Navy reminds Georgia Tech quarterback Joe Hamilton about his remarkable progress. He's a candidate for the most coveted individual prize in his sport, the one named after former Tech coach John Heisman, and clearly capable of leading his team to a run at the national championship. But Navy, which hosts the Yellow Jackets Saturday in the season opener for both schools, keeps Hamilton humble.
Three years ago, when he was a redshirt freshman, Hamilton had the Yellow Jackets on the verge of a come-from-behind victory over a fine Navy team with its own versatile quarterback, Chris McCoy. In the final three minutes, however, Hamilton threw three interceptions. One cost Tech a chance at a tying field goal. Another was returned 54 yards for the final touchdown in Navy's 10-point victory.
"My most disappointing game ever," Hamilton said. "It's such a miserable feeling to let your guys down. From then on I worked and worked to never let that happen again."
The Yellow Jackets have won 13 of their last 16 games and Hamilton sparked late rallies in four games last season. He passed and ran for much of the yardage during a two-touchdown burst that enabled Tech to snap a seven-game losing streak against bitter rival Georgia. His 54-yard touchdown pass to split end Dez White to beat Virginia capped the greatest second-half comeback in school history. Tech had trailed by 21 points late in the third quarter but won, 41-38.
"I don't think I've ever coached a guy who competes so hard in everything he does," said Tech offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, who has coached at Maryland and Georgia Tech and also with the San Diego Chargers. "I've had a lot who were as competitive [during games] but not on a daily basis."
The Tech coaches have a softball game against the players each spring, a generally lighthearted affair for nearly everyone but Hamilton. When a teammate dropped a fly ball in the outfield during the most recent game, Hamilton yelled: "Don't they play baseball in Alabama?"
Hamilton grew up in Alvin, S.C., a community of about 500 some 40 miles north of Charleston. He was the do-everything quarterback on high school teams that included Pierson Prioleau, a safety who starred at Virginia Tech before being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round, and Penn State all-American defensive end Courtney Brown.
But Hamilton is listed at a generous 5 feet 10, small for a major-college quarterback. He decided not to join distant cousin Brown at his first choice of colleges, Penn State, because of a fear that a few early mistakes at quarterback might get him banished to the defensive backfield.
Tech Coach George O'Leary promised Hamilton an honest chance at quarterback and, after sitting out his first year to grasp a complex offense, the production has been impressive: 5,822 passing yards, 6,846 yards in total offense, 36 touchdown passes and 12 more touchdowns rushing. In his last 17 games, Hamilton has thrown 27 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions.
That's why Tech is pushing Hamilton for the Heisman with -- what else? -- a high-tech campaign. A CD-ROM of Hamilton's best plays and Hamilton-for-Heisman mousepads have been sent to Heisman voters. E-mail updates will follow.
"He'll have to take it from there," director of communications Mike Finn said.
Hamilton plans to.
"If I can improve this year like I have each of the years before," he said, "and if everybody else improves, we'll be all right."
Hamilton and everybody else at Tech says they have been focusing on Navy. But the second game, at Florida State, may be a distraction. Tech and the Seminoles tied for first in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season, with one league loss each, but neutral observers know Florida State was the superior team. Florida State's loss was to North Carolina State; Tech's was to Florida State, 34-7.
Memories of that game and the two earlier ones against the Seminoles also bother Hamilton. He completed a total of 21 passes in 43 tries for just 169 yards in those three games and averaged 36 inches -- one yard -- on 16 carries. The combined score: Florida State 121, Georgia Tech 10.
"If one team in the U.S. doesn't have to respect me, it's Florida State," Hamilton said. "Because I haven't done anything to gain their respect."
Hamilton was injured in each of the three games. He suffered an elbow injury in the first, limped off with a bruised thigh in the second and had a hip pointer in the third quarter last season with the Seminoles ahead by just three points.
Keeping Hamilton healthy motivates the Tech offensive linemen.
"If we do our jobs, Joe won't get hurt," said junior right tackle Chris Brown. "We take that thought to mind each and every day."
Teammates have been pleased with Hamilton's maturity.
"There's no way he would throw those interceptions [against Navy in 1966] now," said running back Phillip Rogers. "He's more patient in drop-back situations. He'll let things develop, not panic."
Hamilton also has improved academically, mostly by not skipping so many classes, and is on track to earn a degree in business in May. He made the athletic director's honor roll in the spring.
Friedgen has emphasized getting that degree, because he knows that Hamilton's size may cause him to go undrafted by any NFL team. The Canadian Football League seems the likely football future for Hamilton.
That is looking way too far ahead. And anyone who allows Florida State to creep into his thoughts is reminded that the Yellow Jackets lost to lightly regarded Boston College in their season opener last season.
Hamilton surely will continue prodding his teammates in the huddle during tight games with a familiar challenge: "Why not be a hero?" He started that during another of Tech's comeback victories last season, against Clemson in the eighth game.
"Every guy was looking at someone else, saying: `Who's gonna pick us up?' Hamilton said. "I told them: `Why not you? Make that block. Make that catch. Do whatever it takes to be a hero.' "