Oct. 13, 2004
by Simit Shah – During his four years as Georgia Tech’s quarterback, Joe Hamilton accomplished the impossible on a regular basis. Five years after he took his final collegiate snap, the electrifying signal-caller is still defying the odds, as he attempts to make it in the NFL.
A native of Alvin, South Carolina, Ham-ilton literally rewrote the Georgia Tech and ACC record books. His senior year is arguably the best season ever by a Georgia Tech football player, as he was a consensus all-American and finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
Hamilton’s career marks for total offense (10,640 yards), touchdown passes (65) and total touchdowns (83) shattered ACC records. The 5-10, 190-pound quarterback, who started 42 games 1996-99, is also listed atop nearly every passing and total offense category in school history.
“I have some great memories from playing at Georgia Tech,” said Hamilton, listing games against Virginia (41-38), Clemson (24-21) and Georgia (51-48) in 1998 among his favorites. “There were some rough times at the beginning, but we won a lot of big games and went to three bowl games.”
In 2002, Hamilton was one of three Yellow Jackets named to the ACC’s 50th anniversary team, which included the 50 best players in conference history.
Off the field, his relationship with coaches George O’Leary and Ralph Friedgen, as well as the fellow members of his freshman class are the lasting bonds from his time in Atlanta.
Upon completing his stellar collegiate career, Hamilton was selected in the seventh round of the 2000 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He played in only one game, which fittingly came against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome, during his three seasons in Tampa.
“It was tough in the sense that I thought I could be out there making plays, especially when I’ve never really had to sit on the bench my entire life,” he said. “But you do realize that the person that’s ahead of you has the experience that makes them better than you. I felt comfortable there, but I was always working to get better.”
Hamilton spent the summer of 2002 in NFL Europe with the Frankfurt Galaxy. He was impressive in the developmental league, leading his team to a 5-2 record before tearing his ACL.
“It was a frustrating, but I was able to get six games under my belt,” he stated. “Having six games on film was important. I had some ups and downs while I was over there, but I was having a good season.”
The knee injury sidelined him for the 2002 NFL season, but Hamilton was able to watch his Buccaneers’ triumphant Super Bowl march from the sidelines.
“A lot of people think the Super Bowl is all hype, but I’m here to tell them that it’s not,” he said. “It’s pure excitement. That whole day is exciting, just one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. It was beautiful experience.”
Although fully healed, Hamilton’s contract was not renewed prior to the 2003 season. However, his passion for football still burned, so Hamilton continued to work out and briefly flirted with playing in the CFL.
He finally opted for the Arena Football League this past spring, signing with the Orlando Predators. Hamilton threw for 2,919 yard and 57 touchdowns in 14 games while guiding the Predators to the playoffs.
“It was playing football to the extent you’re trying to get first downs, score touchdowns and ultimately win,” he said, explaining the adjustment required for arena football. “The field was smaller, so the trajectory of the ball had to different. Overall, it was just quicker. I think it helped me as far as having good vision and making quick decisions.”
The performance was proof that he was healthy and could still play football. His coach in Tampa, Tony Dungy, was impressed enough to invite Hamilton to the Indianapolis Colts training camp.
Despite being a longshot to make the roster, Hamilton made the most of his playing time in preseason games, completing 14 of 24 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown. On cutdown day, the Colts surprised many by releasing veteran Cory Sauter and keeping Hamilton.
“He picked up our offense as fast as anybody since I came in here,” Dungy said after announcing his decision. “We could have a very different package with him, naked bootlegs, things like that. It would give us a very different look.”
“Coach Dungy believed in me,” Hamilton said. “He sees something in me that he likes, and I’m thankful for that. I’m here trying to improve and be ready if my number is called.
“I knew that if kept working and honing my skills that eventually I’d get a shot. It was a struggle, but I kept striving towards that goal,” he continued. “I thought I’d get another shot, but there were some times where doubt crept in.”
Backing up ironman Peyton Manning isn’t exactly a taxing job, as the reigning NFL MVP has missed only one snap in his seven-year career. However, Hamilton sees it as an opportunity to learn from one of the best.
“I just want to find my role with the team and execute to the best of my ability,” he said. “I’m just staying positive and learning from Peyton, who’s a magician as a quarterback.”
Even though his professional career has been somewhat nomadic, Ham-ilton retains close ties to Georgia Tech. He’s an avid fan of the football team and attended several games last season. He’s especially attentive of the players that have succeeded him at quarterback, including Georgia Tech’s current signal-caller Reggie Ball.
“I like Reggie a lot,” he stated. “I like his heart and his ability to make plays. I think he’ll continue to get better, especially now that he has one year under his belt.
“My advice to him is to continue to learn and take things to a higher level, because people are going to set their target on him. I’m confident that he can do that.”
Hamilton married former Georgia Tech women’s basketball player Kenya Williams last June, and they are building a home in Atlanta.