Andrew Hawkins' adrenaline was pumping. Whatever pain he should have been feeling at the time wasn't registering.
Hawkins felt ready to play against his old team in front of the fans who watched him grow into a reliable weapon out of the slot during the previous three seasons. This was a homecoming in which Hawkins wanted to be a participant, not a bystander.
Ultimately, the storybook return wasn't meant to be. Nursing a thigh injury, Hawkins watched from the sidelines last month as the Browns trounced the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium in front of a nationally televised, Thursday night audience.
The short week of rest, nature of the injury and his importance to the Browns' future plans worked against Hawkins on that night. On Sunday, fully healthy as the Browns prepare for their final regular season home game, he'll get to reunite with a number of his former teammates on the field in front of his new fans at FirstEnergy Stadium.
"It was tough. It was a tough situation," Hawkins said. "Everything happens for a reason and I'm glad everything kind of transpired the way it did. Now we're going into this game and hopefully I'll be able to do something to give our team the edge."
In hindsight, the decision to rest was the right one, Hawkins said. It's the only game he's missed and he returned in a big way the following week, catching six passes for 97 yards and a touchdown in a losing effort against the Houston Texans.
He joked Friday outside of the locker room the Browns clearly didn't need him the first time against the Bengals, as Cleveland dominated from the start en route to a 24-3 victory. Now, with veteran Miles Austin out for the season and rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel making his first career start, the Browns need a veteran with playoff experience like Hawkins more than ever heading down this stretch of must-win games.
"It will be cool to play against so many guys I know, the organization that gave me my first chance. Beyond that, my main focus is winning," Hawkins said. "It's special for me just so I can try to help the Cleveland Browns get a W here. They took a chance on me just like the Bengals did, and I'm just as gracious to the Cleveland Browns. It's special from the sense that I get to represent somebody that took a chance on me and hopefully make good on it."
After two seasons in the Canadian Football League, Hawkins arrived in Cincinnati for the 2011 season. So did quarterback Andy Dalton, who made his rookie starting debut at FirstEnergy Stadium in a season-opening victory against the Browns.
Chemistry with a rookie requires time, Hawkins said, and there's no way to rush it. The key to success, he said, is simply support.
"It's rallying around him," Hawkins said. "Do whatever you have to do to help him play loose and know no matter what you got his back."
Dalton didn't run much and neither did Brian Hoyer, who quarterbacked the Browns to seven wins but struggled over the past month. Manziel became one of college football's top quarterbacks during his two seasons at Texas A&M because of his ability to scramble, and scramble, and scramble before locating one of his receivers for a big gain.
One of the most famous plays of Manziel's career involved a slot receiver such as Hawkins. After bobbling the ball near the line of scrimmage, Manziel darted away from Alabama defenders and rolled to his left in a 2012 game the Aggies would ultimately win in an upset. Because of all of the chaos at the line of scrimmage, slot receiver Ryan Swope was able to find yards of room in the middle of the end zone and wait for Manziel to see him. Manziel threw a strike on the run and Swope had one of the easiest touchdowns of his career.
Hawkins knows those kind of plays don't happen every time with Manziel -- even though his highlight reels indicate otherwise -- but he'll be ready when they do.
"I always say the best thing you can give a wide receiver is time," Hawkins said. "Playing with Johnny is no different. He's a guy that can extend plays. The longer you give a receiver to work, the harder it is for the defensive back to cover."