PLANT CITY — Football is more than just a game played on Thursday or Friday nights for Jamarlon Hamilton.
It’s a release from the pain of losing a mother and uncle. It’s a motivator, a reason to work hard and stay focused. It’s a dream and a hope that perhaps the game will lead him to college, maybe even all the way to the Super Bowl, like it did for another uncle.
And the fact that Hamilton can still play today, well, that’s nothing short of a miracle.
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Durant’s 2010 season ended with a 42-7 win over Strawberry Crest in the Cougars’ Nov. 12 regular-season finale. Hamilton, then a sophomore, rushed for 73 yards and two touchdowns for a total of 506 yards for the year.
“He’s one of our strongest kids,” Durant coach Mike Gottman said. “He’s got a nice set of legs on him and is just a strong, strong kid.”
No human, though, can match the strength of a moving car. A few weeks after the season concluded, Hamilton, 15 at the time, was driving his aunt’s car on Horton Road and attempted to cross over State Road 60. He failed to see an oncoming Ford pickup truck, which struck the passenger side of his vehicle. Hamilton’s car flipped onto the driver’s side and crashed into a telephone pole.
Both Hamilton and his passenger, Javonte Shaw-Young, then 16, were flown via helicopter to Tampa General Hospital. Shaw-Young broke his jaw and had it wired shut during his recovery. Hamilton suffered only internal injuries, including an enlarged heart that kept him in the hospital for less than a week.
“We’re not supposed to be here,” Hamilton said, “but by the will of God, we are.”
Charges for driving without a license and failing to yield were dropped, and Hamilton was able to come back to the football field at full strength. As life-threatening as the crash was, Hamilton said it was not the most difficult obstacle he and his heart have overcome.
That would be the deaths of his mother and uncle.
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Hamilton was 13 when his mother, LaKisha Smith, died at age 29 of heart failure. The sight of Hamilton at his mother’s grave is still vivid in the mind of his boyhood pastor.
“I was there to see him bury his mom,” said Calvin Callins of the Greater New Hope Anointed Ministries. “And I saw him grow from that, and I saw the love of his grandparents, how they surrounded him and helped him. Losing a mother is a great loss. But I’ve seen him rebound.”
Hamilton also turned to his uncle, Donnell Smith Jr., for support. The two lived together and were only nine years apart. Hamilton called him his “best friend and brother.”
Almost two years to the day of his mother’s death, Smith died at age 24, also of heart failure.
“That was a very hard time for me,” Hamilton said. “It was a tough obstacle, but I have people here to support me and keep me motivated for what I do.”
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Hamilton, who now lives with his grandparents, has another uncle who has shown him how far football can take him.
Derrick Gainer played at Plant City in the late 1980s before attending Florida A&M. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989 and went on to win two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys.
“He’s like a hero to me,” Hamilton said.
Gainer was in the stands Friday to see his nephew rush for a season-high 162 yards and a touchdown in Durant’s 41-21 win over Wharton.
The 5-foot-10, 195-pound fullback has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the Cougars’ past three games, and he is looking to continue that streak when Durant (3-1, 1-0) plays district 7A-8 favorite Plant City (4-0, 1-0) tonight.
“The coaches, they have high expectations for me,” Hamilton said. "They know I can do it, and they’ve put their faith in me.”
Laura Keeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.