The little kid and the old man

10-4-01, 10:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The old man saw the little kid sitting with his mother in the lobby and couldn't resist.

The old man asked his mother if he could take the kid into his office. She let him, and so he showed the four-year-old all kinds of baseball gloves and old pictures.

The kid didn't really know what a baseball mitt was. But he remembered when the old man took him into the rainy, empty stadium called Three Rivers and how he thought it was the biggest place he had ever seen.

Then the old man gave him a ball. And the little kid still has it because, "The Chief," which is what Steelers fans called their beloved owner, wrote, "Hope one day you will be a star," and signed it, "Art Rooney."

Which is why Sunday means something to Artrell Hawkins. The little kid from Johnstown, Pa., about 60 miles from where Three Rivers once stood, returns to Pittsburgh as the Bengals starting right cornerback for the opening game of Heinz Field, the successor to Three Rivers built by the late Chief's son, Dan Rooney.

"I've never talked to him," said Hawkins of the current Steelers president. "But I think it was pretty prophetic what his Dad wrote. I'm still writing the story. It's still going on. Maybe I'll be a star again in the Steelers' stadium. At least for that day. It doesn't mean much to us as a team opening the stadium, but it's an honor for me after growing up in Steeler country."

The last time Hawkins came to town, he had just been benched and didn't play much at all in the Bengals'

last game ever at Three Rivers Stadium last October. Now he's back and playing more like the Bengals thought he would when they took him in the second round out of the University of Cincinnati in 1998.

In the 28-14 loss to San Diego, he had a missed tackle or two when he failed to judge Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson's speed to the corner. And he did play softer than designed on one third-down pass that quarterback Doug Flutie converted, but cornerbacks coach Kevin Coyle said Hawkins was the best and most consistent of his players last Sunday.

And that he's been solid forcing the run and playing the ball in the past two games. After breaking a drought of 34 games without an interception, Hawkins is the only corner with one this year.

"Since the opening game, he's graded high," Coyle said. "In the first game, I think he was trying too hard and overreacting on some plays and trying to do too much. But the last couple of weeks he's settled down."

Hawkins, more focused and less distracted, is now ignoring the public criticism that has already started about soft coverage. Hawkins doesn't deny that Flutie beat the Bengals with some passes. But it was mostly against zones that don't call for press coverages.

"If we're playing fire zones, that's not press coverages," Hawkins said. "It works with everything else in the defense. If we're playing man-to-man, we have the option to press or not to press. But if it's a zone defense, you have to play what the defense calls for."

The key to Hawkins' revival can be seen in the number of tickets he's leaving at Will Call Sunday. He wanted to leave just 10 tickets, which would go to his mother, grandfather, niece and brothers and sisters and that's it.

"I'm not going to do things to appease all kinds of people," said Hawkins, who ditched his cell phone and pager during the offseason to put off all the people who wanted a piece of him. "But my mom really wanted 10 extra tickets. So I'm leaving 20."

Twenty tickets at Will Call is virtually nothing in the NFL. Remember, this is a week after Bengals quarterback Akili Smith left 180 in his hometown of San Diego.

Aletha Haselrig-Jones, Hawkins' mother, thinks her son is more relaxed this season.

"He's come to realize that the only thing that really matters is what he feels instead of what other people are thinking," Jones said. "I think he understands what truly matters is that he knows he has done his best."

If anyone knows how serious they take football in Pittsburgh, it's Jones. Her brother once played for the Steelers. Artrell's father, Artrell Hawkins Sr., played college football at the University of Pittsburgh. In fact, his son's first football memory is in the Panthers' locker room.

"I remember a bunch of naked men passing me around to my father and I remember I thought that was pretty strange," Hawkins said. "I didn't know any of those guys."

The day Art Rooney signed a ball for Artrell Hawkins Jr., the Steelers signed Artrell Hawkins Sr., to a free-agent contract. His father didn't make it with the Steelers, but the little kid remembered when they drove back to Johnstown that day, they went out to dinner to celebrate.

"Doesn't that say so much about Art Rooney?" Jones asked. "I didn't appreciate it as much at the time. But imagine him spending so much time with a child."

Maybe it just has something to do with football and Pittsburgh and the passion.

"I'm going to be rooting for the Bengals because Artrell is playing," Jones said. "But it's a double thrill because it's also watching the Steelers. That's the Western Pennsylvania mind set."

Only in Pittsburgh. On Sunday, Art Rooney's little kid gets to help open the stadium of Art Rooney's son.

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