The first time Lance Hamilton tried to stand on principle, he was so small he ended up sort of wobbling around on principle instead. But then, taking a stand against social injustice isn't easy when you're two. It was 1966, and the city of New York had chosen Christmas Eve to press eviction proceedings against the interracial Interfaith Hospital in Queens. A bank had foreclosed on the hospital's mortgage, and 80 bedridden patients were about to be put out in the street. Negotiations with the bank had broken off, and the police had been summoned when Lance and his oldest brother, Harry, appeared at the hospital, walking hand in hand with their father. "I stood Lance and Harry in front of the hospital's main doorway," Stan Hamilton recalls. "I had resigned myself to die that day. When the authorities came, I told them, 'Whoever comes through here has to go through my two sons. And whoever does that has to kill me.' " The police captain in command thought it over and then told Stan he believed he was serious. The hospital was given an extension to come up with the money.
Almost 19 years later, Lance is standing his ground at Penn State, where he is a two-year starter at cornerback for the top-ranked Nittany Lions, who will go for the national championship against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1. In a college football season rife with even more venality than usual, Lance is a paragon of both scholarship and virtue. Even his name sounds a little too good to be true, but Lance it is. A senior prelaw major with a 3.83 grade-point average, Lance is now taking symbolic logic, Greek and Roman mythology, and ceramic science and engineering. He is also working on a yearlong independent study project on his father's activities during the civil rights movement of the '60s.
"You have to remember what you're at school to do," says Lance. "You have to have priorities and discipline so you don't waste your education." He doesn't drink or smoke, and he rarely dates or goes to movies or parties. "Being around football is my social life," he says.
Lance and Harry, who was a member of Penn State's 1982 national championship team and now is a safety for the New York Jets, aren't the only Hamiltons to have impressed Nittany Lion coach Joe Paterno. "In my 35 years in this business, I've never met a more remarkable family," says Paterno. "Or a more amazing man than Stan Hamilton. Stan has more strength, more energy and more courage in the clutch than anyone I've ever known. Sometimes you wonder when you get a kid if he can measure up to your standards. With the Hamiltons, I worry whether I can measure up to their standards." Another Hamilton, Darren, is a senior backup receiver for Penn State.
December 9, 1985
This is a family that once sold its pet dog—you know, man's best friend—to buy canned goods for the poor people in Mississippi. The Hamiltons have been fighting poverty and racism for 20 years, and they don't believe much has really changed. "I don't know if you could call me an angry young man," Lance says, "but I'm definitely annoyed."
The Hamiltons' charity began at home, with Stan's father. Harry Hamilton the elder could speak seven languages—among them Chinese and Hebrew—but his principles often clashed with the views of his employers. So he had difficulty holding a job, a fact that kept his family in reduced circumstances. "I give a damn because my father gave a damn," Stan says. "When I woke up in the mornings, I didn't know who I was going to stumble over in our living room. My dad took strays in off the street when we had only four rooms for the 10 people in our family. My life ever since has been consumed by that. And now I've consumed my sons' lives."
Because the streets in Stan's Queens neighborhood flooded when it rained, he once set his small sons adrift in a raft to demonstrate for photographers how deep the water was. And when poor people marched on Washington in 1968, Stan took Lance and Harry there so that the three of them could build a tent together in the muddy bog of Resurrection City. Lance started working in his father's soup kitchen while he was still in high school, and was counseling alcohol and drug abusers before he was himself a teenager. "That got a little touchy," Lance says, "because I was going to school with some of them."
When Stan moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pa. in 1972, he saw people who were out of work and hungry. Eventually he scraped together enough funding from local churches to start a mission to the poor called Shepherd of the Street. "The people in Wilkes-Barre called me a New York sensationalist when I first tried to get the churches here to feed people," Stan says. "They said there weren't any hungry people in Wilkes-Barre, and yet they feed 200 people a day now in the soup kitchen. I wanted to build a shelter for the homeless here, but my community didn't want it. They didn't want derelicts in their neighborhoods."
As he talks, Stan is distractedly opening the day's mail in the kitchen at his present ministry, Hands of Hope, which also happens to be his home. The mail includes a single small donation and a notice from his bank that he is being charged $15 because his account is overdrawn by $3.85. "They charge you more of what they know you ain't got in the first place," says Duke Burnett, a local prison guard and Hands of Hope volunteer. "That's the American system." Stan, who wears no pockets in his self-made pants as a kind of philosophical fashion statement, just smiles.
"To a lot of people in this country, poverty ends at five o'clock," Stan says. "You're not supposed to be poor after five o'clock, and definitely not on weekends. I take care of the people who fall through the cracks in the system, the ones the so-called safety net misses. You hear so many people look at derelicts in the street and say, 'He's lazy. He's a liar. Why doesn't he get a job?' Well, I want the liar, I want the cheat, the cutthroat, and the scoundrel."
Stan's wife, Betty, didn't want them, and, according to Stan, she didn't want any part of the crusades he had in mind for their sons, either. So in 1969, she took them and fled from Queens to her parents' home in Wilkes-Barre. "My wife wanted the perfect nuclear family, but I was still scrapping around trying to find my dignity," Stan says. "I couldn't play that role, so she left me. I guess I would have left me, too." The marriage was finished. But Stan was determined to raise his boys, and after moving to Wilkes-Barre in 1972, he sought to win legal custody of them.
Lance refers to the court fight that followed as "the nightmare months," although the legal wrangling actually went on for seven years. Acting as his own attorney, Stan decided not only to press his own case but also to use the trial to examine the fitness of black men as parents. "I want justice to see my blackness," says Stan. "If justice is blind, why is the prison population in this country disproportionately black? I told the court, 'You must examine the black-white issue here' because I believed that a black male parent should always be with his black male children. The Moynihan report [a 1965 Department of Labor study on the deterioration of the black family] had said the black man would flee. Well, that's a lie, a horrifying lie. But I used it in court. I said, 'O.K., here I am. Now, what are you going to do?' "
What the court did was give temporary custody of the children to their mother, but they ran away to live with Stan soon after that. When a major flood nearly washed Wilkes-Barre away in 1972, the Hamiltons took to the higher ground of a 150-acre farm Stan had bought 20 miles away near rural Wapwallopen. They opened a riding stable, and Lance became the best barrel-racer in the valley. In the winter the Hamiltons went skiing down the back hills of Wapwallopen, always taking care not to be mistaken for deer by local hunters. "We were the only blacks in the area, and there were some problems," Lance says. The welcome wagon consisted of a cross-burning on their front lawn. "They referred to the hill we lived on as Nigger Hill," Lance says. "People would come by in their cars at night and scream at us or throw horse manure at our door."
Things weren't much better at Nanticoke High. "Sometimes I would find the lock had been kicked off my locker and there would be notes inside telling me to go back to Africa," Lance says. On the day Harry received a trophy for his football accomplishments at the school, he returned to his locker and found a note taped to it that said——YOU NIGER (sic). The faculty took an amazingly lenient approach to such incidents. "There were times when I would go to teachers after those things happened," says Lance, "and I would have to be very stern with them so they didn't try to tell me to just not worry about it." On days when one brother was sick, they both stayed home. "That way there was never a day they didn't have somebody there to watch their backs," says Stan.
The Wilkes-Barre area was largely settled by Poles, Irish and Italians, who spent generations working in the coal mines that have now gone bust. There were still so few blacks in the area in the late '70s that when Paterno made his first recruiting visit to Harry, he had no idea Harry was black until they met. "A lot of people thought they were arrogant," says Dave Krafchik, who coached Lance and Harry at Nanticoke High. "But a lot of people in Nanticoke just never got to know them." When young women—many of them white—were seen coming and going at the farm, word circulated that Stan was a pimp.
One day Krafchik showed up unannounced on the Hamiltons' doorstep to check out the rumors. Krafchik did find several young women at the house, but they turned out to be women Stan had either gotten off drugs or given a place to stay when they had no place else to go. But talk of Stan's sway over young women persists to this day. "A lot of people in Wilkes-Barre are afraid to let their kids be around him," Krafchik says, "because they're afraid that he's going to mind-control them."
One parent who's not worried is Paterno. His two sons have become attached to the Hamilton family, frequently spending the Saturday evenings following home games as part of Stan's large entourage. This group, which often includes disadvantaged children from Wilkes-Barre, usually repairs to the nearest video arcade, where the games are mindless but the impact of the evening often is not. Just last year, for instance, 17-year-old Jay Paterno turned in a paper for one of his high school classes on slain Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, and 13-year-old Scotty Paterno delivered a speech to his seventh-grade class on Martin Luther King.
The Hamiltons aren't dreary or humorless, but they steadfastly refuse to smile when they have their pictures taken. "How do you smile when there's hunger and pain in the world?" Stan says. "We'll smile when we have something to smile about." They wear green nail polish on the little finger of their left hands to symbolize their belief that the murders of the 29 black children in Atlanta from 1979 to '81 have not been solved despite a conviction in the case. When Harry told Paterno he wanted to demonstrate his concern by wearing a green wristband during games, Paterno not only complied but even wore one himself on the sideline. "If Joe Paterno had told Harry to take his wristband off," Stan says, "we would not be at Penn State now."
When Penn State faculty members began pushing Lance for a Rhodes Scholarship this year, he did research on Cecil Rhodes and the scholarship named for the 19th century diamond baron and submitted a position paper to the Rhodes Scholarship Trust. Although many blacks have been Rhodes scholars—the first in 1907—Lance argued that the fortune that funded the scholarship had been "built upon the exploitation and degradation of Black people" in the mines of southern Africa.
Lance also wrote: "If Hitler's Will had provided for scholarships to the University of Berlin and I were a Jewish nominee before the Hitler Scholarship Committee, no one would question the wisdom of, and need for, my public outrage and rejection of that so-called accolade.... Yet as a Black male American, many have suggested that gracious acceptance of a Rhodes nomination is not incongruous with who I am, what my people have suffered, my dignity or my manhood.... The world's fight is against inequality, apartheid, injustice, inequity, intolerance and impatience. That fight is only hindered by continued quiet acceptance and unrepudiated association with Cecil Rhodes' goal of white supremacy and apartheid."
Paterno would like Lance to pursue a Rhodes Scholarship, and Lance says, "I would love to study abroad like that." However, he will not apply for the scholarship unless the Rhodes Trust publicly denounces apartheid. A university spokesman says that Lance "remains our strongest candidate."
Though he's knee-deep in the system himself—what could possibly be more rooted in the American establishment than college football?—Lance has never hesitated to use his celebrity at Penn State to prick the university's conscience. "It's unfortunate if I upset people," he says, "but if that's what I have to do to initiate the changes that I want to take place, then that's how it will have to be. I try not to be real obnoxious about it, but if something needs to be said, I'm going to say it."
"He's working really hard to get things right for his people," Paterno says. "He alienates people who could help him sometimes, but he's so highly principled that he won't back off. I think it's because Lance and Harry are such demanding people that they were never elected team captains. They try to get people to do better, and sometimes people don't want to do better."
Lance has usually done his best this season against Penn State's most formidable opponents. Most teams threw away from him, but he had nine tackles in a 19-17 victory over Alabama, eight against Maryland and five against BC. Like Harry, Lance is an academic All-America. Harry was Phi Beta Kappa, and Lance almost certainly will be, too. Neither is big for a defensive back—Lance is 5'11" and weighs 185 pounds, Harry is 6', 193—and they lack the blazing speed associated with their position. In fact, Harry was such an unlikely prospect that a pro scout once told him, "When I feed your numbers into the computer, I come up with a tennis player."
Stan would have liked that, because black people aren't supposed to be tennis players. When he taught his sons horsemanship, he did it because black people aren't supposed to be cowboys. Then he taught them to ice-skate and to ski because blacks weren't supposed to do those things either. He even taught them to ski without poles. He says he did that because it seemed the most efficient way to ski. Then again, maybe he did it because he wanted his sons to be like nobody else on the mountain—standing free, gliding on their own two feet.