What was it that Muhammad Ali, Vince Lombardi and Rocky Balboa used to say?

They each phrased it a little differently, but the line always went something like this: There’s no shame in getting knocked down. The shame comes when you don’t get back up.

Charles Hawkins knew that. Southern University’s junior wide receiver has known it for a while now. So last weekend, after Tennessee State safety Joseph Wylie leveled him for a second time in the Jaguars’ ugly season-opening loss, leaving Hawkins on the ground with stabbing pains in his chest, rib cage and back, the young wideout knew the deal.

Eventually, he had to get back up. And eventually, he got back in the game.

At 6 p.m. Saturday in A.W. Mumford Stadium, when the Jaguars (0-1) open Southwestern Athletic Conference play against Alabama A&M (0-1), they’ll try to do the same.

“You’ve got to find a way,” said Hawkins, who has transformed himself from an undersized, overlooked walk-on into one of the team’s most dependable players.

“You go across the middle, you know you’re going to take a lick. That comes with the territory of being a wide receiver, period. ... I’m used to taking big hits.”

That he is.

The son of two New Orleans hospital workers - a pair of fine athletes themselves, graduates of Fortier High School - Hawkins grew up in a rented house in Carrollton. He began high school at St. Augustine, where he ran track and played wide receiver, a starter his freshman season, playing alongside the likes of Chad Jones and Rahim Alem and a host of great athletes.

The following year was, suffice it to say, not as enjoyable. Everyone, of course, has a Katrina story, and this is his:

“At first, we weren’t going to leave. Then my mom told my dad, ?We have to leave.’ We finally packed our stuff and left. Our jamboree was that Saturday. We were going to come back Tuesday and play the game.

“Then we got to the hotel in Alexandria and saw it all on TV.”

What they later discovered, first-hand, was a flooded house and a missing car.

Hello, knockdown.

While many other classmates wound up at Southern Lab, Hawkins went off to Kentwood. He didn’t run. He didn’t play. He didn’t want to.

“I didn’t play football until I got back to St. Aug,” he said, “because I didn’t want to play for nobody else.”

When the Hawkins family returned a year later, he found a high school that wasn’t quite the same - in his words, not exactly brimming with athletes, not loaded with college coaches combing the place for talent.

Still, he came back to play football, and he played well.

By Hawkins’ senior year, Brandon Smith, the former Vanderbilt wide receiver, had gotten his first coaching job at St. Aug. He recalled what Hawkins meant - not only to the receiving corps, but to the rookie position coach.

“I remember pulling the seniors aside and saying, ?Look, this is my first time coaching, so I can’t do it all. I need you guys to be leaders,’” Smith said. “He was fast - a good receiver, probably one of the best I’ve coached. But he was a good leader, too. ... The guys really took after him.”

About halfway through that season, Smith got into a serious car accident and couldn’t coach down the stretch. He credited Hawkins with helping to guide the receivers the rest of the way. He wasn’t a coach, of course, but a good influence.

“I just wish I had another year with him,” Smith said.

Still, despite all that effort, Hawkins barely got a sniff from college coaches. Smith suspects that maybe Hawkins was too small for their tastes (he now stands at 5-foot-10, 164 pounds), or perhaps St. Aug’s reputation as an athlete factory had been damaged by the hurricane.

At any rate, Hawkins found nary a scholarship. He enrolled at Southern in 2008 and walked on to the team at spring practice.

As it turned out, he had an ace in the hole. His parents, Quintella Hawkins and Charles Hawkins Jr., had grown up with Eric Dooley, the longtime receivers coach at SU.

“I always kept in contact with them when I went back home. I just didn’t know that was (Quintella’s) son until later,” Dooley said. “But I’d always seen him as a good player.”

Hawkins started slowly at SU, working only as a punt returner in 2009.

When Stump Mitchell took over a year later, he kept Dooley on staff - and Dooley started making plans for Hawkins. Though the team still had a cluster of veteran receivers, he found his way into the rotation.

Though he struggled at times with dropped passes, Hawkins finished with 16 catches for 195 yards.

This spring, it was clear that he’d become one of Southern’s better receivers. He was growing up, too. A business-management major, his GPA climbed from 2.5 last season to 3.0 this summer. One other thing:

Hawkins understood more about football. Once, toward the end of a long preseason practice in boiling-hot weather, Mitchell called a play but used the wrong terminology.

Hawkins was the one who corrected him.

“He’s a smart player. He’s a tough player,” Mitchell said. “I think he showed that by coming back into the ballgame. ... He understands the offense. Guys know that he went out and gave it his all. He tries to help us win football games.”

During last week’s 33-7 loss at Tennessee State, Hawkins finished with four receptions for a team-high 80 yards.

But the numbers weren’t as impressive as how he got them.

In the first quarter, when Southern still had a pulse and a chance, he made a 47-yard catch and run that put the team in position to score its first touchdown (two penalties and a sack forced the Jaguars to punt).

Later, he came face-to-face with Wylie, the Tennessee State safety who promised Hawkins he was in for a long night. The two men traded grins and fist-bumps, and two plays later, Hawkins found himself running across the middle, waiting for a throw from Dray Joseph. As he reached to make the catch, Hawkins got a hard, cold shoulder, courtesy of Wiley.

Later, on a similar route, he was bobbling the football when Wiley met him again, with yet another shoulder. Hawkins spent a few minutes on the grass, collecting his senses with the help of two trainers. He returned in the third quarter to make his final catch.

Now, the Jaguars return to A.W. Mumford Stadium for their home opener, in desperate need of a win. They’re only 0-1, but they looked sloppy in that first game, and concerns about the state of the program are at an all-time high.

“Personally, I think we can beat Alabama A&M this week,” Hawkins said.

“We just have to play a little better.”

They’ve taken hits.

Now’s the time to get back up.