There were times, too many for Ronnie Hamlin to count, during physical therapy and rehabilitation sessions following two major knee surgeries when he questioned whether he’d see this day.
• The day he opens his final college football season back on the Buck Buchanan Award list, which honors Football Championship Subdivision’s top defensive player.
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• The day where he’s just 72 tackles away from becoming the program’s all-time career leader in tackles.
• The day he’d be named team captain again, trying to lead the Eagles to their second national title and first since 2010.
This day, as the 6-foot-2, 235-pound linebacker and Lacey native prepares to start his 38th career game when No. 1-ranked Eastern opens the 2014 season hosting Sam Houston State Saturday, might never have happened had he given up on his college football career before it began. Quitting football was the last thing he wanted to do, but “would he” and “could he” filtered in after dealing with consecutive ACL tears on his left knee over an eighth-month span in 2009 and 2010, which wiped out his first two seasons.
Could Hamlin, a 2009 Timberline High graduate, still have the speed and explosiveness to be an effective college football player for a program that’s been a national FCS power since winning its first national title four years ago? Would he be able to physically perform up to the standards of his coaches and, more importantly, his self-imposed expectations?
Self-doubt loomed, but he felt he had a lot of football remaining. He was far from done.
“I had so much to show and prove to myself, coaches, family ... the players I came in with,” said Hamlin, now age 24. “I didn’t want to let anyone down. If I would’ve gave it up, I would’ve regretted it later on.”
His injury days are in the rearview mirror now, and he continues to make up for lost time. Hamlin is now a two-time All-American and all-Big Sky performer, and got an extra boost last spring when the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility.
After that announcement in March, head coach Beau Baldwin called Hamlin “a special player.”
“He brings so much to our program on and off the field — 365 days a year — and does things right,” Baldwin said. “It’s neat to see a decision like this (a sixth year of eligibility) made for such a quality player and person like Ronnie.”
Hamlin’s 361 career tackles over 40 games (37 starts) ranks third in school history. He’s chasing Greg Belzer (399 from ’97-’00) and former teammate J.C. Sherritt (432 from ’07-’10) to become the school’s all-time leader in tackles. But more importantly, he wants to pass down the work ethic and knowledge to up-and-coming Eagles linebackers, just like Sherritt and Tumwater High graduate Zach Johnson did to help make Hamlin the player he is today.
“Hopefully when I’m gone I can pass the tradition down to them,” he said. “Take some advice from me and other guys to get better.”
A promising career began at Timberline, where Hamlin was The Olympian’s all-area player of the year in 2008. Blazers coach Nick Mullen calls the former two-way starter at receiver and free safety the best player he’s coached in his eight seasons at the school.
That’s why it was so tough for Mullen to watch the guy he now calls his little brother not play his first college game until age 20. Hamlin’s first ACL tear happened just days before EWU’s 2009 season began, followed by another tear during 2010 spring.
However, whatever doubt there was in Hamlin’s ability following his injuries quickly vanished. A frequent attendee of Eastern games, Mullen said Hamlin is still the same “freak” player he was in high school, the standout who had 156 tackles and more than 1,018 receiving yards leading the Blazers to the 3A state playoffs as a senior.
“He flies all over the field,” Mullen said. “It’s fun to watch him play because the level of play steps up when Ronnie is out there. Everyone has to watch Ronnie’s intensity in the way he competes. That’s the way he was in high school, too.”
Hamlin had a team-best eight tackles (seven solo) in his first college game, a 30-27 loss to Washington on Sept. 3, 2011. He finished with 85 tackles that season, followed by 136 in ’12 and a career-high 140 a year ago, which ranks fourth-best in program history for a single season.
And with the talent comes his own trademark style. A clean-cut teenager with the Blazers, Hamlin has no intentions of cutting his long hair, which began as a friendly wager between Johnson and Jeff Minnerly, who challenged one another in 2010 to see who could go the longest without cutting their hair. Hamlin easily won; he’s now approaching the four-year mark without a trim.
When asked if — and when — he’ll cut it, he said December is the target date.
“I’ll keep it until we win the national championship,” Hamlin said.