The Hamiltons were having the interior of their Fredericksburg, Va., home repainted. Beds and furniture were in the basement while Max Hamilton was occupied upstairs with the painters, making sure everything was going as planned.
Meanwhile, her two sons stayed busy.
A 9-year-old DaeSean Hamilton, accompanied by his then-11-year-old brother Darius, played hide-and-seek. When it was DaeSean’s turn to hide, he found a spot underneath one of the beds in the basement, while Darius, diagnosed with nonverbal autism at a young age, was tasked to find his brother.
“I was hiding so long that I fell asleep,” DaeSean said with a chuckle.
After a while, DaeSean’s mother took notice that he was nowhere in sight. Max looked high and low, freaking out — DaeSean apparently picked a sneaky hiding spot, because she couldn’t find him. Max knocked up at the neighbor’s house, and eventually called the police.
“I thought my son was kidnapped,” Max recalled.
She remembered that one of the painters left early. She immediately thought the worker took her son.
“I was in the Marine Corps,” Max said, almost out of breath. “I’m like hell no, I know that guy has my son.”
Police arrived with detection dogs, searching high and low for DaeSean.
But Darius knew the whole time where his brother was hiding. He found DaeSean under the bed before there was all the confusion, saw he was asleep, and let him keep snoozing.
“My brother can’t communicate where I am,” DaeSean said. “He didn’t know she was looking for me.”
When Max eventually asked Darius if he had any idea where his brother was, Darius led his mother and the police downstairs. He walked over to the bed and laid down.
Alas, the game of hide-and-seek was finished.
With Darius’ nonverbal autism, there were times where communication and understanding was difficult. But as DaeSean grew up, he did so with Darius by his side, forming an everlasting bond and understanding between brothers.
DaeSean, now a wide receiver at Penn State, has incurred his fair share of adversity, from a wrist injury that caused him to redshirt in 2013 to a potential touchdown dropped as the clock waned against Pittsburgh in September.
But as he’ll tell anyone, nothing he’s been through is close to what Darius has endured. He knows that as well as anybody. He was there for Darius from elementary through high school.
“Everything you do for yourself, you also have to do for someone else,” DaeSean said. “That’s all I really knew.”
Both of DaeSean’s parents, Max and Johnie, were in the Marine Corps. DaeSean was born in Okinawa, Japan, moved to Hawaii, then Chicago and ultimately settled in Virginia. DaeSean was too young to remember anything before Fredericksburg, but his parents’ occupations never slipped his mind.
“A lot of times you’re just wondering where your parents are,” the redshirt junior said. “It’s a taxing job for both of them, and you’re really spending time fending for yourself. You grow up a lot quicker than you’d have to at a young age.”
DaeSean had a responsibility to take care of himself, but also his brother. When he was 8 years old, his parents tasked him with essentially being Darius’ caregiver — making him breakfast, getting him ready for school and ensuring that he was on the bus.
It wasn’t ideal for Max and Johnie, having to be at work so early and so late. But they had faith in their son to step up.
“It was a relief,” Max said. “It’s hard for some kids to keep up with their own stuff in school, and then to also have responsibility for a special needs sibling, that’s a lot to put on him. ... We trusted him from the get-go.”
And DaeSean was more than willing to help out.
“I knew what role I had to take on,” he noted. “I embraced it with open arms.”
That willingness extended beyond morning and after-school assistance, too. DaeSean communicates with Darius by talking while signing, something he caught on to by spending time in elementary school with his brother’s class. DaeSean used his free period to visit, helping Darius and other special needs students while learning himself.
It was an eye-opening experience for DaeSean.
“Seeing all the types of battles these kids struggle with,” the wideout reflected, “it was a humbling experience, and I couldn’t imagine battling with that kind of adversity in my life on a daily basis. ... That really put things in my life in perspective.”
Being with Darius in the classroom also gave DaeSean a better look into his brother’s life — and some of the things Darius tried to get away with at home.
For example, Max and the rest of the family were under the impression that Darius didn’t know how to tie his shoes. But DaeSean knew better.
“(Darius) would always kick his foot up for someone to tie his shoes,” Max said. “DaeSean would say, ‘No mom, he can tie his shoes, he always ties his shoes.’ ”
So after coming home from middle school, DaeSean would give his mom a daily update. There was a picture of McDonald’s french fries with an “X” through it, and one without an “X.”
It was up to him to decide if Darius earned french fries that day.
“DaeSean was a narc,” Max said, laughing.
It was all a part of DaeSean’s job.
His responsibilities diminished a bit when the two went to high school. Darius attended Stafford High School, while DaeSean went to the rival Mountain View High School about 20 minutes away, where he starred in football. A freak athlete who snared 64 catches for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior, DaeSean was a two-time team captain at Mountain View.
He was also a model student, graduating with honors. But DaeSean did play hooky once during his senior year — to attend Darius’ graduation.
It was an emotional day for DaeSean. Whether it was getting him dressed for school in the morning or helping with homework, he was there every step of the way with Darius, from middle school on.
And it wasn’t always easy.
“He had problems here and there because it was just a frustrating time for him,” DaeSean said of his brother’s high school experience. “But to see him go through all that, overcoming all that and graduating, it was a really proud moment for me.”
Max was surprised to see him. She knew DaeSean had school and wasn’t expecting him to be at Stafford High that day. But she was overjoyed that he could make it.
“That was really special,” Max said softly.
As for Darius, he didn’t know exactly what was going on. Max told him it was his last day of school, and he was happy to see DaeSean.
What was perhaps more emotional for Darius was DaeSean leaving for Penn State, a situation Max said was hard on her son and the whole family.
Darius’ best friend was a five-hour drive away.
“And I can’t just call my brother and talk to him on the phone or text him,” DaeSean said disappointed.
But the two still get to see each other regularly.
Max and Johnie travel to Penn State home games, and Darius tags along on many occasions. He was up for Penn State’s 34-27 win over Temple, and DaeSean expects him in Happy Valley for Saturday’s White Out game against No. 2 Ohio State.
Darius might not understand football, but there’s always a reason for him to visit.
“He knows he’s going to see me after the game,” DaeSean said with a smile.
And while it’s rare that DaeSean gets to visit home, he did so during Penn State’s bye week. Max said that typically, Darius spends all of his time in the basement, watching the Disney Channel. That wasn’t the case last weekend.
“He was upstairs all the time,” Max said, “because DaeSean was here.”
It was reminiscent of DaeSean and Darius’ younger days, hanging out together, side by side.
Just like it was before — and just as it always will be.
Penn State vs. Ohio State Game Day Breakdown
Who: Penn State (4-2, 2-1) vs. No. 2 Ohio State (6-0, 3-0)
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Beaver Stadium
Series: Ohio State leads 18-13
KEYS TO WIN
For Penn State: Limit J.T. Barrett. Despite his eye-popping rushing totals, Barrett isn’t a dual-threat player who’ll crumble if he’s kept in the pocket; the junior has completed 63.2 percent of his passes this year. But staying disciplined and keeping him from breaking loose would help.
For Ohio State: Disrupt the read-option. The keep-or-handoff option worked with Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley against Maryland, but Ohio State’s front-seven is a different animal. Look for the Buckeyes to crash the mesh point and create negative plays.
Nittany Lion to watch: Jason Cabinda. If the linebacker who’s missed five games due to injury can return and play effectively, the Nittany Lions would welcome his leadership and play-making ability in the middle.
Buckeye to watch: Curtis Samuel. The offense is obviously focused around Barrett, but Samuel has been the Buckeyes’ most versatile weapon. The 5-foot-11 H-back leads the team in receiving yards (403), while racking up 456 rushing yards and six total touchdowns.