As Andrew Hawkins walked through the doors of the Cleveland Browns’ headquarters to sign his free-agent contract last week, his thoughts immediately moved in another direction, all the way back to the spring of 2008.
Hawkins remembered the extremely humbling path he had followed to landing a multi-million-dollar deal to fill a key role as a slot receiver for the Browns.
“It was a fight, to say the least, to get to this point,” he said.
It started with Hawkins arriving well ahead of schedule for the start of the Browns’ 2008 rookie minicamp, during which he would have the opportunity to convince the team’s decision-makers they should give him a contract.
The Browns were the only NFL club offering what, at the time, felt like a last chance to fulfill his life’s dream. Yet, on that spring morning, there would be more waiting.
“I couldn’t get in,” Hawkins recalled. “I was really early, so I had to wait like 20 minutes for someone to come let me into the door.”
It would be a sign of things to come.
“When I came in, I really didn’t know what to expect,” Hawkins said. “I knew they had some draft picks, they had some guys they signed. They had a bunch of other guys trying out that obviously had higher grades than me.”
Still, Hawkins thought he gave a strong showing during minicamp practices. He was feeling confident he had done enough to earn a spot on the roster the Browns would take to training camp in the summer.
In fact, he remembered that Phil Savage, the Browns’ general manager at the time, pulling him aside and saying, “Listen, we’re going to try to sign you this week.”
“Then, your expectation goes up a little more,” Hawkins said. “So you start getting excited.”
But there never would be a contract offer. “Then, the weeks turned into months,” he said. “And the months turned into ...”
In the summer, Hawkins interned as a scout with the Detroit Lions, working with them through training camp. The Lions offered him a long-term position in their player-personnel department, but Hawkins turned them down, intent on pursuing a playing career.
He returned to Toledo to finish his work toward a degree. He also took a part-time job as assistant receivers coach for the football team.
In addition, Hawkins worked at a wind-turbine factory that manufactured engines for giant windmills. He did everything from operating a forklift to sweeping floors. Hawkins spent the following summer caddying at a golf course.
In 2009, his football-playing dreams were rekindled when he joined the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. In two seasons, Hawkins helped them to back-to-back Grey Cup championships.
Hawkins would sign with the St. Louis Rams in 2011, but he was waived early in their training camp. The Cincinnati Bengals claimed him off waivers, and Hawkins would go on to establish himself as a dependable and explosive slot receiver, catching a career-high 51 passes for 533 yards and four touchdowns in 2012.
“You’ve got to believe,” he said. “I can count on one hand how many people honestly thought I would go to the NFL. And the people who did, it dwindled as the circumstances got even worse.”
After the 2013 season, Hawkins became a restricted free agent. The Browns offered him a contract, the Bengals didn’t match it, and that led to his return to where it all began for him in 2008.
“You just have to keep working and believe,” Hawkins said. “I just felt like the work is what’s most important. And I just felt I continued to get better, and the rest is history.”
For Hawkins, all it took to relive it was to walk through the doors of the Browns’ headquarters.
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