On Sunday Cincinnati Bengals wideout Andrew Hawkins caught a pass and ran 50 yards for his professional life. The run began after a 10-yard throw from Andy Dalton. In truth, it started five years, three teams, one reality show and a bunch of failed tryouts ago.
We'll get back to that little ballet, so symbolic of the run Hawkins has made to reach the NFL. First, a little background.
For some players, the NFL is a leather briefcase. For others, it arrives in a brown bag. "I was just praying for a chance,'' Hawkins said this week.
Lots of prayers. Lots of time for praying. Five years' worth.
Hawkins prayed while sleeping on a friend's couch for several months in 2008 and 2009, after working a 16-hour shift at a wind-turbine factory in Toledo. He prayed before the Cleveland Browns invited him to a rookie minicamp the following spring, and he prayed after they cut him. He was appropriately grateful when the Detroit Lions gave him a job, even if it was as an intern in their personnel department. The Lions thought Hawkins would make a fine scout.
When Michael Irvin invited him to be one of 12 finalists on his reality TV show,
The winner would get a contract with the Dallas Cowboys. Hawkins finished second. He was thankful for the opportunity. He went to play football in Canada.
Two years later, when Hawkins signed with the St. Louis Rams, he prayed that this would be his time. He prayed again, through tears, when the Rams let him go after one practice.
"I'm a very spiritual person,'' he said.
So was Job.
Maybe the view from the top of the mountain is better when you start on the ground floor. Hawkins might be on a high today, after that 50-yard TD catch against the Browns. It wasn't long ago he was sweeping floors in a factory. That was at night, usually. During the day, Hawkins caddied at Inverness, a posh country club in Toledo.
Hawkins attended the University of Toledo, where he was a productive player, a three-year starter, at least until third-down-and-long, when his coach would take him out "for a taller receiver.'' Hawkins is 5-foot-7.
He was so desperate to play more, Hawkins volunteered to return kicks and play cornerback. His senior year, he did both. Needless to say, when his college career ended, no NFL teams called. That's when his odyssey began.
He slept on a couch. His closet was the shelf above the washer and dryer. He swept floors, he carried golf clubs, he served as a grad assistant to Toledo's receivers. He finished his degree.
The Browns called the following spring. Hawkins went to the rookie minicamp and did well enough that he was told he would be signed. "The days and months go by, and you never hear anything,'' Hawkins says.
The Browns went the proverbial "different direction.'' They signed a linebacker.
Hawkins kept working. His former defensive backs coach at Toledo had joined the Lions. He got Hawkins the internship. Hawkins watched the players on the field, and felt he was as good as or better than any of them. Offered a long-term internship that likely would have led to a full-time job as a scout, he turned it down.
Back on the couch, he saw the ad for Irvin's TV show. He put together a video of his highlights, from college and at the Cleveland minicamp. He added some of his back story. What football reality show wouldn't want a part-time caddie and sweeper of factory floors?
"I sent them 20 copies of that tape,'' Hawkins laughs. Three weeks later, he was in Los Angeles, one of 60 hopefuls. He made that cut, but eventually lost out to another wideout, Jesse Holley.
Hawkins then went to Canada, a favored spot for all NFL dreamers. He won consecutive Grey Cups with Montreal, catching passes from all-time CFL passing leader Anthony Calvillo - "the Brett Favre of the CFL,'' Hawkins says - and learning from coach Marc Trestman.
At the end of his first season with the Alouettes, the Browns again expressed interest. During the last game of the season, just after the Browns called, Hawkins broke his ankle.
In January 2011, the Bengals asked him to work out. Hawkins knew the area. His older brother, Artrell, had played at the University of Cincinnati, and was a Bengals' second-round draft pick. He did well enough at the workout, Cincinnati wanted to sign him. He held off: The Rams had called, too. He headed to St. Louis, for yet another audition.
The Rams offered him a contract. Hawkins signed it. The Bengals had Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, and a few other NFL-worthy receivers. "The Rams didn't have anybody,'' Hawkins recalls.
The lockout hit. By the time it ended, the Rams had drafted two wideouts and signed a few more. "The little guy from the CFL was the low man on the totem pole,'' Hawkins says. The Rams cut him on the first day of camp.
More prayers. The man's knees were getting sore.
"Another workout, another failure. Every time I'm on the cusp, something happens,'' Hawkins recalls thinking. "I've come to this point so many times. Is it worth it? I don't know. Maybe it's not meant to be.''
The Bengals claimed Hawkins off waivers. They didn't have Ocho or T.O. anymore. They had a rookie quarterback and a rookie offensive coordinator. When Jordan Shipley was lost early in the year, they needed a slot receiver. Finally, Hawkins would get a chance.
Coaches can't teach whatever it is that makes Andrew Hawkins run. Agility and quickness are in the DNA, or not. You can't coach a receiver to be 6-5 or, in Hawkins' case, 5-7. Nor, if you are a coach, can you let a player's stature define him.
On Sunday, in the third quarter of a close game, Andy Dalton scrambled to the right, looking, looking. . .
He saw Hawkins slightly to his left. He threw back across his body. Hawkins made the catch, 10 yards away, "in space,'' as the NFL types like to say. For the first time in his football life, Hawkins had some room.
He cut right, then left, back over the middle and across the field. Five years of what had seemed like aimless running, coming together on one play.
Hawkins reached the end zone untouched. It was his first NFL touchdown. The play was a SportsCenter highlight for two days. Few watching knew it was five years in the making.
"All those things happened for a reason,'' Hawkins says.
"Pieces of my puzzle,'' he calls them. From the Browns minicamp, he got some video. From the reality show, some exposure. From Canada, the experience of Calvillo and the smarts of Trestman. From all of it, validation that good things happen to people of faith.
"I keep my dreams to myself,'' he says. "That way, people can't shoot them down.
"I've been to the other side. I came in the back way. Every game is a blessing. There's a thin line between starting in the NFL and working in a factory. One bad decision and I'm on the wrong end of it.''
He had 23 catches last year, 10 already this year. Very likely, Hawkins' size will limit his role. Hawkins isn't Rudy, but he's not Calvin Johnson, either. If he stays healthy, he will make a nice living and live his dream. He will leave knowing that he earned it all.