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Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2006 | By now, a lesser man would be kicking himself for not accepting that Oregon scholarship offer as one of the nation’s top high school football recruits. With the Ducks, he’d have played in bowl games.

By now a self-absorbed running back would have blamed his San Diego State teammates and coaches for the losing seasons he’s endured. He would wonder why he didn’t listen to Michigan coach Lloyd Carr – who flew to the West Coast for the chance to sit in the Stockton home of the Edison High athlete and make his recruiting pitch.

Yeah, Lynell Hamilton, known as “The L Train” coming out of high school, might have had good reason to transfer from San Diego State by now – if he wasn’t enjoying himself so much on Montezuma Mesa.

He’s looking forward to the Aztecs’ 2006 season opener Thursday night against UTEP at Qualcomm Stadium with the eagerness of a true freshman.

“I have never thought about leaving,” Hamilton said. “I love San Diego. I’m an Aztec for life, and I’m going to enjoy these next two years.”

Hamilton enters his junior season and fourth year on campus saying he’s never felt better physically in the last two years than he does now. He feels fully recovered from a devastating ankle injury at the end of his 2003 freshman season that wiped out 2004 when he redshirted and limited him in 2005.

The body has been wounded by three years at SDSU, but not the psyche.

“I put the load on myself,” Hamilton said. “If the season didn’t go the way we wanted, I should have done better. I should have done this or that. Everything I ever do is to get this school to a bowl game or a BCS (Bowl Championship Series) bowl.”

Hamilton, of course, is being too hard on himself. But it’s an interesting level of maturity for a 21-year-old football player who, as an 18-year-old kid, heard the siren call of the biggest of big-time college football recruiters. I asked where that maturity comes from.

“That’s just how it is,” he said. “I chose to be here. I’m going to make the most of where I chose to be. I’m putting 100 percent into San Diego State.”

Where Hamilton chose to be took a twist and turn after his recruiting trip to Oregon as a high school senior. His story happens a lot in big-time college football recruiting, but it rarely comes to light.

To recap briefly, his Oregon recruiting host was Onterrio Smith – the former Minnesota Vikings running back now better known for the “Whizzanator” that he was caught with at an airport security check. That night at Oregon, Smith took the underage Hamilton to a bar and they were waved inside.

Once inside, Hamilton said there were offers of alcohol and drugs and women wanted to have sex. He turned it all down and ended up leaving the bar alone for his hotel room. He also told his parents, Leo and Veronica, since they’re a close family with strong religious beliefs.

By contrast, Hamilton’s recruiting trip to San Diego State was tame. Hamilton went to the Gaslamp District with his cousin, SDSU senior wide receiver Brian Spinks, and a former SDSU player, LeAndrew Stewart, who is a close enough friend that Hamilton and Spinks consider him their cousin.

“We couldn’t get into any bars downtown,” Hamilton said. “But it was still a fun trip. When I came here, I saw how beautiful San Diego is. I said then if I’m not going to be here, I’d surely like to live here.”

Once Hamilton committed to the Aztecs as the No. 7-ranked running back in the nation, he became the highest rated SDSU recruit since the No. 5 ranking of Tommy Booker out of Vista High in 1987. Remember, SDSU All-American Marshall Faulk was ranked as a cornerback coming out of New Orleans and picked SDSU over big-time programs for the chance to play running back.

But once Hamilton committed to SDSU, for some reason it became important to the Union-Tribune to discredit former head coach Tom Craft’s ability to recruit Hamilton against the likes of Oregon and Michigan. Hamilton says if you’ve read quotes from him saying he didn’t want to attend SDSU, that’s not the full context of his comments.

“It’s not that I didn’t want to come here,” Hamilton said. “I’m just like any other kid, and at first I wanted to go to a big-time school. But my mom prayed on it and she said God said this is the school for me. My mom praying on where I should go to school was more important to me than winning championships at USC or being on TV every Saturday. When my mom said that to me, that’s all I needed.”

Now all the Aztecs need is for Hamilton to stay healthy under new coach Chuck Long. He gained 1,087 yards before his injury in the 10th game of his freshman year. He gained 819 yards last season, but he says he now knows he was too heavy at 225 pounds.

He’s back down to 210 pounds for 2006 – he played at 205 as a freshman – preferring to be a high-speed train than a locomotive.

“The first weekend of every season I’ve been here we’ve had a family reunion,” Hamilton. “About 50 people – everyone from Stockton and relatives in the Los Angeles area come down. I love it. They love it. They tailgate the night of the game. It can’t better for me than it has been right here.”

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. Send a letter to the editor.

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