Kevin Gorman: Steelers tackle Jerald Hawkins should be saluted for comeback
Jerald Hawkins is approaching an anniversary, but instead of celebrating, the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle views it as symbolic of how much he wants to play football.
It was almost a year ago — May 30, 2018 — when Hawkins suffered a painful and season-ending injury when he tore his left quadriceps tendon during organized team activities.
“I’ve had a few in my life, from broken hands, shoulders and ankles,” Hawkins said, “but that was the worst.”
The worst was yet to come for Hawkins.
The Steelers’ fourth-round pick from LSU in the 2016 NFL Draft missed his rookie season with a shoulder injury but returned to play jumbo tight end in his second season.
When Chris Hubbard signed with the Cleveland Browns in free agency, Hawkins was in line to become the Steelers’ swing tackle. That would have had him backing up Alejandro Villanueva on the left and Marcus Gilbert on the right and stepping into a starting role if either went down.
“It hit hard right there, especially because of the opportunity and the spot I was in,” Hawkins said. “Being around all of the older guys helped me get through it. You learn never to take anything for granted because you believe you can be on top of the world one second, and it can be gone like that.”
That opportunity instead went to Matt Feiler, who started 10 games last season at right tackle when Gilbert was injured. Gilbert was traded to the Arizona Cardinals last month, making right tackle one of the key position battles this offseason.
Not only is Hawkins behind Feiler for the starting right tackle job but also 2018 third-round pick Chuks Okorafor and 6-foot-8, 360-pounder Zach Banner, who spent the season on the 53-man roster. So in the span of a year, Hawkins went from competing for a key role on the offensive line to fighting for a roster spot entering the final season of his rookie contract.
“When it first happened, he was down,” Ramon Foster said of Hawkins. “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.
“I’m proud of him. For it to happen two times? Man, I had a minor injury this past camp. I tell guys who go through major stuff like that, ‘I salute you.’ 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.”
Hawkins said he felt “useless” while out but credited Steelers head athletic trainer John Norwig for getting him back to health and former offensive line coach Mike Munchak for keeping him mentally strong and engaged with the offensive line.
Although Hawkins said he still favors his good leg, he is learning to trust his repaired left leg is ready to go. The 6-6, 305-pounder hopes his days on the injured reserve are behind him and that his mere presence at OTAs is proof the Steelers still see something of a future in him.
“I feel like I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t know what type of talent I have,” Hawkins said. “I’ve just got to put it on the field now. As long as I can stay healthy and handle my business like I used to, I’ll be all right.”
With the worst behind him, Hawkins is hoping for another opportunity. Even if he doesn’t want to celebrate its anniversary, Hawkins should be saluted for getting back — especially if he gets it right, too.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .