The following was assembled by Columbia’s Kelly Carroll
This post is another in a series from the Columbia University Sports Podcast, a 360-degree view of the sports business from the people leading it. Each podcast is approximately 35–45 minutes in length, and features industry insiders from all aspects of the business—from brand executives to startup founders to former MLB players—all talking about their work, the current state of the sports industry, and, more importantly, the future of the field.
With NFL training camp underway this week, we revisit the conversation with Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who is also a current student in Columbia University’s Sports Management Program. While serving as one of the Browns’ veteran players and team leaders, Hawkins also travels to New York City for classes in finance, media marketing, and analytics to better prepare himself for life after football. Others may find the challenge of all this daunting, but Hawkins handles it all with great motivation, because he’s been there before.
Not the biggest guy: Though Hawkins has settled into an NFL career, there was a time not long ago when he thought he’d never have a chance at that dream. Coming out of the University of Toledo, there was not a lot of interest in him from professional teams. Instead, Hawkins took on different jobs to find the right path: He coached at Toledo, interned in the Detroit Lions’ personnel department, caddied, and even worked in a factory. “I was beginning my transition for life after sport at the time,” he says. By chance, Hawkins caught an episode of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, which mentioned a new reality show featuring Michael Irvin. In 4th and Long, Irvin picked men off the street to participate in an NFL training camp, and Hawkins did everything he could to get on the show. “I’m not the biggest guy—I’m 5’7”, 175 pounds,” he says. “But I’m always the kind of player that wanted to do whatever was necessary to help the team.” Though he finished as a runner-up on the show, the opportunity started a circuitous route—through lockouts and free agency—to the Browns.
The value of telling your story: When Hawkins finally got to the NFL, it struck him as strange that many players seemed to be one person inside the locker room and a very different person out in the world. “You’re living up to what people think of you, as opposed to just being yourself, which is more relatable,” he says. “I wanted people to actually see who I was.” To do so, Hawkins took the opportunity to tell his story in The Players’ Tribune. The two-part personal essay recounts the struggles he faced getting to the NFL, and the hard work it took to achieve his dream. “I was very transparent about my insecurities, about my obstacles, about the challenges,” he explains, saying he would camp out in stairwells near where Jerry Jones was thought to be, and put clay on his heels to make himself seem taller. The story was extremely well received. “People could identify with that feeling of not being able to control your own destiny,” Hawkins says. “This was a situation where I wanted something so bad, and I felt like I was equipped to do this job, but me attaining that goal had nothing to do with myself. Someone else had to give me that opportunity. No matter how hard I worked, no matter how hard I tried, this was me trying to put myself in destiny’s way.”
Never a shrinking violet: In realizing the value of telling his own story, Hawkins also realized that he had a fleeting platform to build himself as a brand. He has signed with Octagon to help market himself, and he’s been working with brands like Tide and Adidas. But in any project that Hawkins takes on, it first and foremost has to be the right fit—it must help create his message. He has also found that the current state of media—where athletes have the outlet to speak directly to fans—gives him control over his brand and his story. It also gives Hawkins’ fans his direct perspective, for as long as they want it. “If you have something to say, that’s something you believe in and worth saying, then you say it,” Hawkins says. “That’s what’s going to make you stick out. That’s what’s going to make people remember you.”
The NFL player on campus: Hawkins wants to be sure people remember him long after his playing days are over. In an effort to prepare himself for his future, he started taking online master’s classes in Columbia University’s Sports Management Program this past fall. He then spent the spring 2016 semester traveling from Florida to Manhattan once a week for a day full of classes. New York City in the dead of winter may seem like the last place an off-season player would want to be, but Hawkins knows he can’t play football forever. “My number one focus is to be prepared for life after football,” he says. “The Columbia program…gives me the versatility to work beyond football. It gives me the versatility to work in sports and not only provide a perspective from actual athletes, because I’ve lived that life, but also learn what executives learn, from finance to media marketing to analytics. You name it, this is a program that is able to give you a holistic view of what working in sports entails.”
The football field to the front office: Getting his master’s degree in sports management isn’t the only thing turning Hawkins into a savvy future executive. His time on the Browns, listening, observing, and learning how to be a better member of the team, is the same process any dedicated professional would go through in trying to build his career. “[The Browns] provided me an opportunity to expand my role,” Hawkins says. “I think as a professional, as you continue to climb the ranks…that’s what the goal is—to continue to show your worth and to be able to press the envelope of what people think that you’re capable of doing.”
These were just some of the topics Andrew Hawkins discussed with Joe. The entire podcast, number 8 in the series, can be heard here.