3-18-01, 5:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
ORLANDO, Fla. _Like his father a generation before, Steelers President Dan Rooney had a chance meeting with Artrell Hawkins.
It was last week in the Steelers' new offices, when Hawkins had been offered a contract to play in what amounts to his hometown of Pittsburgh. But when Rooney was told Monday morning here at the NFL meetings that Hawkins was headed back to Cincinnati on a three-year deal, he smiled because he felt there had been loyalty on both sides.
"As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing wrong with that," Rooney said. "I really liked talking to him. An impressive guy. Cincinnati is where he ought to be."
Hawkins, who has started a star-crossed 48 games in four years at right cornerback, is coming back to the Bengals the old fashioned way. He wanted to even though the Raiders offered him more money in the first two years, the Vikings planned to make him a starter when they offered him an invitation to visit this Wednesday, and the playoff-perennial Steelers saw them in their long-term plans.
But hours after Hawkins got off an early Saturday morning flight from Oakland, Bengals director of pro/college personnel Duke Tobin consummated 24 hours of negotiations with agent Don Yee as Cincinnati jacked their offer to the level of interest. The Bengals felt securing Hawkins was the linchpin of their off-season plans because it allows them flexibility in the draft by retaining their most experienced cornerback.
Hawkins wouldn't reveal the numbers, but it's believed he got an average of about $1.8 million per year that included a $1.5 million signing bonus. Yet the ultimate number was two. As in the pair of coaches to whom Hawkins feels a sense of loyalty and gratitude: cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle and defensive coordinator Mark Duffner.
"I really think Duff and Kevin have this thing going in the right direction and I want to be a part of it for a long time to come," Hawkins said. "That was probably the No. 1 reason I wanted to stay. And I thought it was the best thing for my family. There doesn't seem to be much loyalty or integrity around, but I'd like to think I've got some."
After Oakland worked out Hawkins Friday, Raiders vice president Bruce Allen was stunned he opted for Cincinnati and actually made another call after the Raiders were told of the decision. But Allen also praised Hawkins' loyalty.
"The kid did a good job in the workout and we were interested in him," Allen said. "But to their credit
and to his credit, he wanted to be in Cincinnati. I don't know who their cornerbacks coach is, but that guy has done a great job because he wanted to be with him."
Coyle got the good word Monday morning in Los Angeles on a scouting trip to UCLA. While Hawkins has been a lightning rod through his career for the Bengals' often dreadful play in the secondary, Coyle thinks the best is yet to come after Hawkins responded with the best season of his career in tying a career high with three interceptions in 13 starts a year after he was benched.
"We're fortunate to get him because he's just started to come into his own and he's right there right now," Coyle said. "I was worried some other team was going to get that. I have a lot confidence in Artrell. After four years, he understands the nuances of the position better. And let's face it. Turn on tape and very few players hit and are as physical as Artrell Hawkins."
Although Hawkins is penciled in as the starting right cornerback opposite the inexperienced Kevin Kaesviharn at left cornerback, the Bengals have made no bones about pursuing other starting corners in free agency. Such as Jeff Burris of the Colts, Tampa Bay's Donnie Abraham and Arizona's Corey Chavous. And Hawkins is urging them to do so. He was uncomfortable with the Steelers telling him he would be a nickel back for a couple of years before he could become a starter, but he has no problems if he becomes the nickel in Cincinnati.
"You can never have enough corners," Hawkins said. "Getting a guy like Jeff Burris would help us. He's an experienced player and would make us better. If we sign one and draft one with the 10th pick, we'll be better. If one of them beats me out, so be it. I made my decision and I feel good about it."
Hawkins, a University of Cincinnati product, has lived in the town for nearly a decade and likes the city. It's close enough to his family in Johnstown, Pa., that he can do things like drive his younger brother back to college in Pennsylvania Sunday.
"We like our players to be loyal and we think we're loyal to them," said Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau. "Artrell got a good deal and we got a player who has made himself into a solid, starting cornerback in this league and we'd like to bring him to the top echelon. He's got people here who have been through the good times and the bad times with him."
Led by Duffner with an assist from Coyle, they hammered management to re-sign the club's most experienced cornerback before the cupboard was left bare with the 21 NFL starts among Kaesviharn, Mark Roman, and Robert Bean. Plus, the rehabbing Rodney Heath (hamstring tear) is a question mark.
Coyle pretty much ended up talking to Hawkins during the past week on their cell phones when each other was in an airport. Once Coyle got him when he was in Seattle visiting the Seahawks. Last Friday, Coyle was coming back from scouting in Gainesville, Fla., and Hawkins was coming back from Oakland and they touched base.
A chance airport meeting may have also helped the deal along. On Saturday morning, Troy Blackburn, the club's director of business development, bumped into Hawkins at the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport as he was headed here for the league meetings and Hawkins was just getting back from a red-eye flight from Oakland. Blackburn told him what everyone else had been telling him: "We want you back. Let's do it today."
Hawkins told Dan Rooney about the chance meeting he had with Art Rooney when he was a toddler and his father, Artrell Hawkins Sr., tried out for the Steelers. The late Rooney, the venerable owner of the Steelers known as "The Chief," bumped into the little Hawkins and his mother just outside his Three Rivers Stadium office and took the little guy on a tour before giving him an autographed baseball.
"I was so little I really don't remember or know what was going on," Hawkins said. "So the other day I asked (Dan) if that was his uncle, or his brother, or his father and he told me it was his Dad. It was nice to meet him, too."
But it wasn't enough to take him away from his hometown team. The Chief, one of the NFL's old-line loyalists, no doubt would have approved of the old-fashion deal.