There was a moment Tuesday that gripped Andrew Hawkins as the Browns wide receiver met with lawmakers and officials in Washington D.C.
On one of the walls inside the White House was a photo of a meeting between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and former president Lyndon B. Johnson that helped launched the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
"To see that," Hawkins said, "just walking in those historic hallways and realizing all the history that you learned about and you are like, literally in the same space as them. It was a surreal moment.
"It's kind of like — and I say it all the time — being able to put on the same helmet as (former Browns and Hall of Fame running back) Jim Brown. That's a big deal, and I know we get caught up that 'Oh yeah, everyone who puts it on every year,' but it's a privilege. When you get to be in the presence of greatness like that, you have to appreciate it."
Hawkins might now be able to help shape history as he and Browns quarterback Josh McCown were among five NFL players who climbed Capitol Hill to discuss social justice reform with congressmen and women, including House Speaker Paul Ryan. "It's kind of our way to take it to the next step in this situation because it is something that affects the entire country," said Hawkins, who has established himself as an active member of the Cleveland community. "It's something that's important to me and the other guys that were down there."
Hawkins and McCown both described the meetings as a productive "open dialogue," where hopes and concerns were exchanged. "That's the idea," McCown said, "to just see where it's at and to see what kind of conversations are happening. Obviously, as professional athletes, you have a certain influence and it is what you can do to help continue the progress being made to bring people together because these issues are tough."
"The most encouraging thing … I think it was the willingness of all the congress to hear us out, to be open with us and really just be open and committed to changing things for the better, republican and democrat," Hawkins added.
Browns head coach Hue Jackson lauded the pair — who joined Lions receiver Anquan Boldin, Eagles cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and Lions safety Glover Quin —for using their sway as professional athletes in a meaningful way.
"I think that you're talking about two young men on our team that I have a lot of respect for, who I think have a voice in that locker room, that when they come back, there are messages that they can bring back. I think that they both really enjoyed their experience," Jackson said.
"They had asked me about this well in advance the other day and I was totally for it because what a tremendous opportunity for them to have a voice in some serious issues that are going on. And for them to learn different ways that we are trying to do things better. They will carry that message into our locker room with our younger players. They are two guys that I think our guys look up to."
Boldin, a 14-year veteran and the league's 2015 Walter Payton Man of the Year, extended invitations to his four counterparts because they're "all guys who are well respected in the league and who have the same goal in mind as myself," he told ESPN.com.
McCown, who played with Boldin for three seasons in Arizona, said he maintains a close friendship with his former teammate.
"We have this relationship where, when he calls I am going. I say yes, let us go, and we will figure out the details later," he said. "But, I just have so much respect for who he is as a man and what he is about that when he shot me the text that said he wanted to talk to me about some stuff, it was a no brainer for me."
Hawkins, a Columbia graduate student and NFLPA player representative who has used his platform as a pro athlete before, spoke of something of an obligation to the community.
"I don't care where you are from. Working in your community is an important part. That's something that I have done for a long time," he said.
"I think the guys that were there have done it for a long time. A lot of guys in this locker room have done it for a long time. It's something that we will continue to do."
The next step, he said, is "just trying to understand why. That was the main focus of the trip yesterday was information. For them to inform us and for us to inform them what we thought.
"I feel like there is an openness everywhere. It is just a matter of connecting the dots. So many times you get caught up in thinking you are either on this side or that side, I am right, you are wrong and that is not productive, said Hawkins, adding he's met with Cleveland police chief Calvin Williams to focus on the discussion locally.
"That's not progressive and, honestly, not the reality. So, if everybody loving the game of football can bring people together or hear people out, or make a republican and democrat sit down and have a conversation, or have police and community do an event, then like I said, that's our responsibility. That is what we need to do."
Asked if he was nervous to address members of congress, Hawkins offered a smile and laughed.
"No," he quipped. "Nerves is third-and-6 in the fourth quarter in front of 75,000 people. That's where nerves kick in. This is light work."
Light work, perhaps. But this was heavy stuff.