Early in his NFL career, Artrell Hawkins decided to buy a gun.
The Bengals’ second-round pick in 1998, Hawkins believed that because of his upbringing and the structure he had growing up, he could always recognize a bad situation, always understand there was a line he couldn’t cross.
He went to a private Catholic high school in his hometown of Johnstown, Pa., sent by a mother who had high expectations for his behavior and attitude, and little tolerance for disrespect.
Hawkins said Bishop McCort High had equally high standards for academic achievement, conduct, and even the uniform worn by students. He stayed out of trouble in high school, through four years at the University of Cincinnati, and throughout what became a nine-year NFL career, the final two spent with the Patriots.
But he still found himself in a gun store as a rookie, purchasing a shotgun for around $400.
“I did it because, for real, I was trying to be cool,” Hawkins said on Thursday. “I wasn’t in danger. I had just started dating my girlfriend, now my wife, I took her to a shooting range, and ended up buying a shotgun because the guy next to me had it and let me shoot it and I liked it.”
When his mother, Althea, found out about the gun, she told him in no uncertain terms he should get rid of it. His grandfather told him he had never owned a weapon and therefore never felt as though he wanted to use one to solve a problem.
“I took what she said as a warning before the storm. She spooked me, so I took it back,” he said, returning it a month after he bought it, without ever using it, and sold it back for half what he had paid.
“It was maybe the worst investment I ever made,” Hawkins quipped.
There are probably a lot of stories like Hawkins’s, of players potentially heading down the wrong path and realizing before it was too late it wasn’t the way for them to go.
As the NFL held its annual Rookie Symposium at the Pro Football Hall of Fame this week, inviting first the newest players on AFC teams to Canton, Ohio, and then those from NFC teams, part of the aim was to help them understand what can be lost if they go in the wrong direction.
The players heard from former defensive back Troy Vincent, the league’s vice president of player engagement, and from some of the NFL’s more recent troubled athletes: Adam “Pacman” Jones, who was suspended for the entire 2007 season after numerous off-field problems; Tank Johnson, who was suspended for weapons violations; and former Denver Broncos draftee Maurice Clarett, who served 3½ years in prison on robbery and weapons charges, which essentially cost him a career in the NFL.
As much as those men could tell the rookies about avoiding trouble and how their careers were affected by bad decisions, there was one player whose story was unfolding in front of their eyes: Aaron Hernandez.
The now-former Patriots tight end was back in court on Thursday as his legal team argued unsuccessfully to have bail set for Hernandez, who is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of 27-year old Odin Lloyd.
One thing that may never be known is how being drafted by a team so close to his Bristol, Conn., hometown affected Hernandez’s inability to cut ties with his past. On Thursday, a Bristol man was arrested in connection with the case, and prosecutors have said in court that Hernandez was on the phone with at least one friend in Bristol on the night of Lloyd’s death, demanding that he drive to North Attleborough to meet him.
Hawkins, now a busy radio personality based in Cincinnati, never wanted to be back near Johnstown, about an hour from Pittsburgh.
“I never wanted to be that easily accessible, for a multitude of reasons,” he said. “In a sense, you grow up in this community, in the public eye, they want to be around you — speak here, come to this game — I understand that, but I didn’t want to deal with it. I can see how that wouldn’t be a great thing.”
More than geography, however, Hawkins believes there may be a more widespread issue when it comes to college football and the NFL.
“Look at whole system, they stop developing these guys at 18. When they leave high school, they grow physically because [teams] feed them and they lift them and work them out, but they hide them away from experience off a football field,” Hawkins said.
“So you have a bunch of big boys who stop developing in every way once they turn 18.”
Hawkins points to all of the perks — police escorting team buses to stadiums, chartered flights, thousands of cheering fans — that many NFL players become accustomed to in college, and says it is easy to lose perspective. Something, he insists, has to be changed.
“There has to be some happy medium, where you’re not getting these socially, emotionally undeveloped kids with millions of dollars running around the damn streets. I don’t understand why people can’t see it,” he said.
Hawkins acknowledged he wasn’t a star in the NFL, not a player with the type of cachet Hernandez was beginning to acquire, a young star on one of the league’s marquee teams, catching passes from one of its best quarterbacks. But even Hawkins let the adulation affect him.
“[Hernandez] has always gotten the benefit of the doubt because he has talent on the field. Reward bad behavior based on talent level,” he said. “With the Patriots, in the NFL, at Florida, the value that we place on that industry in this country, it’s easy to get carried away.
“Perspective is almost gone . . . it’s getting worse and worse with more outlets and more coverage. As a player, I always felt like a gladiator walking into the arena on Sundays; that’s a feeling you can’t replace in any other aspect in life, the importance they place on you.
“You’re here to do God’s work — that’s the feeling that you have.”