Joe Hamilton played quarterback for the Georgia Tech football team starting in 1996, and earned the title of NCAA Quarterback of the Year in 1999. He played in the NFL from 2000 until 2006, and won one Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 2014, he was added to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Photo: DOUG PENSINGER / GETTY IMAGES
Photo: DOUG PENSINGER / GETTY IMAGES

My first game: 3 Georgia Tech legends remember their debuts

On Saturday at Georgia Tech, several Yellow Jackets players will play their first collegiate snaps. A couple of them may even start against Alcorn State. All, it can be reasonably assumed, will be nervous. Even some of the greatest Jackets players felt that way when they first took the field.

“I was excited and super nervous at the same time,” said Robert Lavette, Tech’s all-time leading rusher, of his first game.

With Tech’s 126th season nearly begun, Lavette and two more of Tech’s all-time greats, Joe Hamilton and Randy Rhino, shared their recollections of their first games as Yellow Jackets.

Randy Rhino, 1972

Randy Rhino confessed this week that the memories from his first game as a Yellow Jacket, against Tennessee at Grant Field on Sept. 9, 1972, are not crisp. Among other things, he knows it was on national television and that he was nervous before the game -- because he was always nervous before games.

“I don’t remember anything about me doing anything in the game,” Rhino said this week. “You kind of want to come in and, especially as a DB, you would prefer nobody noticing you instead of getting beat deep or something like that.”

He does recall its historic significance. Tennessee’s starting quarterback was Condredge Holloway, who that day became the first African-American to play quarterback in the SEC. Further, Tech’s quarterback in that game was Eddie McAshan, who two years before became the second African-American quarterback to start at a major Southeastern university and also the first black player to start at Tech.

“That was a pretty special game,” Rhino said.

Besides also being the first game in Rhino’s career, which would earn him induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002, it was also the debut game for Tech coach Bill Fulcher. It also was actually Tech’s first game in which freshmen were eligible. The NCAA granted freshmen eligibility for football and basketball in 1972, making Rhino and Holloway part of the last class of players to start their varsity careers as sophomores.

“So it was a lot of firsts,” Rhino said. “And they came in here and kicked our butt. Condredge had a great game.”

Rhino remembers the result accurately. The Volunteers, on their way to a No. 8 finish in the AP poll, crushed the Jackets 34-3 before 52,112. Tech completed its season 7-4-1 with a win in the Liberty Bowl over Iowa State.

Georgia Tech great Randy Rhino with wife Missy and their six grandchildren (from left: Catherine, Bode, Dallas, Austin, Morgan and Stella). (Courtesy Randy Rhino)

Rhino started the game at cornerback and also was a return specialist, a role that he fulfilled with aplomb over his career in which he became Tech’s only three-time first-team All-American.

As it would turn out, his second game was the one that proved more memorable for him, as he set a school record with a 95-yard punt return for a touchdown against South Carolina, a record that still stands. (To this day, the one that got away sticks in Rhino’s memory more. He said he would have returned a second punt for a score, but his calf muscles cramped up as he was making a cut.)

Rhino, 64, is a chiropractor and has served Tech athletes since 2002, working out of an office in the Edge Center. He is married with two grown sons and six grandchildren.

It turned out that Rhino and Holloway began a friendship borne out of competition. After playing against each other once more in college, the two played several years for rival teams in the CFL. They shared a reunion when they met up on the field after last year’s Tennessee-Tech game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The memories would have to wait, but a friendship was born.

Georgia Tech legend Randy Rhino (left) poses with Tennessee great Condredge Holloway after the Tech-Tennessee game September 4, 2017 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Courtesy Randy Rhino)

Robert Lavette, 1981

As a prospect at Cartersville High, Lavette picked Tech over the likes of Michigan, Tennessee and Georgia in no small part because of the opportunity that he had to play immediately. It didn’t take long for that to play out, as he was part of Tech’s game plan for its 1981 season opener at No. 4 Alabama on Sept. 12.

Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., filled with a crowd of nearly 79,000. Lavette had turned 18 just days earlier and, he recalled, “was 180 pounds soaking wet.” On the opposite sideline, legend Bear Bryant peered out from beneath his houndstooth hat, overseeing a roster full of future NFL draft picks.

“I had never seen guys that big and that fast,” Lavette said. “I was ready, though. I was ready. I was so excited. It’s like it happened yesterday.”

Tech’s odds were considerable. The Jackets finished the previous season 1-9-1 in coach Bill Curry’s first season, their first one-win season since 1934.

Getting his first snaps at running back midway through the first quarter, Lavette remembers trying to block one of the Crimson Tide defenders – he thinks it was defensive lineman Mike Pitts, later a first-round pick of the Falcons – who “just grabbed me by both of my shoulder pads and just threw me into the (first-down marker) chains. That was my welcome into college football.”

In the first quarter, Lavette slipped through the Tide defense for a 13-yard touchdown run to cut into a 10-0 lead.

“The more I touched the ball, I gained more confidence,” he said. “I just felt like I belonged amongst the big boys.”

Much to the surprise of virtually everyone, Tech held its own, moving the ball on offense behind quarterback Mike Kelley and getting big plays from the defense.

“I think we gained confidence,” said Lavette, who turns 55 in September. “By the third quarter, we knew that we could play with them.”

Lavette scored the game-winner with on a 2-yard run with 3:57 left, knifing through so much resistance that his jersey was torn clean off his back. Tech won 24-21 in one of the most significant upsets in school history. Lavette finished with 50 yards on 11 carries, on his way to completing his career with 4,066, still the most in school history. A day after the game, Bryant was reported to have said that Lavette “beat us by himself.”

“When the day was finally over, I’ll never forget,” he said. “My oldest brother (Darrell, who had jumped a fence to get on the field), he picked me up on his shoulders like we had won the Super Bowl. To beat the third-ranked team in the country (actually, fourth) in my first game, it was the highlight of that season for sure.”

Most certainly. Tech, whose roster that season included athletic director Todd Stansbury and John Ivemeyer, father of Jackets offensive tackle Bailey Ivemeyer, didn’t win again that season, finishing 1-10.

These days, Lavette is a broker for Senior Market Advisors and living in Austell. He is a father of two and a grandfather of seven. He answers to Paw Paw.

Thirty-seven years later, though, it doesn’t take much to bring him back to Legion Field. Beating Alabama as a freshman “was one of my fondest memories in my college career.”

Georgia Tech great Robert Lavette with two of his grandchildren, Christian (left) and Eric Lavette. (Courtesy Robert Lavette)

Joe Hamilton, 1996

Much like his career that followed, Hamilton’s first game as a Yellow Jacket was a success. Hamilton won the starting job over Brandon Shaw in a tight preseason competition. Hamilton still remembers sitting with Shaw in coach George O’Leary’s office and being informed that he’d won, and then immediately calling his parents to share the news.

Before the game, at N.C. State before what he recalled as “a sea of red” at Carter-Finley Stadium, Hamilton was nervous, anxious and excited.

“I wasn’t really worried, but concerned how the speed of the game was going to change, and would I be able to handle it,” Hamilton said this week.

Tech fell behind 10-0 as Hamilton split time with Shaw. But, Hamilton got the feel of the game. He led a drive that concluded with a swing pass to C.J. Williams took in for a 20-yard touchdown.

“That was the momentum-builder,” Hamilton said. “And that finally settled me in the game and said, ‘Hey, man, Joe, you do belong.’”

Hamilton finished the game completing eight of nine passes for 74 yards with a touchdown and interception and nine rushes for 36 yards.

He recalled helpful advice from a former teammate, center Mike Cheevers, who told him to be aware that he could make a mistake.

“So if it does happen, it doesn’t shellshock you where you go in the tank,” said Hamilton, who is now a private quarterbacks coach and co-host of a morning radio show on 106.3 FM/1230 AM. “That you already know we got that one out of the way, now let’s go play football. And that’s exactly what happened.”

It was advice he said he carried through his career.

Hamilton, married with two children, would go on to a career as one of the all-time greats in college football history. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2014. It began on a September Saturday afternoon in Raleigh, N.C.

“I couldn’t just stop smiling because we had won the first game that I had started in,” said Hamilton, 41. “And, oh, boy, if it goes this way, I can possibly be 30-0 as a career starter.”

He didn’t quite reach that mark, but he wasn’t too far off.

Georgia Tech legend Joe Hamilton with his family (wife Kenya, son Skylar and daughter Kayden) at the induction ceremony this past February for the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame. (Courtesy Joe Hamilton)

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