This is Part II of a two-part series chronicling Andrew Hawkins’s road from undersized and undrafted prospect to the leading receiver on an NFL team. To read Part I of his journey, click here.
Everything I’d been through — the workouts, the persistence, the disappointment — it all 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. In my mind, the CFL was just another step towards that ultimate goal.
During my first season in Montreal, the Browns hired a new general manager, George Kokinis. He was looking for a wide receiver in that Wes Welker mold — a quick guy, my specialty. When he asked around the organization, a lot of guys told him about me, saying I’d had great workouts and got a raw deal because of my size. So Kokinis called me and said he’d talk to the Alouettes GM about signing me. But the Alouettes wouldn’t let me out of my deal. I didn’t like it, but I understood.
In the CFL at that time, after you played one year, your team had an option for a second year. But after the season there was a three-month window where you could work out for NFL teams and chase a contract. So I wasn’t too discouraged when the Alouettes didn’t let me go to Cleveland. I knew I had my NFL workout window coming up, and it was basically a done deal that the Browns were gonna bring me in for a workout and probably sign me, since I was heavy on Kokinis’s radar.
I just had to wait.
In the meantime, I was making a run at a CFL championship with the Alouettes. In the Grey Cup semifinals, with about four minutes left, I caught a screen pass and got tackled awkwardly. After all I’d been through, after feeling like I was finally gonna have my shot at the NFL, bad luck struck again. I broke my ankle. I had surgery to put in a plate and six screws. There was no way the Browns were gonna sign me now. I couldn’t even walk.
I remember sitting in the back of the ambulance in tears — not from the pain, but from being so close to the finish line and then being thrown another hurdle. I called my mom and I told her I was done. I couldn’t take the discouragement. I couldn’t take the disappointment. I couldn’t take the failure. She prayed for me, like she always does, but I was confused. Maybe all this was God’s way of showing me football wasn’t for me, I thought. Maybe everyone was right.
That night was by far the closest I’d ever been to throwing in the towel.
The Alouettes went on to win the Grey Cup, and they picked up my option in the offseason, so instead of going to Cleveland to an NFL camp, I was rehabbing my ankle and going back to Montreal. I had a job playing football, so no matter how frustrated I was, it didn’t make sense to turn down playing a game for a paycheck.
We won the Grey Cup again in 2010, and I had a pretty solid year despite getting limited time. So with two championships and some solid game tape from the CFL to add to my resume, I thought once again that I’d have a chance at making an NFL roster.
I took all my film — Browns camp, the Michael Irvin show, the CFL — and I made my own highlight video on YouTube and sent it to my agent to shop around to NFL teams. And it worked. Two teams called back requesting tryouts: the Rams and the Bengals.
I worked out for the Bengals first, and while I was on my way to St. Louis to work out for the Rams, the Bengals offered me my first NFL contract. I cried. With the exception of my son’s birth, I don’t think there’s a feeling that will ever top the way I felt at that moment. “Thank you, Jesus!” I thought.
But I also had to see the offer for what it really was: a long shot to actually make the team. The Bengals had Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens, Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell, Jordan Shipley — they were stacked at receiver. So I went on to work out for the Rams, where I thought I might have a better shot at making the team, and they offered me a contract, too. And I took it.
Finally, after all I’d been through — the ups and downs and the roller coaster of emotion — I signed an NFL contract. I was ready to begin my NFL career.
A month later, the 2011 NFL lockout hit.
Because of the lockout, I didn’t have a normal offseason of training or minicamps to build rapport with my teammates and coaches and prove myself. Players weren’t allowed to go to the facility or talk to coaches, so I went into training camp cold, brand new and still an unimpressive 5’6’’.
On the first day of practice, nobody talked to me. I wanted to let the staff know I was versatile, so I told the assistant special teams coach I could tackle and could play special teams. He just blew me off. My only interaction with the head coach was when I was playing cornerback on the scout team during a walkthrough, and he yelled at me for my shirt not being tucked in.
They cut me the very next morning.
It was creeping up on the fall of 2011, almost four years since I stood on that scale at 161 pounds and told myself I could make a run at the NFL, and I was back to square one without an NFL contract. I didn’t even last one day in the league. And during my pursuit of that dream, life started happening around me. My girlfriend was pregnant. Now, with a baby boy on the way, it wasn’t just about me. I was gonna have a family to support.
I called Marc Trestman, my Alouettes head coach, and told him I got cut. I told him about the baby and I told him that I wanted to come back. I had to have somewhere that I could earn a reliable income. He told me to take a couple of days and think about it, and if I still wanted to come back, he’d be glad to have me.
Next, I called a good friend, Lance Moore. He was a veteran wide receiver for the Saints, but I’d played with him in college at Toledo. He’d also traveled a tough road to the NFL, and when I told him my story, he walked right into the Saints GM’s office, vouched for me and told him they needed to give me a look.
Later that night, I got a call from Coach Trestman. He said he just got off the phone with the Saints. They’re probably gonna claim me off waivers. Once again, I thought to myself: This is my shot. This time, it’s real. I’m going to New Orleans. So I started packing my bags.
The next day, I got a call from my agent at around five o’clock. The Bengals and the Saints both claimed me off waivers, but the Bengals had the worse record, so they won the claim. So rather than New Orleans, I was heading to Cincinnati. Another opportunity, I thought. How many would I get? Could this be my last?
I had a good camp and played well in the preseason, but like I said before, the Bengals were already stacked at wide receiver. It was a numbers game, so they cut me and put me on the practice squad.
A lot of guys felt bad for me. They knew what I’d been through, and when I got put on the practice squad, they thought it would hit me pretty hard. But truth is, I was ecstatic. I finally had the chance to play for an NFL team, and the practice squad was a step in the right direction — definitely a step up from my CFL deal.
Plus, I had a baby on the way. I made $45,000 in my first year in the CFL and $55,000 the next year. For being on an NFL practice squad, I was getting paid close to $100,000. So while on the field it seemed like a step backwards to some, financially it was life-changing. I couldn’t have been happier.
But my goals hadn’t changed. My dream hadn’t changed. I just wanted to play one game in the NFL. That’s it. If I could just get there and play in one game, I’d know that I made the right decision to pursue that dream. All the ups and downs would have been worth it. I will have proved everybody wrong: the agents who didn’t sign me, the scouts who ignored me, the teams that cut me, the college coaches who didn’t put me on that list. Everybody. Just one game, and I’d be good.
I was only on the practice squad for two weeks when I got called into the coach’s office. Jordan Shipley injured his knee. I was promoted to the active roster.
It was finally my time, and I never looked back.
I played three seasons in Cincinnati, and before the 2014 season, I left the Bengals to sign a four-year, $13.6 million contract with the Cleveland Browns. Cleveland was always the place I thought I would end up. Time and time again, I was so close to being a Brown, and for reasons beyond my control it didn’t happen. And now here I am, the leading receiver for the Cleveland Browns, the one team that was there from the very start.
I still cry before every game. I wish I could put those feelings into words, but I can’t. As the tears run down my face, I think of everywhere I’ve been, everything I’ve overcome and everything God has brought me through. Now, I’m able to provide for my son in a way I never thought I could. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, despite the impossible odds, I achieved my dream. Yeah, I had to work the system a little bit along the way, but that agent, Craig Schaeffer, who bit on the bogus email? He’s still my agent today, and we have a good laugh about it nowadays. “If the one time I get duped in my life nets me almost half a million dollars and a great friend,” he jokes, “then I must be doing something right.”
So, if the question is: “Hawk, what does it take?”
My answer is: “Whatever it takes.”