Flight of the Hawk: Andrew Hawkins
When an undrafted 5-foot-7 wide receiver still finds a way to become a starter in the NFL, he can’t let bigger, stronger guys keep him down. He also can’t let the word “no” defeat him either. Despite being told “no” at so many points along his career, Andrew Hawkins found a way to succeed well beyond football. He’s carving out a post-athletic career that would make an All-Pro feel downright envious.
Hawkins, or Hawk as everyone knows him, always had an eye towards life after football. Before his football career ended, he began attending classes at Columbia University to receive a master’s degree in sports management. Hawkins also parlayed earlier appearances on ESPN’s SportsCenter on Snapchat into a new contract with the network that will continue to develop his presence on ESPN’s digital platforms and radio stations, while securing regular appearances on the network’s top shows such as First Take and NFL Live.
“As someone who grew up in the digital age, I think there is a way bigger upside working on ESPN’s digital platforms,” Hawkins says. “People who are young now aren’t going to be young forever. If I can stake a claim with 15-to-25-year-old sports fans now, in 10 years, those will be the main consumers.”
For Hawkins, being on ESPN digital is a perfect fit for what he is looking for in a new career. “You expect things to be creative in the internet age,” he says. “There is a certain standard of creativity online. You have to be an innovator to make headway in the digital space. Who wouldn’t want to be innovative?”
Hawkins needed to be innovative just to find his way to the NFL. As a college player at the University of Toledo, Hawkins played both wide receiver and cornerback, the first two-way player at the school in nearly five decades. After going undrafted, Hawkins played two years in the Canadian Football League, winning two Grey Cup championships. In 2011, he finally broke through to the NFL, signing with the Cincinnati Bengals, playing there for three years before becoming a starting wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns.
“As an athlete, I didn’t take anything for granted,” Hawkins says. “It’s not because I’m better than anybody else. It’s because I never thought I would get the opportunities to do the things that I’ve done or the things that I’m doing now. My biggest fear in life is getting an opportunity that I’m not prepared for. So I wanted to work my way up from the bottom, put the work hours in. Because once I get there, not only do I want to feel like I deserve that opportunity, I want to be prepared for it. As an athlete, that’s what you need to do for your sport. That doesn’t change once you get to the other side of the playing field. You have to have the same approach.”
As a player, Hawkins would reach out to anyone whose work he admired to let them know how he felt about them. “If I’m impressed with somebody, I have no problem reaching out to them to tell them that, whether it was music, or movies or YouTube channels,” he says. “My connection to them is nothing more than that. I know if you’re doing something good and you are passionate about it. I know what positive encouragement can do for the long term. In doing that, I’ve made a lot of connections along the way.”
During his time in Cleveland, Hawkins became fascinated by how Maverick Carter was helping LeBron James expand his business interests. “When I signed with Cleveland Browns in 2014, I texted everyone I knew, hounding them to get connected with Maverick,” he says. “I could see the things they were getting involved in. You could see how smart they were in what they were doing. When I finally got a hold of him, I said ‘Hey, I just want to shadow you. I don’t care if it’s a day, a week, a month, an internship, it can be anything.’ He’s like, ‘Dude, you’re a starting receiver for the Cleveland Browns. What do you mean you want to be an intern?’ At the time, I was just starting school at Columbia to get my master’s degree. He said, ‘Look, if your serious about it, we could use you in LA at our new media property, Uninterrupted.’ I said, ‘Done deal.’ Picked up my family, moved to Los Angeles, interned there for four months.”
During his time in LA, Hawkins saw the inner workings of the company up close and from the bottom up. “Maverick and LeBron are disrupters,” he says. “You can’t measure the benefit of being able to do something new like that with them. I learned how they use leverage to move things forward. I learned a lot at Columbia about business, but everything I’ve learned from Maverick has been as much or even more beneficial to me. They could have told me to make copies all day, and I would have done it just to soak in all that knowledge.”
Rather than having him make copies, Maverick and LeBron decided to hire Hawkins to become director of business development for a few of their companies, including Springhill Entertainment. While being an NFL player might have helped Hawkins be noticed more than the average person, it was the tenacity he brought to becoming a football player that allowed him to be seen.
“All the times I’ve reached out to people in business, that’s the same approach I had to take to get to the NFL,” Hawkins says. “Those same emails I’m writing to people that don’t get returned, I was doing those to coaches. I was tracking down Jerry Jones at the combine to try to get on a reality show as a way to get to the NFL. I’ve been told no so many times that I’ve become immune to it. It’s the blessing of being a 5-foot-7 wide receiver. ‘No’ doesn’t affect me anymore. If I write someone, and they don’t respond or tell me ‘no,’ I prefer the ‘no,’ because now I have an answer, so I can move on. ‘No’ is temporary. You can see the vision now or see it later, the choice is yours. If you don’t see the need to meet with me now. It’s ok, we’ll get connected eventually when you do see the value of the meeting.”
Hawkins has seen other players return to the real world unprepared for what’s next. For him, it’s not a question of what he wants to do, but when he wants to do it. Right now, he’s focused on what he’s passionate about right now. “There are things I want to do in the media space, the entertainment space, in business, in tech,” he says. “I’m not going to limit myself to one thing. Just because other people aren’t doing them doesn’t mean I should limit myself. If I can devote the time and energy to them and leave them in a better place than when I started, why shouldn’t I give it a shot?”
This also includes his new podcast, The Thomahawk Show which is an odd couple pairing of the 5-foot-7 Hawkins and his 6-foot-7 former teammate and future Hall of Famer, Joe Thomas. “O-linemen and wide receivers usually don’t mix well,” Hawkins says. “When we were toward the end of our careers, we were two of the four guys that were over 30 on the team. Even though we are water and oil, the thing that blended us was that we were old (laughs). All the receivers were 22, 23 years old. I was 32 with 3 kids. Joe and I connected in that way because we were from a different generation and had a different way of doing things. We started to do the podcast together and it started to take off. I’m continuing to build a platform that is true to me.”
Hawkins feels if there is one thing people can learn from him that will help them succeed, it’s that perseverance and humility will get you a long way—even to the NFL. “Once you decide in your mind that there’s nothing you’re not willing to do in the boundaries of your ethics to reach your goal, that’s where you find your way,” he says. “That’s what became my calling card. ‘Hawk is going to show up. Nothing is too small for him.’ When I got involved with something, I was always going to leave it better than the way I found it. Once I realized I had that in my back pocket, I had no fear about writing those emails, reaching out to people, and making those contacts. I’m always going to work as hard as I can. I’m not going to count myself out. That’s for other people to do.”