By Rubin E. Grant
The Hoover Bucs have another weapon at their disposal for the state football playoffs.
Junior receiver R.J. Hamilton served notice that he’s back and just as dangerous in the Bucs’ final game of the regular season.
The dynamic and electric Hamilton caught 10 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown as Hoover stunned Thompson 24-21 on Oct. 22 to win the Class 7A, Region 3 title.
Hoover (10-0) will play host to the Sparkman Senators (4-6) in a Class 7A first-round playoff game Friday at the Hoover Met.
Hamilton, a two-sport standout in football and baseball, missed the Bucs’ first eight games because of a lingering shoulder injury. He said it was simply a matter playing sports too much.
“I was on the go all the time with baseball and football and not a lot of rest,” he said.
The injury did not require surgery.
“I just rehabbed and worked out as much as I could,” Hamilton said.
Since he was used to playing all the time, Hamilton had to find another way to stay engaged on Friday nights.
‘It was hard just watching because I would have loved to be out there playing with the guys,” he said. “I just took on the role of a cheerleader and tried to get everybody hyped.”
Hamilton returned to action on the field when the Bucs traveled to Tuscaloosa County on Oct. 15. He immediately made his presence felt, catching three passes for 67 yards and two touchdowns in Hoover’s lopsided 49-7 victory.
“It was amazing being back out there and doing what I’m good at,” he said.
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Hamilton was just warming up for his explosive exploits against Thompson.
His 25-yard touchdown reception late in the third quarter began Hoover’s comeback from a 21-10 halftime deficit.
Then, late in the fourth quarter, he had receptions of 10 and 15 yards on Hoover’s game-winning touchdown drive that ended with senior quarterback Bennett Meredith throwing an 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jabari Gaines with 14 seconds remaining.
Hoover snapped Thompson’s 27-game winning streak and the Bucs’ four-game losing streak against the Warriors, which included two regular-season setbacks and two playoff semifinal losses the past two seasons. Thompson also had won six of the past seven in the series.
The victory was extra sweet for Hamilton because it was the first time in his varsity career that he had walked off the field victorious against Thompson.
“It felt amazing, but I am not surprised we did it,” Hamilton said. “We came ready to win.”
Hamilton was thrilled that he could play a pivotal role in the game.
“All the hard work I had put into being back out there came into show,” he said.
Hamilton praised Meredith – “He’s been incredible,” he said. – and the Bucs’ other receivers for the way they played while he was sidelined. He mentioned Cotton Peters, K.J. Law, Cai Mayowa, Jordan Woolen and Freddie Dunson.
“K.J. has been my best friend for a long time,” Hamilton said. “It’s been good to see him have success. And Cotton Peters helps us all be ready to go. We have a really tight-knit core group of receivers.”
Hamilton had a sensational sophomore season in 2020 with 53 receptions for 1,063 yards and nine touchdowns. “He’s a next-level player,” Hoover coach Josh Niblett said.
Diamond Over Gridiron
Hamilton, however, doesn’t plan to play football at the next level. He’s an elite baseball player as a middle infielder with speed and athleticism. He was the runner-up for MVP at the 2020 PBR Future Games. Earlier this year he committed to Vanderbilt to play baseball.
Hamilton’s dad, Corey Harris, introduced him to baseball when he was 8 years old, two years after he had started playing football. Harris is now the wide receivers coach at Homewood.
“I’ve been playing baseball and football since I was little, but I like baseball a little bit more,” Hamilton said. “When I’m throwing that baseball, I feel at ease, at home on the diamond. My dad always told me the ball will pick you.”
That doesn’t mean some colleges won’t try to change Hamilton’s mind about strictly playing baseball in college.
“He’s got a bright future in baseball, but there are a lot of schools interested in him to play football,” Niblett said.
Since he’s a junior, Hamilton has plenty of time to change his mind, but right now, he said, that’s not likely. He also said he doesn’t plan to try to play both sports at Vanderbilt.
“I’ve not really given that any thought,” he said. “Earlier I had, but once they started recruiting me heavy, it started turning into strictly baseball at the next level.”
Hamilton’s focus in the immediate future is the state football playoffs. The Bucs haven’t won a state championship since 2017, losing to Thompson in the Class 7A semifinals the past three years.
“The regular season is over and everybody is 0-0,” Hamilton said. “Now, it’s about trying to go 1-0 each week of the playoffs.
“I feel good about our chances. We just have to keep getting better every day and be ready to play each week.”