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Kevin Gorman: Steelers tackle Jerald Hawkins should be saluted for comeback | TribLIVE.com
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Kevin Gorman: Steelers tackle Jerald Hawkins should be saluted for comeback

Kevin Gorman
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers’ Jerald Hawkins goes through drills during OTAs Thursday, May 23, 2019 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

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.”

Ramon Foster remembers hearing Hawkins scream and saw him clutching his left leg in agony during the second session of OTAs last year. The Steelers knew right away the injury was serious, so Foster was feeling his teammate’s pain.

“It’s like a black cloud, especially when it’s early,” Foster said. “You don’t even get a chance to get to the games. It was definitely a dark moment for him because he was looking good.

“This was a guy who was going to compete for a starting job somewhere, at any position, and he missed an opportunity. When that happens, it’s more about the opportunity missed when you know you have a good player.”

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.

Foster can relate to the timing as the veteran left guard was entering the final season of his contract when he injured a knee during the first practice in full pads at training camp last July. It made for a somber scene at Saint Vincent as his teammates helped him up, blessed themselves in the sign of the cross and watched him carted off Chuck Noll Field.

Where Foster returned in time to start every game last season and signed a two-year, $8.25 million contract in March, Hawkins didn’t even make it to minicamp, let alone training camp.

“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.

Hey, Steelers Nation, get the latest news about the Pittsburgh Steelers here.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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