It was roughly one year ago that Pittsburgh Steelers fourth-year offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins tore his left quadriceps tendon during OTAs. In 2018, following the free agency departure of Chris Hubbard, he was expected to assume the swing tackle job, which would have been critical. Starter Marcus Gilbert ended up missing 11 games. 11 games Hawkins could have started.
Now he is competing for that vacated starting right tackle job this offseason after Gilbert was traded, but he is also competing for a roster spot, because if he fails to secure that job between himself, Matt Feiler (10 starts in 2018), and second-year Chukwuma Okorafor (1 start), it’s possible that he may not make the roster at all.
But the fact that he has made it back this far is a fact of which his elder teammate, Ramon Foster, is quite proud.
“Man, I had a minor injury this past camp. I tell guys who go through major stuff like that, ‘I salute you’”, he told Kevin Gorman. “To actually will yourself to get back, that takes a lot. It says a lot about someone who gets back, and I think that says a lot about a person who gets back and gets right, too”.
Foster suffered a high ankle sprain during training camp that caused him to miss most of that and all of the preseason, but he was able to get right just in time for the start of the regular season and ended up playing I believe every single snap.
As for Hawkins, this is the third major, season-ending injury of his sports career, and the second in his three years since being drafted. He told Gorman that he felt “useless” watching from the sidelines last season, but credits teammates, coaches, and staff for helping to keep him engaged and motivated.
“When it first happened, he was down” Foster said of his younger teammate. “He broke down out here, literally, and he bounced back now to where you see his confidence coming back. He’s out here on the field, getting to where he wants to be”.
Earlier this offseason, Head Coach Mike Tomlin made it very clear that Hawkins would be a part of the competition for the starting right tackle job in 2019 even though Feiler had played above the line as the primary starter for most of the season, and Okorafor also played beyond expectations for his rookie year, including one start against Von Miller and the Denver Broncos.
His injuries—he also missed all of his rookie season in 2016 due to a shoulder injury—have greatly stunted both his development and his opportunities. In an alternative timeline, he would be unquestionably the starting right tackle now and would be receiving an extension in a couple months.
But for now, he’s just happy to be back on the field with another chance to make something of his football career, and to do so with the team that drafted him as an underclassman in the fourth round out of LSU three years ago.