Josh Hawkins has been playing football for so many years – way back to Pop Warner when he was swallowed by the shoulder pads – that sometimes he keeps his head down, working to excel at each stage, and forgets to savor the big moments.
But on October 8, in AT&T Stadium, Hawkins stopped and tried to soak it all in.
The Green Bay Packers cornerback was standing on the sideline opposite the Dallas Cowboys, listening to the national anthem play, and he suddenly found himself fighting back tears.
The former walk-on at East Carolina who had worked his way up to scholarship player, the undrafted free agent in the NFL who had made the roster and scaled the depth chart, looked back at that path with a bit of amazement.
“I was at the Cowboys stadium, with my eyes closed, and I’m just tearing up because I thought, ‘Man, it is finally sinking in. I actually made it to the NFL. There’s only a certain number of kids who make it here, and I’m actually one of them.”
When his Packers took the field, Hawkins lined up at cornerback against Dez Bryant, and he marveled briefly at his proximity to a childhood hero – and then proceeded to nearly intercept a pass intended for that hero. It’s that determination, and a work ethic forged in his Winston-Salem home, that has allowed him to shatter expectations again and again.
“I’m a very ambitious person,” he said Wednesday from the Packers facility. “With anything in life, if I want it, I don’t stop until I get it. My mother and my father, they were waking up around 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. every morning, and I would watch them do that while me and my brother would play a game all night long. And it just made me realize, if they’re waking up at 4, I have to work just as hard.”
After battling to make the Packers roster as a rookie last season, the former Pirate played in 11 games, mostly on special teams, but he was hindered by an injury and knew he had more to prove.
The football world understood that inner drive this August, when Hawkins lined up against Kirk Cousins and the rest of the Washington first-string offense in a preseason game and graded out higher than any other Packer cornerback, making several key stops for Green Bay.
Since then, he has logged 15 tackles, including six against the Vikings and five against the Bears, and continued to prove his worth in the Packers secondary and special teams units. He knows that few people would have expected him to be an NFL success, but the doubters only push him to work harder in the weight room and on the practice field.
Hawkins keeps close tabs on ECU football, not only because it’s his alma mater but because his brother Dedrick Hawkins is a sophomore defensive back for the Pirates. He understands well the struggles his brother and former teammates have walked through this season, especially because Green Bay has gone 1-4 since losing starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone on October 15.
The Hawkins family is close – his parents have traveled to all of his games this season and last year they came to Wisconsin to celebrate Christmas with him – and he has been on the giving end of a few brotherly pep talks with Dedrick this fall.
“I just tell him to stay true to who you are, don’t think about all the negative energy and keep working hard.”
Practicing what he preaches, Hawkins has been pleased by the positive energy inside the Packers locker room despite the loss of Rodgers. The players believe in backup quarterback Brett Hundley, they believe in each other, and they intend to stay the course and complete their assignments through the second half of the season.
“We’re not changing anything, we’re not fussing at each other, we’re not pointing fingers, we just know what we have to get done, and it’s to win the next football game,” he said.
For his part, Hawkins is excited about the very next challenge ahead – a meeting with Steelers star receiver Antonio Brown on Sunday night.
“I want 84, I want AB,” he said. “People think I’m scared, just because I’m a second-year player, but I’m trying to get my stripes up out here.”