Tech’s Hamilton cherishes hall selection

Joe Hamilton insisted that Thursday’s announcement for the College Football Hall of Fame’s class of 2014 did not hold much significance to him. He said that simply being on the ballot was enough of an honor.

And then the legendary Tech quarterback found himself in the Georgia Tech team room, watching the live stream of the announcement Thursday afternoon and hearing the words “and our next inductee is Georgia Tech’s…”

Hamilton’s right arm shot in the air, his index finger aloft, as though he had just completed a long touchdown pass to Dez White. He embraced Saeed Khalif, another Tech great now working alongside Hamilton in Tech’s recruiting office (Khalif was known as Kyle Ambrose during his playing days) and then squeezed Tech sports medicine director Jay Shoop so hard the two nearly fell over, stripping clean his veneer of cool.

“I must have had something inside, I guess,” Hamilton said later. “It was awesome. Awesome. Awesome stuff.”

Hamilton was one of 16 named to this year’s inductees, 14 players and two coaches. They include North Carolina defensive back Dre Bly, USC offensive tackle Tony Boselli, Purdue defensive tackle Dave Butz, Maine linebacker John Huard, Stanford running back Darrin Nelson, Louisiana Tech offensive lineman Willie Roaf, UCLA quarterback John Sciarra, South Carolina wide receiver Sterling Sharpe, McNeese State cornerback Leonard Smith, late Alabama linebacker Derrick Thomas, TCU running back LaDainian Tomlinson and Ole Miss tight end Wesley Walls. Oregon coach Mike Bellotti and Appalachian State coach Jerry Moore were also named to the class. They were chosen from a ballot of 162 players and 32 coaches, picked from an elite ballot that included Pro Football Hall of Famers and Heisman Trophy winners.

They will be the first class to be honored at the new College Football Hall of Fame building in downtown Atlanta, the three-story, 94,000-square foot facility scheduled to open in late August. The event is scheduled for Oct. 7. There is also an annual enshrinement ceremony Dec. 9 in New York at the National Football Foundation’s annual awards dinner.

Hamilton is the 13th Yellow Jackets player and the 18th person associated with Tech football to be inducted, as well as the first Tech quarterback. Hamilton may be the most beloved player in Tech history, an electrifying dual-threat player who finished his career as the ACC’s leader in total offense. In 1999, he won the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s top quarterback and was second in Heisman balloting to Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne, an outcome that still rankles Tech fans.

“Ultimate competitor,” said Roderrick Roberts, a teammate and roommate of Hamilton’s at Tech. “Hated to lose and gave everything he had. Whether it was a sandlot basketball game or practice on Saturday afternoon, he gave everything he had every day.”

Hamilton’s relentless character lifted Tech out of a dark period in the team’s history. Along with Roberts, Hamilton was part of then-coach George O’Leary’s first recruiting class after he took over for Bill Lewis at the end of the ill-fated 1994 season. Hamilton was drawn to Tech in part due to O’Leary’s pledge that he wanted him as a quarterback and nothing else. O’Leary stuck with Hamilton even when he struggled as a redshirt freshman in 1996 and Tech finished 5-6.

“Even when I made mistakes in practice, he never even wavered about changing anything,” Hamilton said. “Just his confidence he had in me, putting me out there week after week, honing my skills, I’m real grateful.”

The next year, the Jackets improved to 7-5 and went to their first bowl game since 1991, beginning a bowl streak that has extended to 17, tied with Georgia for the third longest active streak in the country. Tech shared the ACC title in 1998. Hamilton punctuated his senior season with thrilling wins over Clemson and Georgia.

In an interview at his cubicle in the recruiting office Thursday, Hamilton mentioned a number of names – offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, his wife Gloria, their daughter Kelley (who tutored Hamilton in biology), fellow quarterbacks Donnie Davis and Brandon Shaw, the latter of whom Hamilton beat out as a redshirt freshman and wide receivers Kelly Campbell, Kerry Watkins and White, among others.

He said getting text messages from teammates like Roberts that repeated proclamations like “We made it!” gave him goose bumps as validation of his standing as a teammate and leader.

“That’s what the locker room is all about,” Hamilton said.

In Hamilton’s hometown of Alvin, S.C., word of Hamilton’s induction spread at Kinlaw Barber Shop Thursday afternoon.

“This is exciting, this is great,” Hamilton’s father Joe said. “My nephew just walked through the door. I don’t think he knows.”

The elder Hamilton could scarcely believe how his son’s journey has played out, from a small town to the very pinnacle of college football.

“It’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened,” he said.