The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 24, 2012

Small but mighty: Hawkins, Stephens-Howling make big contributions

Eric Knopsnyder

— The old axiom likely held true for many opening presents or checking their stockings this Christmas morning: Good things do indeed come in small packages.

That’s certainly the case for two local graduates now playing in the NFL.

The Arizona Cardinals list Greater Johnstown graduate LaRod Stephens-Howling as standing 5-feet, 7 inches tall and weighing 185 pounds. The Cincinnati Bengals’ website says Andrew Hawkins is 5-7 and 180 pounds.

Both listings are probably on the generous side, but that hasn’t stopped either from making a big impact for their teams this season. Hawkins, a wide receiver who went to Bishop McCort, has 48 catches for 515 yards and four touchdowns for the playoff-bound Bengals. Stephens-Howling, a running back who attended Greater Johnstown, has rushed 110 times for 358 yards and four touchdowns and had his first 100-yard game as a pro.

Hawkins and Stephens-Howling are hoping to change the perception that a 6-foot-3 frame is a necessity to play in the world’s best football league.

“Coming from where we came from, it’s kind of unreal,” Stephens-Howling said in a telephone interview from Phoenix, where he is wrapping up his fourth NFL season.

“Not only two guys in the NFL, but they told us we were too small to play in college. They said ‘Once you get out of Johnstown and play some real competition, you’re going to disappear.’ We both fought through it.”

Hawkins echoed those sentiments on Sunday, moments after helping the Bengals beat the Steelers 13-10 at Heinz Field

“It’s crazy,” he said. “If you look at the NFL now, I like to think I’m helping (change that image). I know LaRod is helping that. There are so many guys that are our size now, where as four years ago, you were hard-pressed to find one or two.”

Stephens-Howling broke into the league in 2009 after he was drafted in the seventh round out of Pitt.

He seized the moment and quickly became a fan favorite in Arizona, where he returned kickoffs and earned the nickname “The Hyphen.”

“When you give guys like that an opportunity – LaRod is a trailblazer, man,” Hawkins said. “That’s what it’s about. Now he’s able to maybe help the next guy his size. It is a great story, the fact that we’re from the same town, we have similar stories, we’ve been friends since we were babies. I have the utmost respect for him and it’s only going to continue to grow.”

Hawkins knows firsthand that Stephens-Howling has been an inspiration to smaller players, mainly because he is one of them.

“I remember when he made it to the NFL, that gave me a lot of hope, because me and LaRod are literally almost the exact same size,” Hawkins said. “When I see a guy like that, and he’s younger than me, he made it before I did. It gave me that extra inspiration like, ‘Wow, it’s possible.’ ”

That was a role reversal of sorts. In high school, Stephens-Howling was keeping an eye on Hawkins.

“I always looked up to him,” Stephens-Howling said. “I can remember being a freshman in high school and going to the Point to watch him play when he was a sophomore. You see his talent and how hard he works and he’s someone you kind of want to mold yourself after.”

Hawkins had an even more difficult time making it to the pros. He didn’t get drafted out of the University of Toledo but eventually landed a spot on Michael Irvin’s “4th and Long” reality show. He finished second in the competition, which had a grand prize of a spot in training camp with the Dallas Cowboys.

Instead, Hawkins went to play in the Canadian Football League. He played there for two seasons before he signed with the St. Louis Rams in January 2011, but never got a chance to suit up for the team before he was released in August.

Even then, Stephens-Howling was keeping tabs on his old friend, and using Hawkins – who signed with the Bengals and has moved up the depth chart – as a motivating factor.

“It kind of eliminates any excuse you can find for yourself,” Stephens-Howling said. “He’s not giving up and he’s been through a lot. A lot of people should find out his story. … He has had a strong faith in God to help him get where he is.”

Meanwhile, Hawkins was following Stephens-Howling’s exploits in the desert.

“He got a raw deal in college and he had the odds stacked against him,” Hawkins said. “It motivated me at a time when I needed it to the most. I tell LaRod all the time, I’m so appreciative of him and he’s an inspiration to me. It’s the truth. He’s one of my great friends.”

Their relationship dates back two decades, to when Hawkins and Stephens-Howling were two of the best young athletes in Johnstown.

“LaRod is one of my great friends,” Hawkins said. “We’ve grown up together since we were 2 or 3 years old, playing baseball together. He’s an awesome friend of mine. I know he’s proud of me, I’m proud of him.”

Hawkins went on to play football in the Johnstown Parochial League while Stephens-Howling was in the Johnstown Youth League, but even then they weren’t far apart, as they practiced on fields in the same complex.

More than a decade later, they’re standing side-by-side again, this time in the same league.

“It’s just a blessing that we were both able to do this,” Stephens-Howling said. “It’s a blessing that we both can say we’re from a small place called Johnstown and playing in the NFL now.”