On Thursday Night when the Browns team bus pulls up to Paul Brown Stadium, the chills will ring up and down Andrew Hawkins' back.
"It will be emotional," said Hawkins with a gleam in his eye on Tuesday.
For years, Hawkins worked odd jobs, late hours and entered a reality television show for football players clinging onto their dream of playing in the NFL. In 2011, the Cincinnati Bengals were the NFL team to stick their neck out on the line for the 5-foot-7 receiver. They crafted a role for him as a deep threat and a gadget player. Through HBO's Hard Knocks, a series following the Bengals during their 2013 training camp, Hawkins became a fan favorite not only in Cincinnati but across the country.
Times were good, mostly. The Bengals were constantly making the playoffs. Hawkins fought through injuries in 2012 and '13, but he still remained beloved by teammates, coaches and front office members he had befriended.
Akin to the stock brokers on Wall Street, the NFL is a business. When Hawkins became a restricted free agent in March of 2014, Cincinnati thought it was too steep to match Cleveland's four-year contract offer.
Finally given the opportunity to fully display his skill set as a go-to pass-catcher, Hawkins has not only received a passing grade, but rave reviews in Cleveland.
Hawkins is leading the Browns in both receptions (39) and yards (504), putting him on pace for 78 catches and more than 1,000 yards for the season. To compare, during his three seasons with the Bengals, Hawkins had 86 receptions for 996 yards with four touchdowns.
Fans are starting to tote his number 16 jersey while tailgating in the Muni Lot. Opposing safeties often have to shade much harder towards Hawkins' side to make sure he doesn't break free on a deep route. Eight games into the season, there hasn't been a more consistently dangerous threat on offense for the Browns. He's been worth every penny.
So it came as no surprise when there was a smidgen of remorse in the tone of Marvin Lewis' voice when Hawkins' former head coach was asked to spill his thoughts on the receiver.
"We know Andrew and how much heart and what a quality person and player he is," Lewis told Cincinnati reporters. "He's leading them in receiving, and I don't have to look at the program and see what number he is when I see him run. He's doing the dirty work for them. He's cutting off linemen on the backside. He's doing all the things we know Hawk can do."
Because of the way Hawkins approaches each week as its own mini season, he hasn't had much time to digest the magnitude of his return to Cincinnati. First place in the AFC North is on the line.
"Hats off to this team. We've been able to put ourselves in position to be in position," said Hawkins about the Browns. "I think we are just getting started and we have a lot of work to do, but no one is intimidated by that."
"The number one goal is to win the football game," continued Hawkins. "It does mean something extra. The Bengals gave me my first chance in the NFL, when no one else would… the history I have with them; you couldn't write a better story."
Hawkins has come up big before in the Battle of Ohio. In a 2012 Week 2 game at Paul Brown Stadium, he got open once Andy Dalton scrambled and juked four Browns defenders en route to a 50-yard touchdown, which was his first in the NFL.
The underlying story going into Thursday is that Hawkins is not 100 percent healthy. Two vicious hits in the Tampa Bay game have left Hawkins with a banged knee and thigh.
"I've been led to believe that it will be a game time decision," said coach Mike Pettine. "To me, if that's the case and you're betting on the kid, I'd be surprised if he...knowing him, if we leave it up to him, he'll go, just know the type of player that he is."
If it's up to Hawkins, expect him to give the Browns everything he's got – like he has every day he's been in the NFL.