Three years ago Andrew Hawkins worked in a factory where they built engines for windmills and he drove a forklift as well as cleaned out the weeds and sludge while sweeping the storeroom for $9.50 an hour.
"I'd work from nine in the morning to midnight sometimes," Hawkins says. "After eight hours it would be double time. Hardest job I ever had."
Now he is jousting at windmills as a rookie receiver for the Bengals, an NFL Don Quixote at 5-7, 175-pounds pursuing America's 21st century Impossible Dream. He played his first game Sunday against the Bills and after his first touch on the second snap, a-who-is-that-and-look-at-him-go-25-yard-dash on a receiver screen, that's what he was thinking about when he came back to the sidelines.
"That," he says of those days in Toledo, Ohio, "and getting back in the game again."
Those were the days after he caught 67 balls in four years at Toledo while also playing cornerback and couldn't get a tryout in an indoor league in America or the outdoor loop in Canada. So he worked at the factory and as a caddie at a country club while sleeping on the couch of Steve Williams before he went back to school in the fall to finish his degree while coaching Williams and the rest of the Toledo receivers.
He's got a big brother nearly 10 years older that made the big time as an NFL defensive back for the Bengals among others, but it wasn't very often Andrew asked Artrell Hawkins for help.
"Don't get me wrong, if I was really desperate, I knew he was there," Andrew says. "But I remember when he left high school and went to college, he said it was time to be on his own and not rely on help from home and that's something he taught me."
Now it is Monday after that first game, his 25th birthday, and Andrew is coming off a day where he also worked on the punt cover team at the all-important gunner position running on the edge, as well as on punt block. He is headed for a birthday cold tub with his playbook, his devotional, and his personal bible. *Perseverance *written by his head coach in the CFL, Marc Trestman.
"It's the second time I've read it. I like to re-read certain parts," Hawkins says. "We got pretty close up there and reading the book is like being there talking to him."
"How is he doing?" asks Trestman from Montreal, where he is trying to lead the Alouettes to a third straight Grey Cup. "He's a high character young man. Low maintenance. Tremendous person. Everything a coach would want in a player. He's like family to us. That kind of guy."
How is he doing? Here's a guy that has already had an internship in an NFL front office (the Lions) and coached one of Hawkins's teammates (running back Bernard Scott in the Texas vs. The Nation college all-star game) and has already figured out a caddie's creed is much like life on the fringe of the NFL.
"Say as little as possible," he says, "and be very polite."
But what Hawkins really wanted was an NFL shot like his brother that had a second-round body.
"I bet we had the same shuttle times and 40-yard times when we came out of college," Artrell says. "But I was the one closer to six feet."
Big speed, though. Make-you-miss speed like the Bills discovered. Yet it would take a while before Andrew Hawkins and Trestman hooked up because Hawkins had to persevere first. He got a tryout with the Browns in an April minicamp of 2009 and after they told him he was impressive and they were going to sign him, they signed a linebacker.
"Size came up," Andrew Hawkins says. "I asked them if I could have a tape of my camp so I could send it out to NFL teams and to Canada, but they wouldn't give it to me. I kept calling, I kept writing. Finally a guy that I knew got a job with them and helped me out."
Hawkins is used to working the phones, email and texts like so much spam. After his senior year he didn't get invited to any bowl games even though he personally got in touch with all the directors trying to get on the rosters. He didn't get a spot, but the next year the guy at the Texas vs. The Nation game remembered him and asked him to coach, which is how he ended up coaching Scott.
Then came a bizarre opportunity to try out for the Cowboys via a reality TV show and by the time his runner-up bid ended, his bootleg tape had ended up in Montreal.
"I got up there late and there was a lot of competition and I was inactive the first part of the year," Hawkins says. "But Coach Trestman stuck with me and I started to play the second half of the year."
This was 2009 and it could never be easy, could it? He broke his ankle in the game Montreal won to go to the Grey Cup, which reminded Artrell of how Andrew broke his ankle playing in a big-time rivalry game in their hometown of Johnstown, Pa. during his senior year. By then Artrell was playing for the Bengals and he brought him back to Cincinnati to get surgery on the ankle.
"As down as I've ever seen him," Artrell Hawkins says. "He thought that game would be his best shot to get a Division I scholarship. It didn't happen. He got some Division I-AA offers from places like Lehigh, but he turned them down. He wanted Division I, so he went to an April high school combine and ended up getting non-traditional scholarship offers from Toledo, Ohio and Louisville.
"That's what I think about when I think about him making it through all this. He felt like he had a chance playing in that game, and then he got hurt."
But like he did then, Andrew rehabbed successfully in Montreal and came back to catch 28 balls for 326 yards and two touchdowns in 2010 and then got signed by the Rams.
But not before he worked out for the Bengals in the chill of Paul Brown Stadium just three days after the season ended. Head coach Marvin Lewis, just off re-upping his contract, was on hand, as well as scouts.
"I remember the date. January fifth. I thought it went well," Hawkins says. "That was a big thing because my brother played there and I can't tell you how many games I've watched in here."
But since this is the Windmill Man, there had to be something more to joust in St. Louis. How about the lockout? Hawkins couldn't show the Rams coaches his speed and tenacity because he couldn't show. After their first practice, they cut him.
"But I had a good practice," Hawkins says. "It was numbers."
Numbers like 5-7, 175. But the Bengals remembered the workout and had watched the tape from Montreal and claimed him. So did the Saints with their corps of high-powered receivers from nowhere named Lance Moore and Marques Colston.
"I couldn't believe how well it worked out," Andrew Hawkins says. "It was like coming home."
Another guy that couldn't believe his luck was Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons. Here was a guy who flew downfield in Canada on kicks that could not only run, but hit like the flu. Not only that, he wanted to do it. Not only that, he did anything else Simmons asked.
Which is how against Carolina in the preseason Hawkins ended up returning his first punt since high school. Try a plus-30. If the Bengals ever give Brandon Tate a break on punts, the next man up could be the Johnstown Jet.
"This is a guy that realizes what it's like to get a chance. He plays like he's been through a lot," Simmons says. "He's professional, he's passionate, he prepares, he's been everything you could ask. He should be a role model for every guy we've got."
Hawkins caught on to the practice squad and then like it so often does, the pain of injury twisted fate to him. When wide receiver Jordan Shipley went down with a season-ending ACL two weeks ago, Hawkins was promoted to the roster but inactive that first week. When the Bengals opted to go heavy on special teams last Sunday to track the dangerous Bills tandem of C.J. Spiller on punts and Brad Smith on kicks, they dressed Hawkins while putting down another rookie receiver, sixth-rounder Ryan Whalen.
Don't think it isn't lost on Simmons that Buffalo had a total of 23 return yards in the Bengals 23-20 victory. And Hawkins got two more than that on his receiver screen.
"I couldn't help it. I was in the press box and when he made that run, I jumped up and started to cheer," says Artrell Hawkins, an analyst for the Bengals radio network.
He has been cheering a long time for his brother.
Once when he was about 13, which would have made Andrew about three, Artrell was holding his hand walking down the street. They couldn't see an intersection because of a building and Andrew let go and bolted off the curb before he knew it. Artrell's heart sank because there were no lights or stop sign and cars were whizzing by at 40 miles per hour.
Andrew leaped back on the sidewalk, but a car still managed to somehow give his hand a glancing blow. The lady pulled over when she saw what she did, but no one could believe nothing got hit but the hand.
"He's still that quick," Artrell says. "The only difference between us is size. And I think he can pay some corner, too."
Right now, it seems like his brother is going to be asked to do a little bit of everything. He's catching kicks in practice just in case. He's a slot receiver, but he's the kind of guy that quickly picks up all the positions. Maybe he's active and catches a 25-yard pass. Maybe he gets cut again. Maybe he ends up on the practice squad.
It beats nine bucks an hour.
Andrew Hawkins is texting again. Not for a job this time. But for something for his story.
"Can you make sure you say that 'without God I wouldn't have had the strength to keep pushing?' ''
He laughs when asked if it bothers him that his brother got the size.
"No, he can have the size. I'll take the underdog story," Andrew Hawkins says.
Start with the windmills.