When a rash of injuries depleted the New England secondary midway through the 2005 season, the Patriots turned to free agency and found a gem. Artrell Hawkins, a nine-year NFL veteran, stepped into the Patriots' starting lineup and helped to quickly sure up the pass defense. New England, which had allowed an average of two touchdown passes and 22 passes of 25 yards or more in the nine games prior to Hawkins' arrival, dramatically improved in the final seven games of last season - cutting both totals in half.
Unlike most players, who typically need a few weeks to adjust to a new system, Hawkins immediately made a positive impact. Even more impressive was the fact that the 5-foot-10-inch, 195-pounder was making the switch from cornerback to free safety without skipping a beat. Hawkins sat down with Patriots GameDay to talk about his first year as a Patriot, his approach to the game and the experiences that have shaped him as a player.
How were you able to jump ahead of the learning curve that most players face?
Coming to this organization, you understand the importance of winning and the importance of everyone contributing. That pressure helps cut down on your learning curve. There's an interesting story from my first day of practice. Tedy Bruschi yelled at me for messing up a defensive call. He didn't actually yell at me, but did yell about me messing up. That sent a message to me that I needed to know what I was doing at all times and make sure that I always know my assignments. No one was interested in the fact that I had never played safety before. They were just interested in the fact that they needed a safety that could step in right now and be accountable, so not knowing the position was no excuse. The message was 'we need production and we need it right now.' From that point on I've put in the extra time. I'm glad that it happened to me, though, because from the first day that I was here I understood the gravity of the situation.
People probably forget or don't realize that you played the first seven years of your career at cornerback. Was the change of position a difficult one for you to make?
It seriously was just a matter of putting in the work. I had to put in the time with the film study because I needed to learn to see the defense from a different vantage point. Plays at corner are a lot faster than at safety. At safety, you take a slow-read backpedal and react to what the offense is doing. When you're playing cornerback, since you're always on the fastest guy on the field, your feet are always moving at an accelerated pace. Cornerbacks really only need to know what the defensive call is, where your help is coming from and who you're covering. Safeties need to know what the linebackers are doing, what the corners are doing and what they're doing. You have to help people get lined up, you have to help set the defense, so it's more of a mental approach at safety. At corner it's physical because you have to be able to run, twist your hips and move your feet more.
Did Rodney Harrison's injury change your role in the defensive backfield?
Did Rodney Harrison's injury change your role in the defensive backfield? We've all pitched in making calls, but I've put it upon myself to be a little more vocal than I've been in the past. When Rodney is around, he runs the show. He has earned that right. In my opinion, this is his defense, but with him out we've worked together to pick up the slack - myself, Tedy and Mike Vrabel. We make sure everything is lined up and everything is right.
Since we're on the subject of Rodney Harrison, what is it about him as a player that you respect and appreciate the most?
What I like about him the most is that he always has his boots on. By that I mean he always works. I knew that about him as a player before I got here, but when I got to see first hand his preparation and his attitude for winning and wanting to be the best, that's when I started to appreciate him, not just as a player, but as an individual, as a man. I appreciate the fact that he works the way that he does because that allows me to respect the playmaking ability and also the man.
In the NFL, the life of an undrafted free agent can be challenging. You had an opportunity to experience that first hand in watching your father, Artrell Sr., who played with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the early 1980s. How has that experience impacted the way that you go about your job on a daily basis?
I learned that nothing is promised. He'd always tell me that when you hear about successful people, the first thing that is said is that they are prepared. The journalist Ed Bradley, who just passed away, I was watching one of his memorial services and everyone from President Clinton to Bill Cosby, all these great people who have achieved so much, all said the same thing about him, that he was always prepared and a hard worker. That's the message that I took from my dad.
During the time that your dad was with the Steelers you got a chance to meet the team's owner, Art Rooney, and he signed a baseball for you that read, "To my friend Artrell, hope you will be a big star."
He had it in his office and he saw me eyeing it. He had me pick it up and ended up signing it for me. I was four. It meant something to me from the time that I got it. I didn't really understand who Art Rooney was, per se, until I got older. I finally realized how great of an owner that he was, how integral a part of the NFL that he was. To walk by and take this little kid who was sitting in the lobby, and then spend time with him, that spoke of his gracious spirit. He was a great owner in his own right but an even better individual.
As a member of the Cincinnati Bengals from 1998-2003, you didn't get a chance to play in a playoff game. How has it been to now be a part of a team that is a championship contender every year?
It's a whole different experience to be on a winning team. I'm thankful. I'm sincerely thankful. I've been in the basement. I've been on the other side of it and it's not fun. You lose a part of yourself when you're in that environment year after year. It's almost like you go into survival mode. Since I have a chance to play for the Patriots, a winning organization, I want to make sure that I take advantage of it. I'm going to work while it's still light out. I'm going to work while I still have the chance. I'm down at the stadium all the time. I was here on Thanksgiving. I want to take advantage of the opportunity. I am very aware of where I am in my life. That changes your approach. Sometimes when you're a younger player you feel like you have a couple more years, that you have this or that. Well that's not usually the case. I'm going to take advantage of what I have now.
You have become legendary around Gillette Stadium for your deep, booming voice. Currently, you've wrangled a gig doing voiceovers for Patriots All-Access. When your football career is over, how are you planning to put those pipes to good use?
I want to do broadcast journalism. I always say that if I can get a job using my voice than I can spend the rest of my life not having a real job.