Not every NFL player gets to play 20 years like Tom Brady. Most won’t play five seasons. But for a select few, they’ll have one season, game or play that is truly historic. This offseason, we’ll highlight those special NFL performances in our “Moment of Glory” series.
There’s some confusion over whether Joe Hamilton’s NFL career spanned four plays or five.
The play-by-play says five. Three handoffs, one dropback that ended in a fumble, and a kneeldown with a second left. The problem is, that 2000 game between Hamilton’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons was a blowout and after the final seconds mysteriously ran off after an onside kick, the broadcast ended. If there was an extra second added and a kneeldown, Fox didn’t bother to show it.
“It was four downs,” Hamilton said, though without much conviction.
It doesn’t really matter. Hamilton, a College Football Hall of Famer and one of the best quarterbacks in ACC history at Georgia Tech, never appeared in another NFL game. On one hand, he’s grateful he got those plays, however many there actually were.
“I was so happy. I was in the box score,” Hamilton said. “I can say I played a game in the NFL. That’s the dream. I played in the NFL.”
On the other, he wonders what might have happened had he gotten a real shot. Had Hamilton come along 20 years later, after conventional wisdom about quarterbacks had shifted, maybe his football story would have been much different.
Joe Hamilton was a great QB at Georgia Tech
Hamilton broke ACC records for total offense (10,640 yards), total touchdowns (83) and total touchdown passes (65). He finished second in the 1999 Heisman Trophy voting behind Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne. Michael Vick was third and Drew Brees was fourth.
He was a great college quarterback and had a lot of skills to offer an NFL team.
“Accurate. Good deep ball thrower. Could read a defense and dissect a defense. Very mobile. Playmaker. Could will a team to win,” said Hamilton, who co-hosts the “Hometeam and Hamilton” radio show on 106.3 FM in Atlanta. “A good grade on everything you want in a quarterback except standing 5-10, 190 pounds.”
Hamilton went in the seventh round of the draft due to his size. Before the draft, he knew his opportunities would be limited. He said he went through each team’s roster and noted which ones only had quarterbacks in the 6-foot-5 range. He’d cross them off the list. He said he eliminated about half the teams right away.
“I knew the blueprint. I knew what they wanted,” Hamilton said. “I saw Doug Flutie not get a fair chance. And we’re not even talking about the African-American aspect. That was there, and we had to cross that hurdle. But I’m just talking about size and measurements.”
Hamilton said he was grateful to be drafted, and happy to have his name on the list as an official NFL player for those plays at the Georgia Dome. He recalls many details. He didn’t figure to play that day, back in the city where he’d just starred in college. He didn’t even have thigh pads or knee pads in during the second half because as a third-stringer, he never expected to play. Then in the final minutes, with the Bucs up 27-7, he got the call.
“Coach [Tony] Dungy, I think he heard the crowd, they were chanting ‘Put Joe in! Put Joe in!’” Hamilton said. “I was like, ‘Oh no, is he hearing this?’
“All of a sudden Coach Dungy said, ‘You ready to go in?’”
He went in, even without leg pads. The first three plays were handoffs. The Bucs went for it on fourth down, Hamilton lined up in the shotgun and after a quick scan of the field, ran forward. He was tripped up at the line and fumbled just before he hit the turf. The Falcons recovered. Then he may or may not have had a kneeldown.
He was officially an NFL player, but he’d never see the field again in the regular season. He was on a few more NFL rosters and spent time in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe, where he suffered a knee injury.
Had he come along today, he might have been viewed differently.
NFL teams giving chances to QBs like Hamilton
Hamilton looks around the league now and sees opportunities he didn’t really have.
Russell Wilson won a Super Bowl. Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray were first overall picks. Hamilton isn’t saying he’s on the same level as those players, who are shorter than the traditional norm of NFL quarterbacks. “I’m not diminishing myself, but the boxes Kyler Murray checks are ‘elite’ in every case,” he said.
But opportunities for quarterbacks, who were once considered too small or held back because of ignorant ideas about black quarterbacks, are different now than they were 20 years ago. Hamilton thinks he could have been like Jalen Hurts, who was a second-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles and not expected to start right away. Nobody was using a second-round pick on a quarterback like Hamilton in 2000.
“They’re moving to the college game and using all the skill sets a quarterback has and saying, ‘We can pressure a defense all over the field,’” Hamilton said.
Hamilton isn’t bitter. He said he’s grateful for the time he spent in the NFL, even if he only played in one game. But he wonders.
“It bothers me that I can’t have that kind of closure to tell you I could play or I couldn’t play. I don’t know,” Hamilton said. “I can speculate that I could have done this or that. But I don’t know. I’d rather have my career stats be seven touchdowns, 19 interceptions and go 3-7, I’d rather have that and know I can’t play rather than never get the shot.”
Ultimately the NFL will play its best players, but first chances always come to those picked early in the draft or with large contracts. If you don’t have that, you need a break with injuries or a coach willing to take a shot on an unknown. Hamilton said Dungy was the one coach who believed in him, but not enough to give him a shot to play. Even when Hamilton was in the NFL, he knew he likely wouldn’t get a real shot to start.
He’s not jealous of the modern players who are getting shots and succeeding despite their less-than-ideal size, even if it is coming along too late for him.
“Kyler Murray, I’m so happy it’s changing,” Hamilton said. “He’s exactly who you want leading your team, regardless of size.”
Previous “Moment of Glory” stories
Vernon Perry’s four picks off Dan Fouts sets playoff record | Bert Jones wins MVP, earns Belichick’s respect | Dub Jones, one of three players in 6-TD club | Charles Fisher: 14 NFL plays to sports agent | The reason Reggie Langhorne vanished from NFL | “The A.J. Duhe Game” | Super Bowl hero Malcolm Mitchell promotes literacy to kids