV show called 4th and Long with Michael Irvin, in which he takes guys off the street and lets them compete for a spot in Cowboys training camp. My roommates said I should give it a shot but I dismissed them. Reality TV — it seemed gimmicky. Not my thing.

But the more I thought about it, the more I viewed it as not a gimmick but an opportunity. So, I snuck upstairs and called them up. What did I have to lose?

Most of the cast was already set, they said, but they were still having open tryouts in Florida and Texas, and if I could make one of those, I still had a shot. But I didn’t have the money to just take off to Florida or Texas, so I asked, “What if I just send in an audition tape?”

They said it’d be a long shot but I was used to that.

New Orleans Saints v Cleveland Browns

My Browns tryout was the best film I had. I wasn’t gonna do a better workout than that, so I sent that along with video of me telling my story.

I sent 30 copies. I overnighted 10, mailed another 10 as two-days and sent the last 10 through standard mail. I wanted to make sure they got it. Two weeks later, I got a call: I made it. They would fly me out to Los Angeles for a workout with the other candidates — 60 players total — but only 12 from the workout would be featured on the show. My patience was paying off. I had another shot.

Before heading to L.A., I got to attend the 2009 NFL Combine, not as a player but as a coach for Toledo. My brother, Artrell Jr., who had played in the NFL, was working the combine with the media, so we drove out to Indianapolis together, and while we were there, I saw Jerry Jones walk right past me. Here I am, ready to leave Indy and head to L.A. to compete on Michael Irvin’s show for a spot at Cowboys camp, and there’s Jerry Jones right in front of me. And I just let him walk right by.

I felt like I’d missed a huge opportunity. So, I found out where his suite was, snuck up a back stairwell and waited by the door. If I could have another “chance” encounter with him, maybe it could help me out. Whatever it takes, right?

My road to a pro football career had already been a revolving door of opportunity, but none of those doors led to the NFL.

My brother went back to the hotel while I stayed at the stadium to hunt down Jerry. I waited in that back stairway at Lucas Oil Stadium for three hours before my brother called me and said we had to get out of town. He couldn’t wait for me any longer. Reluctantly, I left the combine without seeing him again. I drove back to the hotel to pick up my brother and all I could think about was missing that opportunity to meet Jerry. I was so close. I remember praying, “God, I tried! And I hope you see how bad I want this and that I was willing to stay there another 20 hours if I had to!”

Seconds later, as I pulled up to the hotel, a black car pulled up beside me. It was Jerry Jones. I couldn’t believe it. I shot out of the car, ran up to him and shook his hand.

Me: “Hey, Mr. Jones. My name is Andrew Hawkins. I’m a wide receiver going out to L.A. tomorrow to try out for Michael Irvin’s show.”

Jerry Jones: “Alright, son, I’ll make sure I tell Mike to look out for you.”

When I finally got to the tryout in L.A., the first thing I did was walk up to Michael Irvin and say, “I met Jerry Jones yesterday, and told him I was coming out here to win this competition. Period.” He chuckled and said, “Yeah, bossman told me about you.” I don’t know if he was telling the truth or not but just having that ice-breaker in my arsenal made him pay extra attention to me during the tryout, and it paid off. I made it on to the show. I don’t know if that would have been the case had I not stalked Jerry Jones and shook his hand in that hotel parking lot.

The winner of the show earned a spot at Cowboys training camp and a shot at making the roster. He could still get cut like anybody else but it was an opportunity, and as I was finding out, those were hard to come by. But even though I was told I was the best player on the show, I didn’t win. I was the runner-up. It’s hard to justify bringing a 5’6’’ wide receiver from a reality show to your training camp — even Michael Irvin told me that — so I was doomed from the beginning, because of the same thing that held me back all along.

My size.

They say when one door closes, another one opens. My road to a pro football career had already been a revolving door of opportunity, but none of those doors led to the NFL, and they all seemed to close all too quickly. I may not have won Michael Irvin’s show but it did open another door, and this one led to the CFL.

I was on the Montreal Alouettes’ radar even before I competed on the show. I was sending packages to all 32 NFL teams and all eight CFL teams every two weeks, so they already had my film and all my information. I signed a future contract with them before the show as a backup plan, but my strong showing on the show made me a shoo-in to make the Alouettes’ final roster.

I had finally made it … kinda.

This is Part I in a two-part series chronicling Andrew Hawkins’s road from undersized and undrafted prospect to being the leading receiver on an NFL team. Read Part II here.

Hawkins Signature

Whatever It Takes

Everything I’d been through had finally led me to a pro contract when I signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL. I was grateful, but I still had my sights set on the NFL.

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