'Little Joe' Becomes A Legend

Nov. 6, 2009

by Wes Durham
OSR Sting EXTRA

It was going to happen; we knew it as his career was unfolding, but still to know that former Yellow Jacket quarterback Joe Hamilton will be inducted into the Georgia Tech Hall of Fame tonight just means that the legend we knew was playing a decade ago is finally getting his formal recognition.

During his four-year career for head coach George O’Leary, Joseph Fitzgerald Hamilton, Jr., of Alvin, S.C., won his spot in Tech football lore with his ability to win, but also the style with which he did it.

Each of us has our favorite “Joe Ham” moment.

There are former teammates who will tell you about his mastery of video games in the dorm room. Word is that he was undefeated from middle of his sophomore year until almost the end of his final season.

After a couple years on campus, word started leaking out about pick-up basketball games on campus that featured the former all-state point guard from Macedonia High, “quarterbacking” his team to win after win over squads of teammates and would-be challengers from the student body.

Those are just two of the stories that became campus legend.

But then there was the player who guided the Jackets to their last ACC Championship in 1998, and their last 10-win season, when they beat a top-10 Virginia team for Homecoming, knocked off Georgia in Athens, and then toppled Notre Dame on New Year’s Day in Jacksonville.

How many guys get the band to form his number when he’s introduced on “Senior Day”, then go out and fashion one of the most memorable wins over their arch-rival in their final home game?

Joe Hamilton did.

Hamilton was the centerpiece of the Jacket football resurgence that has been going since.

Remember, when the red-shirt rookie took his first collegiate snap, the Yellow Jackets hadn’t been to a bowl since 1991, when Bobby Ross guided them to the Aloha Bowl. Tech had posted just one winning season since (6-5 in 1995).

There were growing pains for Hamilton in his first year. There were more interceptions than touchdowns and more losses than wins (5-6).

That all would change the next year, when O’Leary brought his friend, Ralph Friedgen, back to coordinate the offense. From that point on, the Jackets were a threat on offense with Hamilton leading the way.

If you are Joe Hamilton, your career must have been pretty good when the record books are full of your accomplishments.

Going into Saturday’s Wake Forest game, Hamilton still holds the records for 12 passing marks. Next closest to Hamilton is his buddy, and the guy who followed him at quarterback, George Godsey.

That and the fact whoever wears your number 14 from here on, is still considered to be wearing “Joe Hamilton’s number.” Just ask current Tech kicker Scott Blair, who has been told of this fact on several occasions since donning the famous number.

It is ironic that Hamilton is being inducted into the Hall of Fame in the same year a similar competitor has come along at quarterback like him.

Although bigger, but not as fast, junior Josh Nesbitt has brought the Jackets back to a stage like Hamilton did in the late ’90’s. Nesbitt displays Hamilton’s toughness in doing what is needed to win.

Coach Paul Johnson has said that as Nesbitt continues to grow in the Jackets’ offensive attack, his athletic ability and toughness is what can be the difference in getting a win for Tech.

Hamilton was the MVP in two bowl wins, the 1999 ACC Player of the Year, and of course, the runner-up to Ron Dayne for the Heisman Trophy his senior year to equal the best finish ever by a Tech player.

But what made Hamilton’s induction into the Hall of Fame even more unique was that joining him in the induction class was his center, Craig Page.

A finalist for the Outland Trophy as a senior, Page transferred into the Tech program from Louisville and became one of the top lineman in Tech history.

When Hamilton and I visited this summer just after he was notified of his induction this fall, he confided to me something about the honor that touched him:

“How great it is that I get to go into the Hall of Fame with my center? Seriously, how many guys get to receive such an honor then have someone who was with them all the way included at the same time.”

Hamilton was tough, athletic, crafty and a winner. He competed at everything … including goal line drills in preseason practice.

It was August of 1997, and Tech had just gone to full pads for the preseason practices. George O’Leary thought he would test the early mettle of his club with a goal-line drill with the number one offense and the number one defense battling in front of the whole team and others watching the first week of practice.

Hamilton had the offense, while senior linebackers Keith Brooking and Ron Rogers had the lead for the Jacket defense. Before the drill began, Hamilton was talking trash to the defense as Brooking was telling him to “bring it on.”

The first play from scrimmage, Hamilton took the snap from center, faked the handoff and kept the ball on an option run around the edge for the score, which brought all sorts of screams from the offense, and more determination for the defense.

The very next play, Hamilton again took the snap and before he could make a move, Brooking flew the air and sacked Hamilton as he stepped from center. Two of the Jackets best competitors were even and they both led Georgia Tech back to relevance in football.

This weekend, “Little Joe” earns his legendary status in an official form with induction into the Georgia Tech Hall of Fame.

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