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Courtney Hawkins, Steelers Wide Receiver, 1997-2000

March 1, 2012
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Courtney Hawkins:

First, can you let readers know about your job as a high school football coach and  Athletic Director at your alma mater  – how did you get started and what do you enjoy most about the position?

I moved back to Michigan and when I got here, my alma mater was struggling on the football field. They won eleven games over a ten year period. A lot of people there knew I was living nearby and they approached me about coaching. At first I was apprehensive, but then I applied and got the job.

About four or five weeks later, the athletic director got another job so I applied for that too and got it.

How has it gone?

My first year we were 2-7. My last five years we’ve been in the playoffs. I brought in things that I was taught over my years in the NFL. Discipline, a system, lifting weights…but the main thing was changing the attitude. I had to get the losing attitude out of the district and teach the kids how to be good teammates and good people.

You have to do things the right way – there’s no magic formula to do it.

What coaching, playing and lessons and experiences from your time in Pittsburgh have influenced you most in your roles as a coach and athletic director, and how so?

I tell the kids and the parents that I played for Hall of Fame coaches – Perles, Cowher, Dungy…I took tidbits from all of them.

Cowher’s deal was that he was good with the players. He was  a player’s coach – he listened to the pulse of the team. If the team was tired, he cut practice back. He was accommodating. The “my way or the highway” approach doesn’t work. I played for coaches like that. Cowher was loose, but he didn’t allow us to cross the line.

Perles was more stand-offish, but he had to be as he was dealing with college kids. Cowher’s was the formula I wanted to use here.

You came to Pittsburgh as a free agent in ’97 after five years in Tampa Bay. Why Pittsburgh, and what did they tell you your role would be with the team?

David Culley was the team’s wide receivers coach and he coached in Tampa Bay when I was there. When I became a free agent he contacted me and told me he thought I’d be a good fit.

My role was to be the third wide receiver. They had Yancey Thigpen and Charles Johnson. Gailey wanted a guy that could play inside and not be scared to take a hit. He liked to run a lot of four and even five wide receiver sets.

My job was to get open – to read the zone. And I fit the bill. I had a lot of fun. Yancey drew a lot of double-teams. I had good years there and made some big plays.

How did that Pittsburgh team differ from the Tampa Bay team you played for, and how difficult was the adjustment for you (what were your biggest adjustments)?

(Laughing). Well, I don’t want to upset the folks there in Tampa. The team was for sale then – things were in disarray, It was a tough time and there was a lot of uncertainty there with the team being sold and maybe moved.

Pittsburgh, for me, going from a place of uncertainty….It was a family atmosphere and the tradition and fans were unbelievable. It was unreal to be accepted by the Steeler Nation. Without question, it was the greatest place to play.

Halfway through my first year there, I stopped in to Cowher’s office. I told him “Thanks for bringing me to the NFL.” He smiled back at me.

It was what you hear growing up – it was the dream as a boy growing up. Pittsburgh was the dream. This is what I thought it would be. It wasn’t like coming to work. It was great and anyone on that team was just fortunate to have played there.

How on that Steelers team helped you adjust to the team – both on and off the field – and how did they do so?

Myron Bell was a Michigan State guy- we were best friends there. When I was looking for a place to live when I first got there I stayed with him for a couple of weeks.

Lee Flowers, Jason Gildon too – I hung out with those guys..

But they were all defensive guys…

(Laughing). I know, I used to catch it from the offensive guys.  I just hung out with the defensive guys. I had good friends on the offense too – I played golf with Kordell. But I ran with the defense.

That ’97 season was Kordell Stewart’s first as the Steelers’ starting quarterback. What were the team’s impressions of Stewart as a quarterback and leader in the first season?

He was a gifted athlete – we all knew that. He could run, jump and throw the ball. We knew he had potential but he was young. We knew we had to be on top of our p’s and q’s and that we had to pick up the slack.

He accepted the leadership role and we didn’t miss a beat. We were a couple of plays away from the Super Bowl. It was a fun year. We didn’t finish as we thought we should, but it was a heckuva ride. That was as far as I ever went in the playoffs.

You still hold the Steelers record for most receptions in a game (14 – versus Tennessee in ’98). What happened in that game, and how rewarding is it for you to hold the record?

Having any record at that level is exciting. It was just one of those games. Kordell zeroed in on me and I kept getting open. As a wide receiver, you work hard and hope you and the quarterback are on the same page. The ball was coming my way…I didn’t go to the huddle complaining!

We lost the game though. The loss probably cost us the playoffs that year. I couldn’t tell you about a single catch but I remember losing. We should have won….

Who were some of the biggest characters on those  teams and what made them so? Any examples/funny experiences?

The whole locker room. So many guys kept that locker room loose. We were like brothers.

McAfee and Holmes – those two guys went at it every day. They talked about each other and their mothers. It was a session every day.

Everyone had this idea that Greg Lloyd was this mean guy. But Lloyd was not all mean – he was  a heckuva teammate. He played practical jokes all the time.

You retired after the 2000 season. What prompted that decision and how difficult was that for you?

I was not ready to retire mentally. Physically, I had fifteen surgeries – nine knee surgeries. Nothing post-football at least.

They slowed me down, I guess. It was a decision made by the teams – it took me a while to accept it. I worked out for a year hoping someone would call. Some did but nothing materialized. It was evident that it was time to move on – to go on to that next stage in life.

I was fortunate though. I bought and sold real estate after I retired and liked it, but now I’m doing something with a purpose. I’m shaping young kids’ lives and have sent thirty-six kids to college.

What are your thoughts on Hines Ward as a player – you played alongside him for a few seasons – and can you empathize with the difficulty of knowing when to leave the game? 

My point of view…knowing Hines and the competitor that he is….It’s hard to let go when it’s something you love so much. I played for nine years – he was what, thirteen, fourteen years. It becomes what you are after a while – your identity. But I found my true identity after. What I do now is who Courtney Hawkins is – I guess you can say it’s my calling.

Being in the NFL is a rollercoaster ride. It’s a heckuva two minutes, but after the ride stops it’s over and then it’s off to the next ride. Knowing Hines, he’ll do ok if he decides to play elsewhere. But he’ll find success after, This is the business side of the NFL and it can be cutthroat. Teams will let you know when you are done.

What are your best memories as a Steeler and what made them so?

I owned a Lynn Swann jersey as a boy. A couple of guys used to come around when I was in Tampa Bay. But in Pittsburgh, seeing Lynn Swann and Franco Harris come back, pat you on the back and say good game….it blew me away. It was a family atmosphere.

Running out of the tunnel at Three RIvers and standing behind the bench with fans jumping up and down with the yellow towels waving…. Yelling to the guy next to you because he couldn’t hear you….It was electric every game. We could have been playing a team with only two wins and it was like the Super Bowl.

Any last thoughts for readers?

Once a Steeler, always a Steeler. I still get cards and pictures to sign. Those four years were very fulfilling and I will always appreciate them.

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