Oct. 26, 2009
by Jon Cooper
OSR Sting EXTRA
ATLANTA — It goes without saying that Joe Hamilton was one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to don the Georgia Tech uniform.
It certainly won’t be volunteered by Hamilton, who in his four years as Tech’s starting QB, led the Yellow Jackets to an ACC Championship and helped restore the luster to the football program. He led the team to 30 wins in his four years, re-wrote the Tech record books (still owning many of records) and earned national prominence, topped by being runner-up for the 1999 Heisman Trophy.
But Hamilton insists that it was never about him and he is as modest about his impending induction into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame on Nov. 6.
“I’m speechless,” he said. “A lot of people say, ‘Joe, you had to know it was coming with the numbers you piled up.’ But you don’t play for that. My goal was to stay humble, understand that people paved the way before me and make sure I upheld the Georgia Tech tradition of being a great university.”
Things weren’t so great when Hamilton, a star at Macedonia High School and South Carolina’s Prep Player of the Year, arrived in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets were in the midsts of rebuilding, two seasons removed from a 1-10 season and five years removed from their last bowl game appearance. It wouldn’t be long before things turned around.
“We came in as a group in ’95, me, Charlie Rogers, Rodderick Roberts, Jessie Tarplin, Jerry Caldwell. We wanted to make a change,” he said. “To get back to that kind of culture, where we beat Georgia, we won the ACC, we were in a New Year’s Day bowl game and we were able to be successful. It was a journey.”
After a 5-6 freshman season, in which Hamilton started every game and finished second to North Carolina’s Dré Bly for ACC Rookie of the Year, the winning began in earnest in 1997, as Tech went 7-5 including a 35-30 victory over West Virginia in the Carquest Bowl. Hamilton was named Most Valuable Player, accounting for a school bowl-record 356 yards of total offense and three touchdowns.
The Yellow Jackets have been over .500 and played in a bowl game every season since. Their 12-year bowl-appearance streak is the fourth-longest current streak in the nation and the 12th-longest all-time.
But Hamilton and Co. were just getting started. In 1998, as a junior, Hamilton led the Jackets to a 10-2 record, and a 7-1 mark in the ACC, good for a share of the conference championship. As important, Tech broke a seven-game losing streak to rival Georgia, winning in Athens, 21-19. Tech then knocked off Notre Dame, 35-28, in the Gator Bowl, to finish the year ranked 9th in the final AP poll and 11th according to USA Today. Hamilton was named first-team All-ACC.
Hamilton saved his personal best for last, capping his career by leading Tech into the top 10 (the Jackets reached as high as No. 7), and again beating UGA in an epic 51-48 overtime thriller at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“That whole season, we were ranked big time. Obviously, we had a lot of notoriety with me being up for the Heisman,” he recalled. “We knew a good season was in the making. Unfortunately, we didn’t end up where we had hoped to, but it was a good season.”
Tech finished 8-4, 5-3 in the conference, and would again finish ranked in the top 25 (21st in AP, 20th in USA Today). Tech would be ranked the final 19 weeks of Hamilton’s career.
Hamilton was rewarded by finishing as runner-up to Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne for the Heisman Trophy, the highest finish ever for a Georgia Tech player. He won the Davey O’Brien Award (awarded to the nation’s top quarterback), was a finalist for the Maxwell Award and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award (given to the nation’s top senior quarterback). He also was named Consensus First-Team All-America and ACC Player of the Year, the first Yellow Jacket to earn that honor. Calvin Johnson and Jonathan Dwyer have since followed. He also was named to the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 50th Anniversary Team in 2002.
After being selected in the seventh round of the 2000 NFL Draft by Tampa Bay, Hamilton played four NFL seasons, then played in Europe and in the Arena League.
Today, he is prouder than ever to be part of the Yellow Jacket family. The family atmosphere that was so prevalent on the Tech teams he was on is a reason that his induction into the Hall of Fame with teammate Craig Page is so important.
“One of the biggest things is that I’m able to go into the Hall of Fame with my center, Craig Page,” he said. “Without him, I can’t tell you where I would be. The bad things he got me out of, the times he saved my rear end and just the love.
“You think about the Hall of Fame and what it means,” he added. “I think about my teammates and I wish I could bring all my teammates in with me, because it was such a team effort. I couldn’t have done it without those guys. I get chill bumps now, because it’s exciting just thinking about it.”
Hamilton is also excited about the thought of his family — wife, Kenya, mother, Ginger, and father, Joseph — attending the ceremony.
“It’s just a beautiful feeling,” he said. “My wife (a women’s basketball standout for the Jackets) also went to Georgia Tech so everybody’s excited, because that’s what we bleed, old gold and white.”
Hamilton has one more pass to complete and that is his passing on of the tradition of Georgia Tech Football to his 18-month-old son, Skyler, a process already underway.
“He watches the game with dad but he doesn’t know that dad actually played and ran,” said Hamilton with a laugh. “Eventually some day he’ll see film of what I was able to do.”
The Georgia Tech Hall of Fame Induction Dinner will be held on Friday, November 6 at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center. A social hour will begin at 6:30 p.m. with the dinner/program to follow at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets may be purchased at $50.00 per person through the Alexander-Tharpe Fund (150 Bobby Dodd Way, N.W., Atlanta, GA, 30332-0455 or by calling 404-894-6124). Additional information relative to the banquet may be secured by calling Lucius Sanford, Executive Director of the Georgia Tech Letterwinners Club at 404-894-8865.