Jakar Hamilton will spend the next few days sitting at his grandmother’s house in Johnston, S.C., playing video games to keep his mind off the life-changing phone call that might or might not come.
But just the possibility that his dreams might be fulfilled in this week’s NFL Draft buoys the former Strom Thurmond High School star.
“Right now it’s almost like a loss of words, because of just knowing what I went through and the struggles and the dedication and the sacrifice that I had to make to make this far,” Hamilton said. “Just keeping God first and keeping my head high. At this point right now it’s just a blessing for me and my family.”
Hamilton’s journey to this opportunity has taken more twists and turns than your average NFL prospect – through Georgia Military College, Georgia and finally South Carolina State. He could have easily driven off the road and never made it back on without the help of mentors along the way.
“They kept me from making the mistakes that other people from my neighborhood have made,” Hamilton said. “A lot of people around here could have been in the NFL but just didn’t have the right support behind them to go the extra mile.”
With his father serving a 20-year jail sentence in Texas for mortgage fraud, Hamilton had father figures like Tim Johnson to steer him clear of the pitfalls. Johnson owned a barbershop in Edgefield, S.C., when he and Earl Thomas first started mentoring Hamilton in high school with the program Choices, A Lifetime Development.
It was Johnson who suggested Hamilton wash cars for customers getting haircuts on a cold December Saturday in 2006 to raise enough money so his siblings could have presents on Christmas.
“Tim kept me straightforward on my mission and what I wanted to accomplish,” Hamilton said.
That relationship and the stories they heard from kids coming through the barbershop inspired Johnson and Rodney Tillman to establish a program called Sleeper Recruit to help more kids like Hamilton who were threats to get lost in the system.
“It’s put together for high school kids who we thought weren’t getting the exposure or have the proper tools to get into college, so we try to keep them on track and get them exposed to colleges and make sure they’re ready if they get accepted to college,” Tillman said of Sleeper Recruit, which operates under the mission statement of “helping the unrecognized get recognized.”
Hamilton was their first and most prominent project, and it’s taken a lot of support to get him through college and into position to be an NFL free safety.
“It’s been kind of a rough road for him,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, with programs like ours, it has helped him be encouraged and stay focused on what they can accomplish.”
There is no quibbling with Hamilton’s athletic pedigree. His father, Mike Goodson Sr., was a basketball guard at Pitt, helping the Panthers to their first Big East regular-season title in 1987. His mother, Tracy, was a track star at Strom Thurmond, whose own potential as an Olympian never got off the ground because of her unwillingness to fly. His half brother, Mike Goodson Jr., played tailback at Texas A&M before being drafted in the fourth round in 2009 by the Carolina Panthers. Another half brother, Demetri Goodson, was the starting point guard at Gonzaga before transferring to play defensive back at Baylor two years ago.
So it was no wonder Hamilton developed into a three-sport athlete at Strom Thurmond, with an unnatural vertical leap of 40 inches and coveted 4.4-caliber speed.
When he returned to Johnston in eighth grade, the recreation football community was all abuzz about the kid who scored every time he touched the ball. But Hamilton nearly didn’t play for the Rebels in 2005 because his single mother of four couldn’t afford the $40 cost for the mandatory physical. The team voted to let him join the roster late, and he ended up scoring 20 touchdowns in helping Strom Thurmond to the Class AAA state championship.
A future in the NFL was already on Hamilton’s mind.
That drive sustained Hamilton on a turbulent course. Having transferred to so many different schools growing up in West Virginia, Texas and South Carolina, his prep transcripts were such a mess that he failed to qualify for graduation with the rest of his class at Strom Thurmond after his senior season in 2007. He had to fulfill his final English credit in the school’s Adult Education Program the next fall, but it wasn’t going to get him any Division I scholarships.
Through the encouragement of Johnson, as well as college recruiters, he opted to go to Georgia Military.
“That had to be the toughest decision I’ve made on my own,” he said. “Either stay in Johnston working 9-to-5 or go to Georgia Military and get disciplined. That’s what it taught me was discipline – work hard and be respectful. It taught me a whole lot.”
Hamilton eventually became team captain, earned the nickname “Hitman” and came out of Georgia Military in 2010 as a junior college All-American, rated the No. 2 JUCO prospect behind future Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. He chose Georgia over Alabama to stay closer to home.
Hamilton was the only member of Georgia’s 2010 signing class to start in the season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette, returning a fourth-quarter interception 17 yards for a touchdown. He played in 13 games in 2010, starting five.
But a stress fracture in his right ankle forced Hamilton to sit out the 2011 season. Getting behind academically as well as on the depth chart to fellow draft prospects Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams forced Hamilton to make another move to S.C. State.
“It was all about making the right decision for me and my career,” Hamilton said. “Maybe if I transfer I’ll have a better chance of showing my talent. Going to Georgia was one of the greatest things that happened in my life because it taught me a lesson. Once I left and got my mind right and my ankle was feeling better, when I got to South Carolina State I was way more mature with my cause with my level of play.”
Hamilton, however, was once again so far behind academically that S.C. State didn’t include him on the depth chart until he was certified by the NCAA clearinghouse after fulfilling 18 credit hours in both the spring and summer.
“He had probably the biggest hill to climb of anybody I’ve seen come into our program,” S.C. State defensive coordinator Mike Adams told the Orangeburg, S.C., newspaper. “With the amount of hours he had actually to get through between spring and summer, that was a major test and I’ll be honest with you. It really showed me how much this season and how important it was to him.”
Hamilton said he couldn’t have done it without his support network of mentors.
“I wouldn’t say I was a troubled child, but I didn’t have my father my whole life so there were some things that I was missing out on,” he said. “Those guys took me in as their own child. Without those guys and the blessings of God and my mother’s support, I probably wouldn’t be here.”
Hamilton played eight games last season for the Bulldogs, registering 26 tackles and one 96-yard kickoff return touchdown. But it was enough to get him invited to travel for pro-day auditions for six NFL teams – Dallas, San Diego, Green Bay, New York Jets, Washington and Houston.
Hamilton is candid and honest about his path in team interviews.
He hopes his dedication and skill set made an impression.
“At this point right now, I don’t care what round I go in,” he said. “I’m ready to work and where I go doesn’t matter. The goal at the end of the day whether I get drafted in the first round or the sixth or seventh round or free agent, it’s my job to go out and make an impression on the coaches. I’m going to go out there and show to the world and the coaches that I belong in the NFL.”