Joe Hamilton is staring the Heisman Trophy right in the eyes and trying to enjoy the chase as much as possible.
"I know the media is going to talk about it," said the Georgia Tech senior quarterback, whose next test will come against 3-0 Maryland on Thursday night. "I just have to know when I can and when I can't talk about it. I don't want to let my teammates hear me talking about it. I don't want them to think it's a priority. It can backfire on you."
It is unusual in these days of canned Heisman media blitzes to hear a top candidate talk openly about college football's most celebrated award.
Many past Heisman hopefuls have made themselves virtual recluses for three months while competing for the trophy.
But there has never been anything secretive, canned or corporate about Hamilton.
"I'm still known as 'Little Joe' back home in Alvin, S.C.," said the 5-foot-10, 189-pound dual threat. "I'm no superstar. I grew up 22 years watching a parade in my hometown and this year they asked me to be the grand marshal, and there I was, waving at all those people who are my close friends. It was an unbelievable feeling."
There are only 1,000 people in Alvin, which is close to Charleston, and Hamilton has maintained a close bond with the town.
He is especially close to "the guys back home who didn't make it to college. A lot of people in my town are talented enough to be where I am but aren't here for one reason or another."
The electrifying passer and runner said he plays every game for those less-fortunate athletes.
"I play for the ones who were on my team and the ones from an older generation," Hamilton said. "They know I am playing for them. In fact, it's become such a real thing, those guys actually feel they are playing in Georgia Tech games. When I play for Georgia Tech, I am fighting for my life and for those guys back home. Every game is a special war."
If Hamilton should be one of the Heisman finalists and is invited to New York for the trophy presentation, he said, "I would take all those guys with me if I could."
In case anyone is wondering by now how such an outwardly humble man could have risen to a lofty position as one of the top 10 Heisman candidates in the nation, it hasn't been easy.
The No. 1 battle for Hamilton has been to overcome what is perceived throughout football as a lack of height at 5 feet 10. He has proved the critics wrong at every level since high school JV, and he still has to prove them wrong one more time to get to the NFL.
"When you've been the smallest guy in the back yard, you learn how to stay on the move and get out of jams," Hamilton said.
Are there any scars left from the battles?
"Just one little grudge," said Hamilton in reference to being turned down for a football scholarship by his home state school, the University of South Carolina. "I thought I deserved more respect from Brad Scott," a former Gamecocks assistant who joined the Clemson staff as assistant head coach this season.
Georgia Tech and Nebraska both wanted Hamilton badly, with Yellow Jackets coach George O'Leary seeing far beyond the surface to all the athletic talent and fierce competitiveness.
After watching his star quarterback guide the team to a 10-2 record in 1998, O'Leary said, "If there was a better quarterback in the country, I didn't see him. He makes plays when there are no plays there. It's just not that he takes the play when it's there, but he also makes plays when there's nothing there."
Hamilton shot down Notre Dame, 35-28, in the Gator Bowl last season, completing 13 of 20 for 237 yards and three touchdowns. He also stunned the Fighting Irish by catching a 5-yard touchdown pass from tailback Joe Burns.
The bowl heroics followed three fourth-quarter comeback victories engineered by Hamilton over then sixth-ranked Virginia, then 12th-ranked Georgia and Clemson.
When all the dust settled from the 1998 season, Georgia Tech was ranked No. 9 in the nation and Hamilton had completed 145 of 259 passes for 2,166 yards and 17 touchdowns and had rushed for 298 yards and four touchdowns.
It was time to think Heisman in 1999, and there is extra special meaning for Georgia Tech in Hamilton running the race. No Tech player has won the Heisman, which is named for legendary Yellow Jackets coach John Heisman, who was in charge of the Tech fortunes from 1904 to 1919.
Now, three games into the 1999 season for No. 9 Georgia Tech (2-1), Hamilton has been performing such heroic feats that not even a 41-35 loss to No. 1 Florida State has dampened his Heisman gloss.
He was magnificent on Sept. 11 in Tallahassee on national television, completing 22 of 25 for 387 yards and four touchdowns, and nearly ending the Seminoles' unbeaten home streak at 41.
"I never thought I would see the day that an offense would score that many points on us," said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. "No quarterback has ever done that to us before."
Hamilton said, "It was an exciting game against Florida State. We performed well but not well enough to win. I don't want to dwell on it. It's sad to say, but I hope Florida State loses two games in the league [ACC], so we can still get first place."
Next for Terps
Opponent: No. 9 Georgia Tech
Site: Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta
When: Thursday, 8 p.m.
TV/Radio: ESPN/WNST (1570 AM)
Line: Georgia Tech by 20
Pub Date: 9/28/99