Short Story Georgia Tech quarterback Joe Hamilton isn't tall, but as fans in his tiny hometown know, he's big enough to win the Heisman

October 10, 1999

The unofficial town hall in Alvin, S.C., the home of Georgia
Tech senior quarterback Joe Hamilton, is Kinlaw's Barber Shop,
also known as Football Headquarters. Last Thursday night, 50
men, 40 of them related to Hamilton, gathered at Kinlaw's to
watch the Yellow Jackets play Maryland. When Hamilton made a big
play, the place erupted into a party of dancing, hugging and
screaming. "After an interception or a big touchdown run,"
Hamilton said last Friday in Alvin, where he had gone for the
weekend, "I sometimes think to myself, Man, what are they saying
about that back at the barber shop? I thought about that when we
were leading 17-14 last night. I thought about what was going on
back there, and I knew that nobody was worried about the score.
I just knew they were saying, 'We'll be all right. Joe will come

He did. Hamilton led Georgia Tech to two touchdowns in the final
two minutes of the first half to seize control of a game the
Yellow Jackets would go on to win 49-31. His performance--he set
the Tech single-game record for total yards with 474, including
a 41-yard touchdown run--pushed the Yellow Jackets to a 3-1 mark
and into the No. 7 spot in the Associated Press poll.

Hamilton's outstanding play also gave pause to scouts who say
that a man who's 5'10" and weighs 189 pounds is too small to play
quarterback in the NFL. In four seasons as a starter for Georgia
Tech, Hamilton has developed into a mobile quarterback with
improvisational skills, the type of player who was as popular at
last spring's NFL draft as Pokemon cards are at your kid's
birthday party. These days the Yellow Jackets are taking full
advantage of his ability to run, throw and throw on the run.
"We're using a pro attack with an option quarterback," says Tech
offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ralph Friedgen.

Though Hamilton led the Yellow Jackets to a 10-2 record and a
share of the ACC championship a year ago, this season looks to
be even more promising for him and Georgia Tech. His brilliance
was never more evident than in the Yellow Jackets' lone defeat,
a 41-35 loss to No. 1 Florida State on Sept. 11. All he did in
Tallahassee was throw for 387 yards and four touchdowns and rush
for another score. The Seminoles won the game, but Hamilton
turned a formidable defense into his personal scout team. After
the game Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said, "It's been a
long time since our defense has been that helpless."

Hamilton is leading Division I-A in passing efficiency--his
202.4 rating would be a single-season record should he sustain
it until the end of the year--and if a player's viability as a
Heisman Trophy candidate has any correlation to his value to his
team, then Hamilton should stand alone at the head of the list
for college football's top honor.

His troubles, however, come when he stands next to someone. The
Alvin chipmunk wouldn't be a nickname that strikes fear in an
opponent, but Hamilton has always reflected his hometown. Alvin
(pop. 1,200) is so small that the postal service stripped it of
its zip code 14 years ago. Nevertheless, it has been a
wellspring of football players, among them Penn State defensive
end Courtney Brown, San Francisco 49ers safety Pierson Prioleau
and former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Harvey Middleton.
In the last six years 18 players from Alvin-area schools have
earned football scholarships to Division I colleges.

Three generations of Hamiltons still live in Alvin. Because
Joe's mother, Ginger, and his father, also named Joe, both
worked, Joe and his three siblings (Antwonne, now 24; Jacquez
Prioleau, a half-brother, 23; and Megan, 13) went to their
paternal grandparents' home after school. When his grandmother,
Rosa Bell, died in the summer of 1998, Joe dedicated the season
to her. To this day he finds it difficult to go to her house.
The good news, however, is that his 79-year-old grandfather,
Silas, may go to Georgia Tech's game at Duke next week to see
Joe play for the first time as a collegian. "Joe just loves his
grandfather," says Ginger.

Joe has a fondness for mentors. Friedgen, his position coach, is
the son of a suburban New York coach, but Hamilton and Friedgen
are tighter than Harry Potter and his lightning bolt. "I would
describe our relationship as father to son off the field,"
Hamilton says. "He cares a lot about me, about how I carry

Two years ago, when Hamilton was struggling with his grades,
Friedgen demanded that they meet in his office every morning at
7:30. Sometimes Friedgen just wanted to make sure Hamilton showed
up for breakfast and study hall. Sometimes he would try to hammer
home to Hamilton how much a college degree would mean to his

"What if I were to give you a million dollars?" Friedgen asked
Hamilton one morning.

"That would be pretty nice," Hamilton said.

"The way I figure it," Friedgen said, "that's the lowest amount
more you'll earn in your lifetime if you get a degree than if
you don't get one."

Hamilton certainly learns from his mistakes. In his first game
running Friedgen's offense, during Tech's 1997 opener at Notre
Dame, he had 163 yards of total offense, threw two interceptions
and was sacked four times as the Yellow Jackets lost a game they
should have won, 17-13. In last season's Gator Bowl, also
against the Fighting Irish, Hamilton had 256 yards of total
offense, threw three touchdown passes and caught a fourth in a
35-28 Georgia Tech victory. "To give Coach Friedgen more than
two weeks to prepare for someone is unfair," Hamilton says. "The
way we knew what Notre Dame was doing was unfair. To an extent,
I felt sorry for Notre Dame."

In this case the statement sounds cockier than Hamilton meant it
to sound, though he's capable of talking the talk. There's a
touch of the con artist in Hamilton, and not just because every
time he rolls out, his feet play three-card monte with the
defenders. If you saw Eddie Haskell on Leave It to Beaver, you
would understand. No one can be more polite than Hamilton, who
once corrected an audible by barking out, "Red 42! Excuse me!
Blue 42!" but Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary, a New Yorker
who brought his Big Apple cynicism south when he took over the
Yellow Jackets in 1994, is tough to fool. "Don't learn the
tricks of the trade," O'Leary likes to tell his players. "Learn
the trade." Of Hamilton, O'Leary says, "If Joe's talking to you
and his hands are moving, he's lying." O'Leary chuckles. "Now
when he talks to me, he keeps his hands in his pockets."

O'Leary once sent Hamilton to a professor to explain why
Hamilton had been late to a class. After that meeting Hamilton
was to come directly to O'Leary's office to discuss the matter
further. When he returned, O'Leary had two executives from
Coca-Cola in his office. "Joe asks the secretary who's in my
office," O'Leary says, "and then he walks right in. 'Gentlemen,
I haven't had the pleasure,' he said. He knew he wouldn't get
his ass chewed out while they were there. He said to me, 'Oh, I
took care of what you asked me to.' I was ready to come over the
desk at him."

Hamilton apparently can improvise off the field as well as he
can on it. Tell him he can't do something, then get out of his
way while he does it. "In junior varsity they said, 'He couldn't
play [quarterback in] high school,'" Hamilton says. "In high
school they said, 'You're pretty good, but in college they'll
move you. You'll have to play another position.' Now they say,
'He's never going to make it at the next level.' Please, just
give me a chance to compete."

As much as Hamilton accomplished last season, he had one gap
remaining in his resume. In his first three games against
Florida State, he had neither rushed nor passed for a touchdown,
and his cumulative total offense had been a paltry 187 yards.
The Seminoles had won those games by a combined score of 121-10.
Hamilton took his lack of success against Florida State
personally. "It was very important for me to play well," he
says. "The last two years, they didn't have to respect me.
During the game this season, a couple of their guys were saying,
'I'm surprised you're still in the game. You'll be out soon.'
But I was able to establish myself and earn respect."

No one is worried that Hamilton will get too cocky. His parents
and Friedgen will make certain his feet stay on the ground. One
of the first times Friedgen watched Hamilton throw an out
pattern, he told him, "You got a weak-ass arm." When Hamilton
begged to differ, Friedgen said, "Joe, I know you're a good
basketball player. [Hamilton was a two-time all-state point
guard at Macedonia High.] What did you play? Guard? I bet you
couldn't make any three-point shots."

When Hamilton asked him what he meant, Friedgen explained that
just as a basketball defender will give a poor shooter an open
attempt at a three, a football defense will sit on the short
patterns until a quarterback proves he can throw deep. That
spring every time Hamilton's pass wobbled, Friedgen chirped,
"Can't make the three." By the end of the spring, Hamilton
punctuated every long completion by saying, "How about that

In Hamilton's first two seasons, he leaned heavily on Middleton,
who had been on the receiving end of his passes since Hamilton
began throwing them in sandlot games in Alvin. Middleton wore
number 81. "George told Joe he was going to put every receiver in
number 81," Friedgen says, alluding to the fact that Hamilton
rarely looked for any of the other receivers. "We all learn
through our mistakes. It's how fast you don't make the mistake

Friedgen pops a tape of last season's Gator Bowl into the video
machine and grabs his laser pointer. On Hamilton's first pass of
the second half, he takes a five-step drop and dumps the ball
over the middle to Charlie Rogers for a 10-yard gain. "A lot of
college passers don't get off looking at the first or second
receiver," Friedgen says. "Joe's on the third receiver by the
fifth step." In other words that was an NFL-type completion.

Friedgen spent five seasons with the San Diego Chargers, from
1992 through '96, the last three as their offensive coordinator.
He knows what an NFL quarterback must do to succeed. "He
deserves a shot," Friedgen says of Hamilton. "If he were 6'3",
there would be no doubt. Joe Montana was about 6 feet. But Joe's
being 5'10" is a big hurdle. There's a trend toward more mobile
quarterbacks. If you get a quarterback who can't evade anybody
to make plays, whether he's 5'10" or 6'5", he's not going to
last in that league. They're not happy just with sacks in the
NFL--they want to hurt you. Kind of like Florida State."

Friedgen laughs at his joke, but the fact that Hamilton
dominated the Seminoles defense may help him convince NFL scouts
that he's for real. It comes as no surprise that Hamilton's
favorite quarterback is Doug Flutie, even if he doesn't come
from Alvin.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Family man Hamilton often reads the Bible when he visits his grandpa's house in Alvin. COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Lots of options Hamilton is as comfortable running the ball as he is passing it. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Home sweet home When he visits Alvin, the 5'10" Joe has no trouble looking up to his grandfather.

After Hamilton burned Florida State, Bowden said, "It's been a
long time since our defense has been that helpless."

"After an interception or a big touchdown," Hamilton says, "I
think, What are they saying about that at the barber shop?"