The unofficial town hall in Alvin, S.C., the home of Georgia Tech senior quarterback Joe Hamilton, is Kinlaw's Barber Shop, also known as Football Headquarters. Last Thursday night, 50 men, 40 of them related to Hamilton, gathered at Kinlaw's to watch the Yellow Jackets play Maryland. When Hamilton made a big play, the place erupted into a party of dancing, hugging and screaming. "After an interception or a big touchdown run," Hamilton said last Friday in Alvin, where he had gone for the weekend, "I sometimes think to myself, Man, what are they saying about that back at the barber shop? I thought about that when we were leading 17-14 last night. I thought about what was going on back there, and I knew that nobody was worried about the score. I just knew they were saying, 'We'll be all right. Joe will come through.' "
He did. Hamilton led Georgia Tech to two touchdowns in the final two minutes of the first half to seize control of a game the Yellow Jackets would go on to win 49-31. His performance—he set the Tech single-game record for total yards with 474, including a 41-yard touchdown run—pushed the Yellow Jackets to a 3-1 mark and into the No. 7 spot in the Associated Press poll.
Hamilton's outstanding play also gave pause to scouts who say that a man who's 5'10" and weighs 189 pounds is too small to play quarterback in the NFL. In four seasons as a starter for Georgia Tech, Hamilton has developed into a mobile quarterback with improvisational skills, the type of player who was as popular at last spring's NFL draft as Pokémon cards are at your kid's birthday party. These days the Yellow Jackets are taking full advantage of his ability to run, throw and throw on the run. "We're using a pro attack with an option quarterback," says Tech offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ralph Friedgen.
Though Hamilton led the Yellow Jackets to a 10-2 record and a share of the ACC championship a year ago, this season looks to be even more promising for him and Georgia Tech. His brilliance was never more evident than in the Yellow Jackets' lone defeat, a 41-35 loss to No. 1 Florida State on Sept. 11. All he did in Tallahassee was throw for 387 yards and four touchdowns and rush for another score. The Seminoles won the game, but Hamilton turned a formidable defense into his personal scout team. After the game Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said, "It's been a long time since our defense has been that helpless."
Hamilton is leading Division I-A in passing efficiency—his 202.4 rating would be a single-season record should he sustain it until the end of the year—and if a player's viability as a Heisman Trophy candidate has any correlation to his value to his team, then Hamilton should stand alone at the head of the list for college football's top honor.
His troubles, however, come when he stands next to someone. The Alvin chipmunk wouldn't be a nickname that strikes fear in an opponent, but Hamilton has always reflected his hometown. Alvin (pop. 1,200) is so small that the postal service stripped it of its zip code 14 years ago. Nevertheless, it has been a wellspring of football players, among them Penn State defensive end Courtney Brown, San Francisco 49ers safety Pierson Prioleau and former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Harvey Middleton. In the last six years 18 players from Alvin-area schools have earned football scholarships to Division I colleges.
Three generations of Hamiltons still live in Alvin. Because Joe's mother, Ginger, and his father, also named Joe, both worked, Joe and his three siblings (Antwonne, now 24; Jacquez Prioleau, a half-brother, 23; and Megan, 13) went to their paternal grandparents' home after school. When his grandmother, Rosa Bell, died in the summer of 1998, Joe dedicated the season to her. To this day he finds it difficult to go to her house. The good news, however, is that his 79-year-old grandfather, Silas, may go to Georgia Tech's game at Duke next week to see Joe play for the first time as a collegian. "Joe just loves his grandfather," says Ginger.
Joe has a fondness for mentors. Friedgen, his position coach, is the son of a suburban New York coach, but Hamilton and Friedgen are tighter than Harry Potter and his lightning bolt. "I would describe our relationship as father to son off the field," Hamilton says. "He cares a lot about me, about how I carry myself."
Two years ago, when Hamilton was struggling with his grades, Friedgen demanded that they meet in his office every morning at 7:30. Sometimes Friedgen just wanted to make sure Hamilton showed up for breakfast and study hall. Sometimes he would try to hammer home to Hamilton how much a college degree would mean to his future.
"What if I were to give you a million dollars?" Friedgen asked Hamilton one morning.