The Ultimate Team Player

Nov. 14, 2014

Originally posted May 23, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

When the time finally came, Joe Hamilton looked at it as a family moment because that’s the prism through which the greatest quarterback in Georgia Tech history always viewed his football work.

Just a bit after the National Football Foundation announced that Hamilton would be inducted in December into the College Football Hall of Fame, `Lil Joe,’ began to hear from his brothers.

This was not just the two older siblings and the younger sister whom he grew up with him in tiny Alvin, S.C., but the men with whom he’d worked on the Flats.

Donte Booker, Dez White, Kelly Campbell…” Hamilton said when asked later in the day who he had heard from via congratulatory phone calls and texts.

As he sat and reviewed the situation while in his office at Tech, where he is a member of the recruiting staff, Hamilton marveled over the memories.

The list went on and on and on, actually, and these were people who not only played with him from 1996-99, but who are endeared to him less because of the quality of football player that he was and more because for the way he went about including them in his work.

All those times when people would stop Joe somewhere on or near campus and seek his autograph . . . Hamilton always made sure that his teammates were included in the signings.

Hamilton might have at times made it look like a one-man game in his senior season of ’99 when he completed two-thirds of his passes for 3,060 yards and 29 touchdowns while rushing for another 734 yards and six more scores, but he knew intrinsically that while he was pulling, others were helping bring him along.

They all said something similar, like, “Thank you for the ride. They feel it,” Hamilton said. “Almost like a true family member. That’s what the locker room is all about . . . Genuine passion about what we did on the field, and in those practices. Just genuine thanks. `It was a pleasure to play with you.’ It feels real good.” 

Hamilton made a lot of Tech fans feel great over his four-year career as a starter.

It was hard to believe on Thursday that the most prolific quarterback in school history wasn’t a lock to play the position in college, and he gave serious thought to going elsewhere.

After running up an ACC-record 10,640 yards of total offense and becoming the first NCAA Division I quarterback to amass 10,000 total yards with at least 1,500 rushing yards (1,758), Hamilton was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the seventh round in 2000.

His pro career wasn’t so special, but in college he was something else.

As he was being recruited by programs far and wide in the fall of 1994 out of Macedonia High in tiny Alvin, college coaches were fairly salivating over his athleticism. Hamilton was marvelously skilled, particularly at running the ball.

Beyond being a two-time All-state point guard on the basketball team, he rushed for 1,858 yards and 32 touchdowns in high school and he just had that something extra on the field.

So, the big boys came calling.

Georgia Tech, not so fresh but rather wilted coming off a 1-10 season, was the outlier in a game of, `Which one of these does not belong.’

Notre Dame and South Carolina were regulars in the Hamilton home, and they had plenty of company.

“Nebraska was coming off a national championship . . . Clemson was very high; [but they] didn’t quite want to back off the `athlete,’ [label]. I just didn’t want to see that on my tag at all,” Hamilton recalled. “Penn State . . . I thought was the best program . . . I just didn’t see me being a fit for what they were doing.

“[Former Nebraska head coach] Tom Osborne and [Penn State’s] Joe Paterno both sat in my living room. That’s legendary.”

After all the sales pitches, Hamilton cut through the fog and made his decision based on basic factors. He would play for George O’Leary, who had just wrapped up a half season as Tech’s interim coach in the wake of Bill Lewis.

“It came down to basically the chance to compete to play quarterback, and play right away,” Joe said. “I heard a lot of `athlete’ coming out. Coach O’Leary saw me as a quarterback. Just his confidence . . .”

The assistant coach chiefly responsible for recruiting Hamilton, Danny Smith, would move on before Joe arrived on campus. He took a job with the NFL’s Washington Redskins.

And Hamilton did not play right away. He redshirted in ’95 while watching and studying behind senior signal caller Donnie Davis.

Even when he took over in ’96, there were kinks to be worked out. As he pointed out Thursday, he passed for just seven touchdowns that season while throwing 13 interceptions as the Jackets went 5-6.

There were times when Hamilton had a hard time calling plays, at least to where his teammates could understand him.

If you know anything about the South Carolina low country, and the tiny dot on the map that is Alvin between Charleston and Myrtle Beach just south of Hellhole Bay, you know many folks carry a thick accent.

“I had that Gullah Geechee . . . I struggled with pronunciation, enunciation,” Hamilton explained.

School officials put Joe in classes to clean up his English.

He cleaned up everything.

Hamilton took off as a sophomore in ’97. Against Wake Forest, he threw three touchdown passes to Harvey Middleton, who grew up not far from Alvin and helped recruit Joe to the Flats.

The Jackets narrowly lost to Georgia that season, 27-24, but went on to beat the Bulldogs in his junior and senior seasons.

Along the way, the Jackets (10-2) were co-ACC champions in ’98 and were ranked No. 9 nationally after beating Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. Former offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen built an offense around Hamilton, and Tech usually hummed.

Certain opponents stick out still. 

“Clemson, every Clemson game . . . the reason why I call Clemson first is I always had it out . . .the, `athlete,’ [label]. I wanted my best, best game to come against them,” Hamilton recalled.

“The Georgia games . . . we let one slip in ’97, the interference call. To end the [seven-year losing] streak the next year, another barn burner in `98 between the hedges; the `99 overtime thriller here.”

His favorite play was called, “Turn 44.”

As he said, “Deep, deep. It was a little play action, 989, a post in the middle, two outside guys going deep. We had speed; Dez White, Kelly Campbell, Kerry Watkins and guys like that . . . just let it rip.”

For a guy who came from such a small place, Hamilton did big things.

His father, Joe Sr., and mother, Ginger, still work in or nearby the town of less than 1,000 that produced Hamilton and Penn State defensive lineman Courtney Brown, who was a year behind Joe.

A cousin, Pierson Prioleau, went to Virginia Tech a couple years before Hamilton reached college, and eventually was drafted by the 49ers.

Hamilton put Alvin on the map when he was runner-up to Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne for the ’99 Heisman Trophy.

Mom and Dad were at every game, and still make the rounds. Joe’s family is close. His younger sister is in Atlanta to attend the kindergarten graduation of Joe’s son, Skyler.

Joe Sr. and Ginger missed only one of Joe’s college games, at Boston College, and they’ll certainly be in attendance when he’s inducted at the NFF’s annual awards dinner Dec. 9 in New York.

Some great conversations are coming, even with Mom and Dad.

“I’m going to reflect,” Joe said. “I’m going to ask my dad, `How was the ride?’ When you’re in it, you’re thinking of next week.”

To this day, Hamilton occasionally apologizes to some of the seniors on that ’96 team for not helping Tech make it to a bowl. The Jackets have been to a bowl every season since his sophomore year of ’97.

Always thinking of others, that’s Joe.

Even as he sat with Tech staffers in the team meeting room and they watched on the big screen Thursday as the NFF announced Hall of Fame inductees, Hamilton had others on his mind.

“If it was up to me, I don’t know if I really would have known when exactly it was going to be announced . . . the biggest thing for me was to be on that ballot,” he said. “But as it grew closer and closer, all my family and friends . . . felt it. They wanted me to get in really bad.

“So in turn, I didn’t want any deflation. Even when I was watching, I did not want my name not to be called because they wanted it so bad. It’s an honor, I’m grateful, I understand what it means, but I didn’t want it . . . but when it’s here, it means a lot . . . you look at your career and say, `I must have played at a high level.’ “

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