STAFFORD, Va. — Johnie Hamilton offered words of encouragement, but was proud of his son.
Lou Sorrentino sent a text message with an uplifting message, but said it “broke my heart.”
Josh Gattis saw leadership.
DeAndre Thompkins saw what he expected from someone he looked up to.
DaeSean Hamilton was running down the right sideline, and about to secure a potential game-winning touchdown to cap an incredible comeback for Penn State against in-state rival Pitt. The ball glanced off his hands and fell to the ground.
A few plays later, the rally was thwarted by an interception in the end zone, and Penn State lost 42-39. It was an emotional moment for Hamilton, and he didn’t hide it. For the people who know him best, there was little doubt about his response in the aftermath and moving forward.
“I think his character has shown through the whole evolution,” Hamilton’s father, Johnie, said. “He did what he was supposed to do. I guess the media wanted to talk to him after the game, and he lived up to it. It made me proud. We gave him words of encouragement, but we also said, ‘Don’t forget this. Don’t forget how it feels, and use that as a life lesson.’ ”
The son of two former Marines, Hamilton was a standout on the football field, in the classroom and at home while growing up in Virginia. He was a do-it-all star for Sorrentino at Mountain View High School, and considered one of the top 15 recruits in the state in the class of 2013.
Sorrentino first knew the Hamiltons through his wife, Nancy. She has worked in special education for three decades, and developed a relationship with Darius Hamilton. Darius is DaeSean’s older brother, and he is autistic.
DaeSean helped his parents by helping Darius get ready for school in the mornings. He looked after his older brother. The Hamiltons have been at every Penn State game during the past three years and all but two during DaeSean’s redshirt year in 2013, and Darius is always with them.
Max Hamilton, DaeSean’s mother, was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was in elementary school. That is a lot for a young person to handle, but Hamilton cemented his character long before a football slipped from his grasp this past Saturday.
“You know how people always say the grass always looks greener on the other side?” Johnie said. “It has given him true perspective about what life is, and how well he has it. He saw it firsthand.”
Gattis, Penn State’s wide receivers coach, spoke to the media Thursday and fielded several questions about Hamilton.
“DaeSean is a true leader. He’s a competitor,” Gattis said. “He probably has the greatest work ethic on this team. He takes a lot of pride in how he performs. He’s made tremendous plays for us. I would never judge one man on one play.
“I think he stepped up as a leader last week. Not only with how he performed but with how you accept your performance afterwards. He showed guys how passionate of a player he is. Players rally around him and respect him for who he is and how hard he works. When you go out and see his work ethic each and every day in practice, you can only respect him as a player.”
Hamilton’s emotions, both on the sideline and during his postgame availability with the media, drew plenty of attention. It was a stark contrast from a typical encounter with him.
He has earned a reputation for being an incredibly positive person. Whether it is with his smile or what he has to say, Hamilton is always upbeat. After a record-setting redshirt freshman season, Hamilton’s production slipped last season and Chris Godwin became the go-to receiver for quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
“I was worried about him after last year,” Sorrentino said. “He was up here (hand above his head) after his freshman year and it wasn’t like he just lost his skills last year. He’s always been positive though. He was nothing but positive every time I talked to him.”
Hamilton’s father knew where that personality trait came from.
“His mother,” he said. “If you keep a positive attitude, positive things will happen for you. I always think you can accomplish what you want, and it doesn’t do anybody any good to think negatively about the situation.”
It’s not just mental toughness for Hamilton, either. His final catch in high school came on a third-and-20 with Mountain View trying to hold off Potomac High School in a regional playoff game. He went up in the air to make the catch along the sideline and landed on his shoulder.
Sorrentino said it might have already been injured, but Hamilton had a broken collarbone and his season was over. He also dealt with a wrist injury during his first year at Penn State that ended any doubt about whether he would redshirt.
“He kind of willed us to win that game,” Sorrentino said. “What a fun guy to coach. He really got it. He competed like the dickens, but he also had some perspective. I think those emotions everyone saw (this past Saturday) were genuine.
“I haven’t seen him drop too many balls. It broke my heart to see him afterwards (on TV). I sent him a text and he got back to me that night. I think, my gut reaction, is he felt like he let (quarterback Trace) McSorley down, because he was going to take heat for the interception.”
Hamilton shattered freshman receiving records at Penn State in 2014. The name he knocked from the top of all of those lists was Deon Butler, who was a walk-on cornerback before becoming one of the most productive pass catchers in school history.
Sorrentino coached Butler at Hylton High School in Northern Virginia before taking the job at Mountain View in Stafford County, which is between Northern Virginia and Richmond.
“I told Penn State that if you liked Deon Butler as a person and they said, ‘Oh yeah, we loved him,’ (Hamilton) is going to be the same way,” Sorrentino said. “Waiting outside after a game up there, it was really a deja vu moment for me when I saw DaeSean signing autographs. He was just like Deon, very personable with a big smile and all the little kids loved him. Deon was my first guy who played that well at that level, and seeing DaeSean signing for those kids really brought me back.”
Butler is Penn State’s all-time leader in receptions with 179, and he’s second to Bobby Engram in receiving yards. Hamilton and Godwin have a chance to surpass them both, and it could be an interesting competition if both players stay for their senior seasons in 2017.
Penn State’s new offense is designed to spread the ball around, but there should be plenty of opportunities for both players to produce. Hamilton had eight catches for 82 yards against Pitt, including several quick catches on plays that are designed to be a run-pass option.
McSorley diagnoses the defense, and then either executes a running play or snaps off a quick throw, and Hamilton looks like the go-to guy in those situations. He also had a lunging catch near the goal line to set up Penn State’s touchdown that made it a 42-39 game.
Hamilton has lined up almost exclusively in the slot in coach Joe Moorhead’s spread offense formations.
“He’s got a natural skill set there,” Gattis said. “He’s a great runner. He’s got great short-area quickness. He’s a student of the game and understands the nuances of the position, and it shows. He’s a great fit for us, but we also feel like he can play any of the wide receiver positions.”
It was a surprise that Hamilton ended up at Penn State. Sorrentino said he really liked Virginia, but the Cavaliers had some coaching staff turnover. He took Hamilton on a visit to Virginia Tech with his son, and Hamilton’s father said if he were a betting man, he would have placed his money on the Hokies.
Sorrentino said Hamilton’s parents connected with then-Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, who also has a son with special needs. He also said Hamilton’s mother loved that O’Brien wasn’t afraid to get in Tom Brady’s face and argue with him on the sideline during his previous job with the New England Patriots.
“My wife and I just wanted him to make his own decision that he thought was best for him,” Johnie said. “I didn’t think he was interested in Penn State at the time, but now I think it is one of the best decisions he has made.”
Speaking of DaeSean’s decisions, there is one particular set of them that his parents haven’t always been thrilled with. Hamilton’s hair, which could best be described as unique, does not exactly look like it meets Marine Corps code.
“Being in the military, there were always grooming standards,” Johnie said. “That was always one of my pet peeves, making sure our kids had fresh haircuts. He doesn’t have one, but my wife went round and round about it, and if that is the only thing we can fuss at him about, it’s not worth fussing over it.
“He takes care of his brother. He was a 4.0 GPA student in high school. He did everything we asked him to at the house. If that is the only thing I could complain about, I have nothing to complain about.”
Growing up in a military household, Hamilton learned of “discipline, work ethic and humility,” his father said. If someone ever needed qualities to draw upon in a moment of personal adversity, those are pretty good ones.
Given Hamilton’s resume on the field and his experiences off it, not catching a football on one play hardly seems like an obstacle for him to overcome.
“DaeSean is a guy that I’ve looked up to because even though he will have tough times, he gets over it,” Thompkins, a fellow Penn State wide receiver, said. “That’s what makes DaeSean, DaeSean. He’s a great player, and great players, when times don’t go their way of course it sucks and you saw DaeSean after the game, but he can flip the switch and get back to knowing what is going on and what he has to do to eliminate those plays the next week.”