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#TGW: The Ride's Not Over

May 28, 2014

By Matt Winkeljohn

The Good Word

With Joe Hamilton on his way to entering College Football Hall of Fame next winter, he and his father are going in opposite directions. That’s a great thing.

Upon receiving his induction nod last week, Hamilton said that he will — finally – slow down and review his stellar career at Georgia Tech from 1996-’99. Dad will be an anchor among sounding boards. “I’m going to reflect, and ask him, `How was the ride?” Joe said. “When you’re in it, you’re thinking of next week.”

Dad’s speeding up, and ready for another road trip.

When Joe Sr. found out last week that his boy was going into college football’s big house on Dec. 9 in New York City, his first reaction was, “That the unbelievable ride that we took is not over,” said a parent who missed just one of his son’s 43 college football games, a trip to Boston College.

Joe Sr. had to slow down a bit Wednesday morning to talk about it.

Just off yet an overnight shift as a supervisor in the ALCOA plant in Goose Creek, S.C., where he has worked for 31 years, he postponed sleep to tend to vegetables. He was happier still to take a break from that to step into the family homestead of about half a century and chat about his second son.

There was plenty to talk about.

Joe Jr. years earlier resisted recruiting pitches from college football powerhouses like Nebraska and Penn State, who were as interested in him as an athlete as they were as a quarterback, and chose Tech even as the Jackets came off a 1-10 season in 1994.

Reason: Former Tech coach George O’Leary saw Lil’ Joe as a QB.

Yet Dad was worried when the Jackets trailed at halftime of the second game of his son’s sophomore season, in 1997. Tech lost its opener a week earlier at Notre Dame, 17-13, and Joe Jr. had a so-so redshirt freshman season behind him in which the Jackets went 5-6.

Papa figured that time might be running out.

“There are so many great moments that I can’t even pick one out and say this was the best, but I could tell you this, the Wake Forest game his redshirt sophomore year was big,” Joe Sr. said. “The reason why is he had a terrible first half, and he had to step it up or his career was going in the opposite direction . . .

“You’re going to get it done here, or somebody is going to replace you. He stepped up to the table to challenge himself . . . that’s what launches stardom.”

Mom might not have been much help on that afternoon.

Ginger Hamilton, director of the delinquent tax collection office in Buckley County, S.C., where she has worked for 31 years, had a track record for shrinking from big moments. She might vanish into the bowels of a stadium at crunch time.

“Most times, as a mother I was always tense and worried about him getting injured,” she said. “His father could probably answer every question for every game that Joe ever played. I watched for the most part, but my biggest concern was to make sure he didn’t get hurt. We had discussions after the games.”

So maybe Joe saw the finger at halftime.

His father, 60, still coaches in the Alvin Youth Football League and even after coaching Joe as a lad he continued to have an effect through his son’s times at Macedonia High and with Joe playing for at Georgia Tech.

“I sit in the stands, and I focus on the complete field,” explained Joe Sr. “First, in high school . . . I used to put my finger up to my mouth for, `Hush, hush,’ if he started to get a little attitude. And sometime, I would put my fingers to my head . . . to think.

“He always knew where I was sitting, and he would look up to see where the finger was going to go.”

Joe found his way with no small amount of help from former offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen.

Hamilton threw touchdown passes to fellow South Carolinian Harvey Middleton, Derrick Steagall and Ed Wilder in the second half to key a 28-26 win over the Demon Deacons.

The Wake victory triggered a four-game winning streak, and although the Jackets were walloped after that at No. 3 Florida State and lost a squeaker to Georgia (27-24), they beat West Virginia in the Carquest Bowl to finish 7-5 and ranked No. 25.

The big numbers came after that.

Hamilton was frequently sublime in ’98, when the Jackets tied for the ACC title and beat Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl to finish 10-2 and Nos. 9/11.

As a senior, he won the Davey O’Brien award as the nation’s top running back and was runner-up to Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne in the Heisman Trophy voting.

He completed two-thirds of his passes for 3,060 yards and 29 touchdowns while rushing for another 734 yards and six more scores that season as Tech went 8-4 and beat Georgia 51-48 in the epic fumble game in Bobby Dodd Stadium on the way to final rankings of Nos. 20/21.

All Hamilton did was set the ACC record of 10,640 yards of total offense and become the first NCAA Division I quarterback to amass 10,000 total yards with at least 1,500 rushing yards (1,758).

Dad had much to do with how Joe turned out, contributing to the decision to send his son to Penn State’s football camp between his freshman and sophomore seasons in high school.

Nittany Lions head coach Joe Paterno and his staff helped Hamilton with his throwing motion. “He had a good arm, but he had twist in his wrist like a baseball pitcher,” his father recalled.

Joe Jr. wasn’t all football and basketball. It wasn’t an all-the-time thing for him, nor his two brothers (he also has a younger sister).

“During Joe’s era, you had work to do,” Joe Sr. said. “Joe and my sons all had work to do before they could pick up a basketball or throw a football. It might be cutting the grass, pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks, going up to their grandmother’s house to work in the garden, picking peas or whatever.

“He never was a big head, but being a quarterback you can’t let the defense get in your head. It wasn’t like he was getting a big head, but he might have a little attitude if somebody wanted to rough him up. I had to calm him down, and say, `Don’t let these guys change what you’re capable of doing.’ It was just a matter of growing up and being the best leader you can become.”

The Hamiltons in 1995 passed on the offers of Penn State, where coaches had him play quarterback and cornerback in camp, for sake of concern that the Nittany Lions would not have the patience to stick with Lil’ Joe as a signal caller.

The same went for defending national champion Nebraska, in-state schools Clemson and South Carolina, and Notre Dame among others.

Still, the elder Hamiltons come to Atlanta frequently, as they visit Joe, his wife and their two children about three times a year. Joe visits them as well.

Joe Sr., Ginger, the siblings and a spread of family and friends will make the December trip to the Big Apple, too.

After all, the ride is not over.

“Yes, we’re planning on going,” Joe Sr. said. “Our family, if it was in the ACC . . . we would normally travel as a pack. We’d just jump in the cars and get going. This thing is unbelievable. I’ll tell you, I had a few congratulate me on the job this morning.

“This is something that we could have never dreamed about. We could never have dreamed about the Heisman, the Davey O’Brien. It’s just something that was . . . amazing.”

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