One day, prior to the seventh anniversary of Stan McCoy's passing, Matt Hamill saddled up to his grandfather's gravesite in Loveland, Ohio, looking for a conversation. Born deaf, Hamill never had occasion to hear the wise man's words, though the pair seemed to have little problem communicating.
Never give up, Matt.
Always follow your dreams, Matt.
Let your heart dictate your path, Matt.
Unable to assign a voice to his grandfather's maxims, Hamill, who buried one of his three NCAA Division III wrestling national championship rings with McCoy in March 2002, thought of the facial expressions, the passion and the unconditional love. He thought of these things and two days later crushed MarkMunoz with a high kick, a lifetime of preparation trampling yet again what many would consider insurmountable odds.
"I had that time to reflect at my grandfather's gravesite," said the 33-year-old Hamill. "I thought more about him and he was a big contributor to my performance in Columbus."
And Loveland, where Hamill was a dominant high school wrestler. And upstate New York, where "The Hammer" lives and competed in college. And Las Vegas, where he fights Jon Jones in the main event of The Ultimate Fighter 10 finale on Saturday.
Hamill, a powerhouse who set several standing records for D-III Rochester Institute of Technology from 1996-99, whose athletic grooming appeared tailor-made for a life in fighting, takes his grandfather with him wherever he goes.
"Matt's grandfather never let him use the disability to get away with anything," said Duff Holmes, Hamill's trainer, manager and occasional interpreter. "He was going to be like everyone else."
"He was going to be an athlete no matter what."
With a grandfather enshrined in the State of Ohio Coaches Hall of Fame after years as the head coach for Loveland High's football, baseball and junior varsity basketball teams, with his phys-ed coach mom, a state champion powerlifter father, and a step-dad who coached wrestling, the pedigree certainly seemed to be there.
"Just being around all these athletes and having athletics in my family is a driving force for how I am," Hamill said. "I picked up my mentality from all of them, my grandfather being the main driving force."
Out of high school, Hamill earned a full ride to Purdue University. But with few resources for deaf students, he found life on campus difficult. Following his freshman year he transferred to RIT, which houses the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Even there, Hamill still felt out of place at first.
Growing up, he communicated by reading lips, and became among the 5 percent of orally deaf who developed the ability to speak. Essentially, Hamill walked into one of the foremost centers for deaf education unfamiliar with Sign Language. In an environment that, in some circles, looked down upon reading lips and speaking as communication tools, he couldn't fit in, at least away from the wrestling mat. There, Hamill was quite proficient at sharing all he wanted to convey.
In three years at RIT, Hamill shattered the career pins record (47), nearly tripling the previous mark of 18. He nailed down 89 consecutive wins, more than twice the old record. Students finally began to speak back to him by creating a sign known as the "Hammer" -- a moniker he has taken with him into MMA -- that combined Florida State's famed chop with a tightly held fist.
"It turned my heart on fire," he said of the students' support.
And he managed to bring the school three D-III championships, including the title in 1999 at 197 pounds, commemorated by the ring that now rests with his grandfather.
Saturday in Las Vegas, Hamill (7-2) enters the cage for the 10th time. Outside of a controversial points loss to Michael Bisping, a heated rival from the third season of The Ultimate Fighter, which kicked off Hamill's MMA career, and a dispiriting defeat in a bout he didn't want to take against mentor Rich Franklin, Hamill has shown quite a lot of promise.
Now he faces yet another test, this time in the main event of a Spike TV telecast, against the undefeated Jones.
"Jones is for real, no joke," Hamill said. "He has a wrestling background and tons of tools on the table. But I have more heart and I'll take the fight to him. I'm going to let it flow. I promise it will be a great fight. I take one thing at a time."
If Hamill is going to accomplish his goal of entering the top 10 at 205 pounds, it's a contest he must win.
Not once since Holmes has worked with Hamill did the trainer fear for the deaf kid's safety. Quite the opposite.
"I look like at it like I'm sending a machine, a freak of nature in there," he said. Hamill's physical dominance will surely be played up in the movie inspired by his life that wrapped shooting in October. So, too, the relationship between grandson and grandfather.
"I'm definitely going to teach my kids and grandkids the major lessons I learned from my grandfather: never give up, follow your heart, follow your dreams," Hamill said. "That extends further than my daughter and future grandkids; that goes to anyone who's handicapped or has a disability."