A dark place and a brotherly bond led 49ers safety Hawkins to inspiring debut

A dark place and a brotherly bond led 49ers safety Hawkins to inspiring debut

SANTA CLARA — Shortly before 49ers safety Tayler Hawkins made an NFL debut to remember, the 26-year-old looked up from the sidelines and saw his twin brother, Tyler, in the stands at Levi Stadium.

Tayler gave him a head nod that, to Tyler, was more than a simple hello. It was telepathic: Tayler was telling him something, Tyler said. He was locked in.

And after suffering through the hardships of growing up without parents, leaning on each other to survive and finding strength in their brotherly connection, Tyler was sure his brother was about to do something special.

In the 49ers’ 21-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, Tayler Hawkins was elevated from the practice squad, made his NFL debut and came up with a highlight-reel interception off Rams quarterback Carson Wentz.

On a tipped pass in the second quarter, Hawkins reacted immediately, flew through the air and came down with a fingertip catch to secure the turnover.

“Just normal Cover 3, plays we run every day,” Hawkins said. “I was in the post. We have something called tips and overthrows. We have to get those. That’s what it was, a tip. I had to go get it.”

First-ever NFL game
First ever INT

What a day for Tayler Hawkins!

: FOX pic.twitter.com/YBvCkJabTt

— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 7, 2024

Hawkins didn’t get word until last Thursday that he would be playing in the 49ers’  final regular-season game. He told his brother the news. Tyler said he’d drop everything to be there.

On game day, Tyler left his one-bedroom apartment in Irvine at 5 a.m. to make it to Santa Clara in time for kickoff.

“After the game, Tayler was like, ‘Did you see me looking at you?’” Tyler said. “He texted me and said, ‘I appreciate you pulling up, for real. That meant everything to me.’”

The twins’ journey together has been a challenging one. When they were 18 months old, their mom, Robin Roy, died from heart failure. She was only 30.

Without their father in the picture, the boys were left to be raised by their grandmother, Wessie Roy, who had raised 12 children of her own.

“Without her, me and my brother would be nothing,” Tyler said, also crediting his aunt, LaWanda Roy. “She was never a rich lady by any means. We were literally dirt poor. We were broke. We had nothing. But my grandmother always found a way. I never felt poor. I didn’t know I was poor until I grew up.”

Hawkins brothers leaned on each other to survive, always having their eyes set on getting out of their hometown of Palm Springs and making names for themselves.

“Me and my brother had to grow up quickly,” Tyler said. “We matured at a really young age.”

Brothers Tayler Hawkins, left, and Tyler, right, in uniform after a youth football game. (Photo by LaWanda Roy/Courtesy of Hawkins family) 

They tried to push each other, always one-upping each other in athletics and playing on the same football team starting in middle school. Finding a ride to practice wasn’t easy, but cousins, aunts and uncles stepped up. If they couldn’t come through, coaches or other family friends would pitch in.

“It took a village,” Tyler said. “Football saved our lives.”

In high school, they were peaking. Both brothers received handfuls of Division I scholarship offers. Tyler went to Sacramento State and Tayler chose San Diego State, where he and the brothers’ best friend, Trenton Thompson, now a Pittsburgh Steeler, went to play safety together.

After successful college careers, Tayler and Thompson were not selected in the 2022 NFL Draft but still found their way onto NFL practice squads, with Tayler landing with the 49ers.

This August, after a year on the practice squad, Tayler was starting to blossom.

“Now we’re in fall camp and he’s balling, man,” Tyler said. “They’re starting to take notice. It was right at the point when they were making their mind up for the 53-man roster.”

After the 49ers’ first preseason game, a 34-7 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks told reporters that Hawkins was “one of my favorites at the safety position” and had “showed a lot of promise.”

Wilks said he liked how prepared Tayler was in practices and how he fit in well with the 49ers’ defense.

And then, in the 49ers’ final preseason game, Tayler broke his right hand while making a tackle. The 49ers waived him and Hawkins took an injury settlement in early September.

With nowhere to go, he went to Irvine to crash on his brother’s couch.

“I was in a dark place,” Tayler said.

Tyler remembers seeing his brother dedicate himself to his rehab process, but he started to look lost.

“You can definitely spiral into a dark place quickly,” Tyler said. “I can see how a lot of these NFL athletes are prescribed these drugs, and then they’re mixed in with not being on the pedestal anymore. They’re upset with themselves. You can see it start to spiral. I saw my brother start to fall into that.

Tayler Hawkins #41 of the San Francisco 49ers called for pass interference against Ben Skowronek #18 of the Los Angeles Rams in the fourth quarter during a game at Levi’s Stadium on Jan. 07, 2024 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) 

“Luckily he got that call. The Niners took him back.”

San Francisco re-signed him to the practice squad in October. Two-and-a-half months later, he made his debut in a game in part thanks to injuries to three safeties ahead of him on the depth chart: Talanoa Hufanga, Ji’Ayir Brown and Tashaun Gipson Sr.

As he made the interception Sunday, Fox broadcasters Adam Amin and Mark Schlereth marveled over Hawkins’ incredible story.

In the stands, Tyler started to weep.

“I can’t hold the tears back,” he said. “My family is texting me crying. I’m crying. There were a lot of emotions.”

Tayler finished the game with an interception, one pass breakup and four tackles. He also was called for pass interference on a key play in the fourth quarter. Overall, he said he thought he played “all right.”

But the interception “meant everything to me.”

“That might’ve been my only opportunity,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m going to get another one. I had to go make the most of it.”

He added, “I’m from a small city. A lot of guys don’t make it out. The fact I did is definitely motivational to the people back home, without a doubt. Whoever else hears my story, I’m sure it’ll inspire them.”

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Tuesday morning, Tyler got a text from his brother that broke his heart all over again: Tayler injured his wrist in Sunday’s game. He needs surgery and is out for the postseason.

Tyler tried to find the silver lining.

“I wasn’t expecting much for this playoff run,” Tyler said. “That will give him the offseason to heal. No break, just some ligaments.”

Whatever happens next for Tayler, his brother will be right by his side.

“I know for a fact my brother is an NFL superstar,” Tyler said. “That won’t be the last you hear of him. That’s for sure.”

Brothers Tyler Hawkins, left, and Tayler, right, with aunt LaWanda Roy. (Photo by Britney Hawkins/Courtesy of Hawkins family)