Amid the whirlwind that greeted Fred Hamilton’s second term as Battery Creek football coach, there was a young man’s eulogy to give.
Not for any Dolphin, thankfully. But Colleton County was mourning the loss of three athletes in a grisly crash exiting I-95 near Ridgeland; one played football and had run for Hamilton at the state track qualifier just three weeks earlier.
“That hangs with you a long time,” Hamilton said.
Who knows if that was a harbinger of things to come. Different school, different job, different kids. But it would be tough to overlook the dark cloud that seems to have hovered over the Dolphins this season.
Hamilton’s hiring came too late for spring drills or summer passing leagues. Three projected starters were found ineligible before he could blow the first whistle on fall camp.
A rough start got tougher when six players were suspended for a sideline skirmish in a loss to Beaufort. Hurricane Matthew interrupted everything.
While Hamilton was waiting out the hurricane in Charleston, his father suffered a stroke. His offensive coordinator had to step away to deal with flood damage. The night before their season was ready to resume, three Dolphins were critically hurt in a crash not far from campus.
And while the team was still trying to process that gut punch, Hamilton learned an hour before getting on the bus that his starting quarterback was lost to a broken arm.
“I always try to say it could be worse,” Hamilton said this week. “I’ve had to struggle to say that a couple of times this season. It’s been a tough year.”
Maybe, though, the cloud is beginning to lift. The Dolphins won their regular-season finale, shaking off an early 14-point deficit to beat Ridgeland-Hardeeville and grab a berth in the Class 3A playoffs.
It could be short-lived. The Dolphins (2-8) earned a bus trip to Brookland-Cayce, which has lost once this year and has given up no more than 18 points in a game since Labor Day.
“The odds are definitely not in our favor,” Hamilton acknowledged, “but we’re just happy to go compete and get another chance to be together as a team one more week.”
Hamilton is in his 34th season of coaching, working at both the high-school and college levels. His first head coaching job came at Battery Creek, where he guided the Dolphins to their first playoff win in 2001.
His dad, Rusty, also is a coaching lifer who was part of a Citadel staff that included Bobby Ross, who later took the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl, along with future college successes Frank Beamer (Virginia Tech) and Ralph Friedgen (Maryland).
So when Hamilton says this is the toughest stretch he’s ever had to endure, it comes with plenty of perspective. “I’ve lost a lot of sleep, I can promise you that,” Hamilton said.
Coming in late, he knew this first year would present a challenge. Without spring practice, he couldn’t install his offensive and defensive playbooks until camp began at the end of July. That left three weeks before the season opener.
The early lumps certainly weren’t unexpected, nor did the suspensions — for what appeared on video to be a relatively mild skirmish — help matters. The Dolphins had just 25 bodies to put on the bus to Hilton Head. “We didn’t even have backups for some of them,” Hamilton said.
It was after Matthew hit, though, that things really went haywire.
Hamilton rode out the storm in Charleston with his 80-year-old dad, who fell ill some 48 hours after Matthew passed.
“Gee, that was tough,” said Hamilton, who spent the first week after Matthew in Charleston. “It’s part of life. He’s 80 now. ... He’s not what he was. Whether he’ll get like that again remains to be seen. But that was a tough thing to handle.”
Offensive coordinator Dave Fess had serious issues of his own. His St. Helena Island home suffered severe flooding, and a tornado had cut a swatch between his house and his neighbor’s. Fess needed time to focus on those issues.
Jeremy Varn took the reins, installing a new offense he better understood.
“So my dad got the stroke, I’ve lost my offensive coordinator, had to put in a new offense,” Hamilton said. And after a week of practice, things might have worked out from there.
Then came the crash, minutes after Jelani Boyd, Ahman Smalls and John DeLoach had left the Dolphins’ JV game. Boyd wound up being airlifted to Charleston with severe facial injuries; DeLoach tore up his knee and Smalls suffered a concussion.
“After what happened with Dad, that night I struggled real hard,” Hamilton said. “Especially after losing the young man from Colleton County that died in a wreck.”
If there was a time when the grizzled coach questioned his circumstance, this was it.
“I was up all night,” Hamilton said. “I’m a religious man, so I prayed several times. But there’s nothing you can do.”
The Dolphins draped their teammates’ jerseys over the bench at May River, but lost a 6-2 decision. A blowout loss at Bluffton followed.
“After that game, there was a question in my mind. How many kids are going to come to practice on Monday and still want to win?” Hamilton said.
The Dolphins fell behind to Ridgeland-Hardeeville, too, before Eddie Dean’s 80-yard kickoff return injected a spark. Battery Creek scored 23 consecutive points, gave up a late touchdown but held on for their first win since Sept. 8.
“We kind of jelled as a team for the first time, really,” Hamilton said.
No matter what happens Friday at Brookland-Cayce, the Dolphins at last seem on the right track. Hamilton can conduct his offseason weight program and spring drills. The JV went 6-1 this season and will have several players pushing to start on varsity.
“Brighter days are ahead,” Hamilton said.
After the path it took to get there, the Dolphins deserve it.