Hawkins is up for the challenge

Monday, September 21, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Robert Brooks grabs a TD pass over rookie CB Artrell Hawkins
(AP photo)

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Sometimes interference calls are about the rights of pass receivers. Sometimes they are about the rites of passage.

Artrell Hawkins was penalized on both counts Sunday afternoon for the Cincinnati Bengals -- once because he was in violation of the agreed-upon rules and once, perhaps, because he was a rookie cornerback trying to cover a Pro Bowl tight end.

"I think I got pushed," Hawkins said of the first-quarter flag he received for shadowing Mark Chmura. "Me being a rookie, I'm not going to get the calls the other guys get."

This was after Green Bay's 13-6 victory over the Bengals, a victory facilitated by a curious interference call that set up the game's only touchdown. Replays showed Hawkins with a fist full of Chmura's jersey, and Chmura reciprocating with a shove. A veteran cornerback might have gotten off with incidental contact, or perhaps even offensive pass interference, but a rookie cornerback should never expect an even break in the National Football League.

Brooks clutches the ball as he and Hawkins fall in the endzone
(Steveb M. Herppich photo)

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Respect is earned

He should expect to earn everything he gets.

"The refs are going to have their eyes on the younger guys," said Ashley Ambrose, the senior member of the secondary. "If he's covering his man pretty good, they're going to be looking to see how he does it. The veteran might get the benefit of the doubt."

Rookie cornerbacks get the benefit of instant experience. They are considered overmatched until they prove otherwise, and they are tested as rigorously as fraternity pledges. Every week is Hell Week, and every play is another opportunity for abject humiliation. Artrell Hawkins knew that going in. He goes in, anyway.

"As the weeks go on, I'm feeling more comfortable," he said. "But I am going to expect them to go at me for a while . . . I am feeling close right now and, sooner or later, I'm going to come down with some interceptions."

Hawkins was initially enraged when the interference call was made, and subsequently exasperated when the Packers' Robert Brooks outwrestled him for a touchdown pass three plays later. Yet when the dressing room doors were opened to professional snoops Sunday afternoon, his anger had evaporated.

The cornerback's creed is to worry about the next play rather than the last because there's no benefit in brooding. Artrell Hawkins learned this lesson at the University of Cincinnati, and he learned it well enough that the Bengals made him their second-round draft choice last spring.

Sunday, his pro football education began in earnest. When Corey Sawyer left the game in the second quarter with ligament damage in his knee, the right cornerback position ceased to be a time share and became Hawkins' full-time responsibility.

Considering the opponent, and its peerless quarterback, Brett Favre, this would qualify as a baptism of fire. Inevitably, Artrell Hawkins got burned. Though his second interference penalty had no bearing on the final score, it did not do much for his mood.

One year different

Asked to evaluate how well he had played, Hawkins' reflexive response was, "No comment."

A year ago, he was a college kid, watching the Packers' march to the Super Bowl on a television set in Clifton. Now he was supposed to stop them. Such situations spawn culture shock.

"I did think about that as we watched films this week," Hawkins admitted. "I thought it was kind of weird that I was going to be starting against Brett Favre, Antonio Freeman and Robert Brooks."

Two plays after his first interference penalty, Hawkins successfully defended a Favre pass to Freeman. But on the following play -- third down and 15 yards to go from the 16-yard line -- Brooks beat him with a brilliant catch in the corner of the end zone. Hawkins was on the Packer receiver like a leech, but Brooks reached over him, grabbed, bobbled and finally caught Favre's pass. This was the score the Bengals were never able to equal.

"I was right there," Hawkins said later, his eyes trained on the dressing room floor. "I could have made that play. I am not going to make any excuses for that. It was kind of juggled for a minute, but he got it. These receivers can catch. That didn't happen in college." Plays like that don't happen much in the pros. As Hawkins left the field, Ambrose arrived with comfort and advice.

"You can't cover the guy any better," Ambrose said. "Next time, just make the play."

Bengals coach Bruce Coslet acknowledged Hawkins was being picked on purposely, but said "I think Artrell will be fine." Ambrose predicted the rookie would grow into a "great player." A reporter told Hawkins he seemed unusually calm at the close of a trying afternoon, as if he "welcomed the challenge."

"With open arms," Hawkins replied.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.