Sep 7, 2013
By Jon Cooper
Georgia Tech Football was off on Saturday.
It wouldn’t have been surprising, however, if Joe Hamilton woke up early, with butterflies in his stomach and adrenaline running extra high.
It also wouldn’t have been surprising if at times, maybe while watching one of the plethora of televised games around the country, that a feeling of deja vu swept over him.
Voila! Suddenly, he was back in Sept. 7, 1996.
He was no longer in his living room in Atlanta, but in a locker room in Raleigh, N.C. The Georgia Tech polo shirt he’d put on was replaced by a Georgia Tech football jersey.
Who could blame Hamilton for flashing back?
There’s something magical about that first start, something you never forget, especially when you lead a dramatic come-from-behind win over a conference rival. Hamilton did all that for Georgia Tech at NC State on Sept. 7, 1996.
After redshirting in 1995, the Alvin, S.C., native and Macedonia High School star, was ready to take the reins. His first test would come against against the Wolfpack in front of a hostile crowd at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Things didn’t go as planned early on, as the home team carried a 10-0 lead out of the first quarter.
But Tech fought back, the same as the year before, when it spotted State a 19-6 lead after three quarters before outscoring them 21-0 in the final 15 minutes in a 27-19 victory.
The Jackets didn’t wait as long to come back this time but used the same weapon, running back C.J. Williams. Williams who ran for four touchdowns in ’95, including all three in the final stanza, accounted for three more in ’96, gauging State for a game-high 148 yards — 25 more than the entire Wolfpack team and more than half of Tech’s 286 on the day.
Williams and fullback Charles Wiley (14 carries for 82 yards) ran wild, setting up Tech’s passing game, which got the Jackets on the board six seconds into the second quarter.
Hamilton went to his big-play senior, Williams, hitting him on a 20-yard pass play. The connection was his first touchdown pass as a collegian and pulled Tech to within a field goal. Less than four minutes later, Williams completed the go-ahead drive, bursting in from a yard out to put Tech up 14-10. They would not trail again, taking a 14-13 lead into intermission.
In the second half, the Jackets extended their lead as defensive end Jermaine Miles stripped NC. State QB Jose Laureano, and defensive tackle Derrick Shepard scooped the ball up and ran 27 yards into the end zone for 21-13 lead.
After State answered with a field goal, Hamilton put the game away, leading the Jackets on an 11-play scoring drive. Williams capped off the drive with six-yard run, but it was Hamilton who stepped up during it. On three occasions he sustained the drive with third-down conversions, using a pair of runs (one for five yards, another for 15), and a 10-yard pass to Williams.
The Jackets took home the 28-16 win, snapping NC State’s streak of eight consecutive season-opening wins.
Hamilton did his part, managing the game and showing his accuracy, going 8-of-9 through the air for 74 yards, with the touchdown pass against one interception. He spread the wealth, hitting four different receivers, with split end Harvey Middleton catching a game-high five passes for 38 yards. He also rushed effectively, gaining 37 yards on nine carries.
The season would be get increasingly more difficult for Hamilton and the Jackets, as the team struggled down the stretch, and finished 5-6, but it was clear from that game that there would be big things ahead.
Hamilton won ACC Rookie of the Week four times and was runner-up to North Carolina DB Dré Bly for ACC Rookie of the Year.
Things would only get better, as he would have a storied career, graduating as the school’s all-time leader in total offense (10,640 yards). He capped off his career in 1999, when, as team captain, he won the Davey O’Brien Award, presented to the nation’s top quarterback by the Davey O’Brien Foundation, and came the closest a Yellow Jacket has ever come to winning the Heisman Trophy, finishing as runner-up to Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne. Hamilton was an offensive machine ranking second in the nation in passing efficiency (175.00) and total offense (345.27 ypg), both still school records. He even orchestrated one of the most dramatic wins in the Georgia Tech-Georgia rivalry, a 51-48 OT thriller at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Hamilton was voted into the Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009, and, this season, came back to work at Tech, being hired as a recruiting assistant in April. He’d served the previous two years as an assistant coach at Georgia State under former Yellow Jackets head coach Bill Curry.
It’s been 17 years since that memorable day in Raleigh. Who would have guessed it all would end up here?