When Jerald Hawkins was selected by the Steelers in the fourth-round of the 2016 NFL Draft, he definitely thought his rookie year would be much different than it was.
Like every rookie, the young offensive tackle wanted to come in and learn the ropes, adjust to life in the NFL, and hopefully gain some valuable on-field playing experience as well.
Instead, Hawkins spent his rookie season as a spectator, on the reserve/injured list for the entire year.
"At first, dealing with the injury, it was unexpected," said Hawkins. "No one would expect their first year to be on injured reserve. At first I was down about it. I couldn't understand why it happened, how it happened."
And dealing with not being able to play, with not contributing to the team right out of the box as a rookie, it wasn't easy for him to handle at the get-go.
"You feel useless," admitted Hawkins. "You can't provide for the team. You can't practice. You can't help a guy out. You can't be out there getting the physical reps. It isn't easy.
"It's very hard not playing, especially when that's all you know, when that is all you have been doing for the longest time, since peewee. That is all you know. You go to school and then you go to practice. Not being able to do that was hard. This is the longest I have ever gone without playing. I have had injuries and played through it, but this is the longest I have gone without playing. It took a toll I wasn't expecting. I would be sitting at home wondering what to do. I wasn't used to being down, sitting around. I had to get used to that part. That was really hard."
Luckily for Hawkins, he wasn't down for long and he wasn't alone. He was surrounded by a veteran offensive line that wasn't going to let those feelings linger.
"Those guys kept me in it," said Hawkins. "They told me I was still a part of the team. Still part of the offensive line. I am thankful for those older guys. The whole room kept me intact."
With their support, Hawkins used this past year to learn the offense, get as many mental reps as he could, and to do everything in his power to make sure he is prepared when his turn comes.
"I benefited from the mental aspect of the game," said Hawkins. "The older guys kept me in it. Every meeting they wanted me there. They had me there, always as a part of the team. They didn't shoot me to the back of the room and say, 'He can't play this year. There is no use for him.' They kept me involved. Everything they did as a team, as an offensive line, they still involved me and included me. They helped me learn the game from different situations, and even Coach (Mike) Munchak coached me like I was still playing. It was a good learning experience."
Hawkins, who left LSU after his junior year, said Munchak even joked with him at times that it was like a redshirt year for him, and he made sure he took advantage of every minute of it.
"I was watching the older guys and how they play," said Hawkins. "I love the technique they use, the energy they have. I am always taking mental reps in my head."
As he thought back on the year, Hawkins knows it could have been a lot worse had he taken a different approach. But that simply wasn't an option.
"The veterans taught me never take it for granted," said Hawkins. "I know (Maurkice) Pouncey had an injury the year before and he came back even stronger. He told me I have been in your shoes and I came back stronger. I took that to heart.
"Everything happens for a reason. God doesn't make any mistakes. For me sitting out a year, it was hard. But it helped me learn a lot. It helped me learn what is going on around the league, from players, to what the NFL is about. It helped me a lot.
"I can't wait for my opportunity next year. To provide for the team on the field."