Six years ago, Andrew Hawkins was living on a couch and working as a caddie. After clawing his way into the NFL, the speedy 5'7" receiver is now the Browns' top target.
The first person who told Andrew Hawkins he was too small to be on a football field wasn't a coach. It wasn't a trash-talking opposing player, either.
It was his own grandfather.
"My grandad, he did not want me to play football," says the Cleveland Browns wide receiver. "When I was in fifth grade, he bought me a set of golf clubs and paid for a year's worth of lessons from a golf pro. He sat me down and said, 'You're done playing football. You're too small, you're going to get hurt.' He loved me and was just trying to protect me. But I was so in love with football that it went in one ear and out the other."
The only time Hawkins used the clubs was to hit a few balls into the woods around his family's home.
Hawkins stuck with football, excelling at Bishop McCort High in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. But he still kept hearing people tell him he was too short. He went on one college visit and was told by a coach, "We already have one small guy on our team." The University of Toledo took a chance on him, and he had a solid four-year career. But when he tried to break into the pros, he had no luck finding a team that would give a chance to a player who barely stood 5'7" and weighed just 165 pounds.
He went so far as to stick a pair of weights in his pocket when he worked out for scouts at Toledo's pro day. "I wasn't doing it to be a first-round pick," says Hawkins. "All I wanted was to level the playing field. It was so frustrating that I was getting counted out before I even took the field."
Hawkins attended more workouts and tryout camps than he can remember, and he always had the same strategy. "I would go and see who they thought the best person was," he says. "And then I would wait around to make sure I went against them. I'd make it a point to make sure everyone who was watching knew I was the better of the two."
Hawkins usually was the better player, but he was still passed over by teams in the NFL, the Canadian Football League, and the Arena Football League. Things got so bad he spent time living on a friend's couch and working as a caddie at a golf course.
His big break finally came in 2008, when he appeared on a reality TV show called 4th and Long. The prize was a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys. Hawkins didn't win, but his impressive performance helped get him a job in the CFL. After two productive seasons, he was picked up by the Cincinnati Bengals. In March 2014 he signed a four-year contract with the Browns worth $13.6 million. Last year he was the team's leading receiver. He had 63 catches, and his 824 yards were the third most in NFL history by a player 5'7" or shorter.
His advice to smaller players is simple: "There are going to be people your whole life who tell you you can't do something. So you have to believe in yourself and outwork everyone else."
Photo: Bill Frakes for Sports Illustrated