James Franklin can still recall waking up in the Lasch Building during his first few months on the job, rolling off an air mattress and watching one player show up morning after morning to train on his own.
It’s one of his favorite memories of redshirt senior DaeSean Hamilton, who’ll play his last game at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
“DaeSean’s going to leave a legacy here in terms of work,” Franklin said Wednesday night. “He’s a guy, probably as much as any guy I’ve been around in my career, that’s maximized his potential through work ethic, through preparation and through attitude.”
Hamilton missed his entire freshman campaign with an injury, redshirted — and committed the playbook to memory so he wouldn’t fall behind. Then he watched his coaching staff leave for the NFL — and worked even harder so he could show Franklin and Co. he could play.
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He’d run routes at 6 a.m. on the practice field. He’d catch balls on the Jugs machine, sometimes 100, or 200 with a teammate. He’d perform wet-ball drills, and he’d lift. He did anything and everything he felt he needed, for as long as he needed.
“I didn’t want to be overlooked back when I was a redshirt freshman because they didn’t have any film on me,” Hamilton said, referring to Franklin’s staff. “They didn’t have anything to judge my skills off of, so I didn’t want to fall behind and get lost in the pack. I wanted to go out there and, basically, just take it.”
He did. Most Penn State fans are familiar with the story from there. Hamilton went on to have an All-Big Ten season, watched his numbers decline the next two years and then had a resurgence of sorts this season, in his final year of eligibility.
He already holds the program’s career record for receptions (200) and remains third all-time in receiving yards (2,631). But, for many of his coaches and teammates, it’s not those numbers he’ll be best remembered for.
It’s the work ethic that led to those numbers.
“He really set an example for guys that if you keep working and make the best of every day,” quarterback Trace McSorley said, “it might not show up right when you want it to but, over time, you will see those rewards.”
Said Franklin: “Some guys sulk about that, the redshirting or not playing and struggle their freshman year — guys really struggle; I’m dealing with that right now — and DaeSean’s one of those guys where, instead of sulking, it really kind of lit a fire under him.”
The successes haven’t come without the struggles. But Hamilton has never shied away from taking responsibility, learning and moving on. Last season, against Pitt, he dropped a critical touchdown pass — but faced the media immediately after the game. Few would have in that situation. Then his best game of the season came when it mattered most, during an eight-catch, 118-yard performance against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship.
He finished first on the team in receiving yards in 2014, second in 2015 and third in 2016. Now, he’s back to first with a team-best 646 yards and a career-best seven touchdowns.
Hamilton has taken one step back and three steps forward throughout his career. And he never let those obstacles, or those backward steps, stop him from hitting the practice field even harder and moving forward even quicker.
Saturday will be the last time Nittany Lions fans see maybe the program’s hardest worker take the field at Beaver Stadium. And it has been a career, a legacy, that Hamilton is trying not to reflect on until the season is in the books.
“I’ve been thinking about it at times throughout the week,” Hamilton said, adjusting his bandana. “But it hasn’t hit me yet.”
When it does, maybe he’ll come to the same succinct conclusion as Franklin. Between the record books, a conference championship ring and going out strong, there’s only one way to sum it up. Said Franklin: “He’s done it.”