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They arrived in San Diego as 18-year-old kids at opposite ends of the football expectations spectrum.
San Diego State running back Lynell Hamilton, one of the nation’s most highly sought running backs, had Michigan coach Lloyd Carr sitting in his family’s living room with a recruiting pitch. He turned down Michigan, not to mention Oregon, for SDSU.
University of San Diego quarterback Josh Johnson, who attended recruiting combines as a 5-foot-11, 145-pounder the summer before his senior year, was an unknown. He picked USD because that was about his only option.
Funny thing about football and life, though, they ended up switching roles. They’re again at opposite ends of the spectrum as they look ahead to an NFL opportunity.
Hamilton’s injury riddled career ended last fall with him playing as a spot duty fullback and special teams player, although he was on his way to rewriting the Aztecs’ record book after rushing for 1,087 yards as a true freshman tailback. He suffered a severely broken ankle in the season’s 10th game.
Johnson shot up to 6-4, 200 pounds with a late growth spurt that is a family trait. He was one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award — the Heisman Trophy equivalent for the Football Championship Subdivison — and last weekend was the Offensive Most Valuable Player in the East-West Shrine game in Houston.
Now, Hamilton’s only shot at the NFL is to impress scouts that attend SDSU’s “Pro Day” on March 8 when seniors are run through drills and sign as an undrafted free agent.
Johnson, though, is expected to be a first-day draft pick, meaning the first three rounds. The only reason he probably won’t go in the first round is he’s coming from a non-scholarship school.
The criticism that will come with such a pick will scare off teams and general managers. After all, if Donovan McNabb was booed in Philadelphia as a first-round draft pick from Syracuse, can you imagine the reaction to drafting a non-scholarship quarterback in the first round?
But as much as they’ve flip-flopped roles, they’re the same humble team players now they were when they arrived as freshman. You can’t help but pull for both of them to make it in the NFL.
I’ve written before that more than any other athlete I’ve known as a high school kid that went on to become a star, Denver Broncos safety John Lynch, a Torrey Pines High alumnus, is the same person now that was as a kid.
Hamilton and Johnson are from the same neighborhood of humility.
Hamilton could have blamed his fate at SDSU on turning down Michigan and Oregon, coaches and teammates. He never blamed anyone. He said he loved SDSU and has no regrets about coming here.
“He’s gone through a difficult time at a young age and has handled it better than anybody I’ve ever seen, really, for all that he’s been through,” SDSU coach Chuck Long told me at the end of last season.
Added strength coach Jon Francis, “His work ethic speaks volumes about his character. I’ve never heard him blame anyone or complain. His attitude is why he’s still here. Many times players fall off the deep end when they’ve been through what he’s been through. He’s going to get a chance. He’s well put together.”
At the end of last season, Hamilton (6-0, 235) said he saw his special teams as a blessing rather than curse. He told me it as an avenue to show NFL scouts his versatility.
“I want them to know I can do a lot of different things for a football team,” he said. “I want NFL teams to know I’m more than a running back.”
In this age of spoiled and trouble athletes, NFL scouts are always researching an athlete’s personality. NFL scouts don’t need to go beyond his willingness and desire to play special teams.
Johnson, a non-scholarship school athlete, could have followed former USD coach Jim Harbaugh to his new job at Stanford. That way he could have lived up to Harbaugh’s claims that Johnson was better than any quarterback in the Pac-10.
But Johnson said he never considered leaving USD.
“I don’t know where those rumors got started,” Johnson said a year ago. “This place made me who I am today. Everybody that knows me knows I finish what I start. I’m a Torero.”
Same as above with Hamilton: Pro scouts don’t need to research past that story to get a picture of his personality.
“I’ve been at the bottom, so I know you can never take things for granted,” Johnson said. “We all go through tough times, and we have to work through it. Some people are meant to play football and some people God has a plan for. All I ever wanted was a shot.”
Johnson said Hamilton’s story, which he followed as an athlete across town, was a cautionary tale for him.
“It can be taken from you in a split second,” he said. “You never know when it’s going to end, so you’ve got to give it your best shot.”
That’s also why he’s happy to hear Hamilton is giving the NFL a shot. They might even meet cross paths on Pro Day at SDSU since some USD athletes will participate.
“There are 32 NFL teams,” Johnson said, “and he only has to impress one.”
— TOM SHANAHAN