CHENEY — Long-haired, tatted-up, biceps-bulging linebacker Ronnie Hamlin is walking toward you on a dark, deserted street. Your natural instinct is to a) run like hell in the opposite direction; b) curl up into the fetal position and pretend you’ve died of a heart attack; c) ask Hamlin if he has time to join you for a cup of coffee and a spirited discussion about physics.
For many people, a) or b) would appear to be the only options. For those who know Hamlin, the opportunity to share some time with the leading tackler in Eastern Washington University football history is always a treat, even if football doesn’t come up in the conversation.
“A lot of people make judgments on the hair and tattoos, but that’s not who I am. It’s just what you see,” Hamlin says in his soft-spoken, unassuming manner.
EWU fans see a 6-foot-2, 235-pound wild man racing about the field, a thick mane of brown hair cascading part way down his back. EWU professors see a dedicated student with a 3.56 grade point average who is closing in on degrees in mechanical engineering and construction management.
“It’s just really impressive what he’s done in his time at Eastern,” linebackers coach Josh Fetter said. “Not just on the field, but off it.”
“He’s a quiet guy off the field,” linebacker Cody McCarthy said. “Really smart. Really cerebral. Very intelligent. On the field, he’s kind of a rough-and-tumble guy.”
“On the field,” Fetter adds with a wicked grin, “don’t get (fooled by) the nice-guy ‘act.’ He’ll try to kill ya. He flies around pretty good.”
Hamlin missed Eastern’s national championship season of 2010 due to knee surgery, so the senior is jacked up for his last shot at an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision title. The fourth-seeded Eagles (10-2), coming off a first-round bye, face Big Sky Conference archrival Montana (9-4 and unseeded) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in a second-round game at Eastern’s Roos Field. ESPN3 carries the webcast.
Hamlin, who starred at Timberline High School in Lacey, ranks second in Big Sky history and 13th in FCS history with 448 career tackles. He made the All-Big Sky first team this season for the Eagles, who won their third Big Sky championship in a row.
Washington and Washington State showed only mild interest in recruiting Hamlin, but Eastern has cashed in big on countless players passed up by the Huskies and Cougars. Hamlin led the Eagles with 13 tackles Sept. 6 when Eastern gave the Huskies everything they could handle before losing 59-52.
Hamlin draws rave reviews from McCarthy, Fetter (a White River High graduate) and head coach Beau Baldwin (a Curtis High alum) for his humble manner and leadership skills. Hamlin’s parents also earn praise – “He was raised right,” Fetter says — but father and son clashed when Ronnie’s high school buzz cut made way for long, flowing locks in college.
“My dad being the clean-cut, military guy, at first he was not happy about it,” Hamlin recalls. “He said, ‘I’m going to cut it when you’re sleeping.’”
Dad, a retired Army vet, eventually took a shine to his son’s long hair. Mom didn’t complain too much, though she coaxed her son into letting her give him a slight trim a couple times.
Other than that, Hamlin says his hair hasn’t been cut in more than four years, the end result of a friendly competition with then-teammates Zach Johnson (from Tumwater High) and Jeff Minnerly. Those two cut their hair years ago. Once the season ends, Hamlin says he’ll donate his shorn hair to Locks of Love, a non-profit organization that aids disadvantaged young people suffering from long-term medical hair loss.
The soft side of Hamlin comes as no surprise to McCarthy.
“He’s the kind of guy who can get along with just about anybody,” McCarthy said. “He can walk into a room – like, say, the engineering department – he can sit down with the next Bill Gates and talk to him. He can walk into the biggest room of dumb jocks and he can talk to them. He can walk into a room of cheerleaders and he can talk to them.”
McCarthy, who has started at linebacker with Hamlin the past four years — McCarthy on the weak side, Hamlin on the strong side — jokes that Hamlin is “30 years old” and has played for the Eagles “since the field was green.” (Eastern installed red artificial turf in 2010.)
If the truth be known, Hamlin is 24 years old, and he did not play for the Eagles until 2011. Hamlin sat out his first two years at EWU when he twice tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
“After the second ACL, I was really thinking about not coming back,” Hamlin said. “It was hard for me because I really wanted to play and I felt like I had so much to prove and to show. But after two years off from football and all that rehab and strengthening: It sucks. I don’t wish that on anyone.”
In some ways, Hamlin’s heart ached as badly as his knee when the Eagles won the FCS (formerly Division I-AA) national championship without him in 2010.
“It was really bittersweet,” Hamlin said. “It was awesome – I was so stoked for the players, the team – but it kind of burns you because you’re like, ‘Man, I want to be out there. I should be out there with them.’ It’s kind of like watching your buddies go to war without you.”
Hamlin says he “would love” to play pro football, but he’s aware that teams may be wary of his age and injuries. If he doesn’t wind up in the pros, Hamlin says he’d be content to wind up living in Montana, hunting and fishing to his heart’s content.
“I’m not ready to give up football,” Hamlin says, a twinkle in his eye. “If I hung up my cleats when the season’s done, I think I might cry.”