About this time last year, DaeSean Hamilton, one of Penn State's breakout stars this season, was close to giving up, as he put it last week. He was sitting when he wanted to be playing, after learning months earlier he was injured when he thought he was healthy.
Then the Marines landed.
Specifically, they landed on HIM, boots first.
The Corps was represented by his parents, Johnie and Madgeline (who goes by Max), both retired from that branch of the service but still very much capable of going into Col. Nathan R. Jessup mode.
They basically had no pity for me, DaeSean recalled.
They pointed out that he really didn't have it so bad, especially when compared to the sacrifices they had been asked to make during the 22 years each of them served. And there was more, they told DaeSean. What about Max's breast cancer, which led to a double mastectomy in 2006? And what about DaeSean's older brother, Darius? He has autism, and has never spoken so much as a single word in his 21 years; did DaeSean actually believe he had more of a reason to mope than him?
It finally dawned on DaeSean that he had messed with the wrong damn Marines. The redshirt freshman wide receiver straightened up, and is completely squared away now -- high energy, funny, always laughing, quarterback Christian Hackenberg said recently -- not to mention productive. He has 36 catches through five games, tied for most in the Big Ten, and is fourth in the conference in receiving yards, with 502.
If he once thought he had it so bad, it is now clear he has never had it so good.
He opened the season with an 11-catch, 165-yard effort in the victory over Central Florida, breaking the school's single-game freshman records for receptions and yards. The other wideout, Geno Lewis, also got off to a fast start, quickly allaying any concerns about who might replace departed All-American wideout Allen Robinson.
And while the offense struggled in the Sept. 27 29-6 loss to Northwestern --the Lions' first in five games to date -- Hamilton did not, coming up with six catches for 100 yards, including a majestic 51-yarder on which he outjumped two defenders deep downfield.
I like to think the sky's the limit for me, Hamilton said earlier this season, while admitting that probably doesn't make him all that different from many other players. I never get satisfied with myself. I always expect myself to do better than I've done in prior games. I've been pleased, but I always know there's room for improvement, no matter what.
“I like to think the sky's the limit for me. I never get satisfied with myself. I always expect myself to do better than I've done in prior games.”
And he always believed there was room on the field for him. Which was part of the problem last fall.
He first injured his left wrist when he took a tumble in a game during his senior year at Mountain View High School in Stafford, Va., and while the wrist hurt for a time, the pain eventually subsided. He forgot about it, figuring it was just a sprain.
Then he went for his preseason physical at Penn State late in June 2013, and was informed that the wrist had been broken, and never healed properly. Surgery, as well as a redshirt season, loomed.
To say the news did not sit well with Hamilton would be an understatement. He responded by firing his iPhone off a wall, in full view of Johnie and Max.
Mind you, this was a brand new iPhone. One his parents had just bought him.
I was pretty pissed, Max said recently, laughing at the memory. I didn't think he would take it the way he took it, but he did. He took it really hard.
His phone was replaced, but nothing could fill the void the game had occupied. He had been playing since age 6, and wanted to contribute, wanted to be part of things. And that simply wasn't in the cards after he underwent surgery on July 12. While his teammates practiced he was reduced to working out with Craig Fitzgerald, then the school's strength and conditioning coach, pushing weighted sleds and the like.
That gets tough, when that's the only thing you're doing, Hackenberg said. You can't catch any footballs. You can't go make any plays on Saturdays.
Hamilton had to fight his way through a long rehab. (Harvey Levine)
If Hackenberg was impressed with Hamilton's workmanlike approach to such drudgery, his parents barely recognized their son as he sank into a funk. Born in 1995 on Okinawa, where Johnie and Max -- both Chicago natives -- were serving in the Corps, he is the youngest of three children. He grew up in Fredericksburg, Va., the family having moved there while he was still in diapers, and for the most part toed the line.
Sure, there was some minor stuff. DaeSean recalled that growing up he was a little thief, stealing cash out of his mother's purse. Neither she nor Johnie remember any of that. DaeSean, they said, was a good kid. Then again, it wasn't like they put up with much.
Max, DaeSean said, has always been the hardest on me, making sure he didn't stray off the straight and narrow. And if Johnie was a little bit lax, in DaeSean's words, he was far from a pushover. He always taught me life lessons when I made mistakes, the younger Hamilton said. He made me realize the wrong things that I've done, and he's helped me grow as a young man.
(Johnie and Max also regularly post inspirational sayings and Bible verses on their son's Twitter page, in the hope that he stays humble and hungry. That's basically what got me through last year -- my mom and dad's words of inspiration, DaeSean said.)
His parents had to be out the door at the crack of dawn each morning to make the drive up I-95 to the Marine base at Quantico, meaning that when Darius and DaeSean were in elementary and middle school, it was left to DaeSean to make sure his brother, two years his elder, was dressed and ready for the day ahead, and his duty to look after Darius when his parents worked late.
That experience, DaeSean said, made me realize I have a lot of maturing to do, while also putting his problems into perspective.
Though they attended different high schools -- Darius went to Stafford, since it offered the program he needed, and graduated the same year his brother earned his diploma from Mountain View -- DaeSean remained a sizable presence in his older brother's life, remained his biggest supporter.
Still is, in fact. DaeSean described Darius as my inspiration a few weeks ago, saying that for a long time he tried not to take things for granted because of him, and adding that there are occasions when he wishes his older brother could be doing half the things he's able to do.
At the same time, I know there's nothing wrong with my brother, DaeSean said. He's just perfect, just the way he is. As a matter of fact he's probably a better person than I am. I just go out there, and I do a lot of things for him and the rest of my family, because I just want to make sure I capitalize on the opportunities that are given to me.
At some point early last fall, he lost that yearning feeling. Max recalled that the family visited him for a midseason home game, and that she and her husband had finally had enough of DaeSean's self-pity.
They had it out at a hotel, with Johnie and Max reminding their son that when they were in the Corps -- Max retired in 2005, having achieved the rank of Master Sergeant, while Johnie retired three years later, having made Chief Warrant Officer -- the demands were endless. There were marches to the rifle range in the rain. There were gas-mask drills. There were a thousand other things. Wasn't anybody feeling sorry for them, they told DaeSean, and they sure as heck weren't feeling sorry for themselves.
They also mentioned Max's breast-cancer fight, as well as the challenges facing Darius on a daily basis. How he communicates only with rudimentary sign language and an electronic device called a Gotalk, which allows him to push a button and make his needs and desires known. How he still lives at home and needs his parents' attention -- especially that of Max, who is with him during the day, while Johnie serves as a manpower specialist for the Corps.
Given all that, a broken wrist was not such a big deal.
Dude, snap out of it, Max recalled telling her son. It's not the end of the world.
“Dude, snap out of it,” Max recalled telling her son. “It's not the end of the world.”
Johnie and Max returned to Virginia hours later. The next day they received an email from DaeSean, apologizing and promising he would mope no more.
He was medically cleared at the tail end of spring practice, and threw himself into summer workouts with Hackenberg and the other receivers. They gathered a few times a week, and the QB was impressed, as much as anything, with DaeSean's attention to detail.
When he was a little off with his timing and his steps, you could see he knew it, Hackenberg said, and he would always go back and make sure that he got the next three reps absolutely perfect.
Word spread throughout the team of Hamilton's progress, eventually reaching new coach James Franklin. Franklin, hired to replace Bill O'Brien months earlier, had liked what he saw of the receiver in the spring -- he certainly LOOKED athletic, and was fluid in his movements (a gift, his parents say, from Max, once a volleyball star) -- but Franklin simply hadn't seen enough of him to ascertain how much he might help.
That would change soon enough, as Hamilton literally hit the ground running in preseason camp. All the mental reps he had taken in the spring -- I was deep in the playbook, he said - and all the workouts he had sweated through in the summer allowed him to smoothly transition to a prominent role.
Hamilton hit the ground running. (Harvey Levine)
Now, he said, I feel more comfortable than ever. The plays come easy. Everything just comes in the flow of the offense.
Hamilton is up to speed, in step with everyone else.
Sort of like a good Marine.