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Veteran Hamilton finds arena for his success

Just three years after swearing off the NFL, Orlando Predators standout Rick Hamilton decided to give 11-man, traditional football one more try.

A new league and new team had come calling, and the former NFL veteran and current Arena star was interested.

It seems old urges are hard to dislodge, even for a player such as Hamilton, who carved out a niche for himself as one of the best linebacker/fullback combinations in the AFL.

Yet old injuries aren't nearly as easy to overcome, as Hamilton found out on Day 3 of training camp for the Orlando Rage of the now defunct XFL. Creaky joints and persistent pain, it seems, were the sign he was looking for.

The message was sent _ loud and clear.

"I went to camp, but after the first couple of days, my knees started swelling up from knee surgery I'd had a year and a half ago," Hamilton said. "That's when I realized that I was not ready for that kind of football. That's what got me out of the NFL."

A career that began in the mid-80s at Citrus High School and included stops at the University of Central Florida and in NFL cities such as Washington, Kansas City, New York and Detroit finally has come full circle. Hamilton has found his home, and he's here to stay.

"When I'm done with Arena football, I'm hanging up my cleats," he said. "The NFL is something you have to train year-round for and something that takes a lot of preparation. I've adapted to the training style of this league, and I'm not in the physical condition it takes for the next level. Plus, I'm 31 and too old for that too."

It's a decision that makes sense in the grand scheme of things. Hamilton has experienced much success in the AFL, distinguishing himself the way he did in 1984-88 when he terrorized the field as a linebacker and wingback for Citrus' Hurricanes.

Hamilton was instrumental in leading the Predators to Arena Bowl titles in 1998 and 2000. In '98, his first year, he established team and rookie rushing marks with 248 yards during the regular season before winning the Arena Bowl MVP for his 82 yard, three-touchdown performance in a 62-31 blowout of heated rival Tampa Bay.

What makes that so extraordinary is that Hamilton admittedly was stronger on defense when he entered the league.

"In the beginning, I was great on defense and really lacking skills on offense," Hamilton said. "We were a defensive minded team in '98. That first year, I was not too good at blocking, but I ran pretty well."

Since then, he has become a staple in the league, epitomizing the two-way, ironman type of player who the AFL promotes.

Hamilton is Orlando's all-time leading rusher with 679 yards, and he led the league with 210 yards last season. Defensively, he isn't in the record books _ a consequence of scheme more than ability _ but remains a primary force on the league's stingiest defense.

Hamilton came into the league the same year as Predators coach Jay Gruden, the brother of Oakland Raiders head coach John Gruden and a four-time Arena Bowl champion with Tampa Bay. Hamilton's role has evolved in step with the evolution of Orlando's offense.

With the addition of NFL veteran Craig Wheelihan, the Predators have seen their attack become one of the league's best in passing. The result for Hamilton is a lessened role as a rusher (34 attempts, 85 yards through 12 games) and an increased role as a primary blocker.

"We've never had a quarterback with the kind of talent we have now," Hamilton said. "Now, we just try to protect and let him get the ball downfield."

The Predators stumbled early under the new system, losing their first three games. But they've bounced back by winning eight of their last 10 and are perched for another run to the Arena Bowl _ something Orlando has accomplished each of the last three seasons.

A late loss to the Florida Bobcats on July 8 killed any hope of clinching the Southern Division crown and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but the Predators (8-5) and Hamilton have been in this position before. In 1998, they finished with a 9-5 record before capturing their first Arena championship.

Orlando has clinched a post-season berth, but could help itself with a win over Chicago in the season finale Saturday.

"We haven't peaked yet, and we've shown some signs of regression," Hamilton said. "We like our crowd. Our fans are awesome and there isn't a better place to play than the Orlando Arena (T.D. Waterhouse).

"We thrive on playing at home. But, in '98 and '99 we were on the road the whole time."

RICK HAMILTON

POSITION: Fullback/Linebacker.

HEIGHT/WEIGHT: 6-2, 241.

HIGH SCHOOL: Citrus.

COLLEGE: University of Central Florida.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Class 3A All-State first team and Times North Suncoast Player of the Year in 1988 after registering 41 tackles, catching 18 passes and rushing for 156 yards. Led the Central Florida defense in tackles for three years and is the Knights' all-time leader with 443. Drafted in 1993 by the Washington Redskins and spent time in Kansas City, New York and Detroit in an NFL career that spanned five seasons. Set the Orlando Predators' single-season rushing record as a rookie with 248 yards and was named MVP of Arena Bowl XII. Led league with 210 rushing yards in 2000. Became Orlando's all-time leading rusher with 679 yards in 2001.

QUOTABLE: "He and his brother are identical. Jay is really, really competitive, and he wants to win at all costs. Sometimes he doesn't have to say anything. When he looks at you _ with that same "Chucky" look as John _ you know you screwed up." _ Hamilton on Predators coach Jay Gruden, the brother of Oakland Raiders coach John Gruden.

_ CAREY FREEMAN

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