Allen Park — Much like playing linebacker, first at the University of Alabama, and later with the Washington Commanders and Detroit Lions, Shaun Dion Hamilton wasted little time reacting after diagnosing the situation.
Less than two weeks after he was cut by the Lions last summer, at just 27 years old, Hamilton exchanged his cleats and shoulder pads for a clipboard and whistle, making an abrupt transition from player to coach, where he joined a staff jam-packed with guys who had years of NFL playing experience.
And next week, Hamilton’s transition continues, when he heads to Mobile, Ala. to coach the defensive backs for the American team at this year’s Senior Bowl game.
“As a player, you can read in between the lines and see the writing on the wall,” Hamilton told The Detroit News. “Being my fifth year in the NFL, I knew where the trajectory of my career was going. And I had always told myself, when I first started playing, I never want to be the guy — not saying I’m too big to be on a practice squad or anything like that, but just stability-wise (I didn’t want to linger).”
Injuries had also taken a toll on Hamilton. Knee injuries (ACL and patellar tendon) ended two seasons at Alabama, and he missed the 2021 season in Detroit after tearing a triceps muscle during training camp.
When Hamilton played, coaches had often told him that he could be a good coach someday, and during his exit interview with Detroit’s leadership, Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes, both expressed interest in him remaining with the team in a coaching capacity if he didn’t get an offer to continue his career with another team.
“They were saying, ‘Look, man, I know things didn’t work out here for you as a player, but we value having you around and we think you’d be a great asset on this coaching staff. So, if you don’t get any serious interest from another team, give us a call.’ I gave myself a week and a half to see if any teams showed serious, serious interest, and that’s how I got to where I’m at.”
Hamilton had long rejected the idea of going into coaching, but started to warm to the idea last summer. That spark grew into a fire when Campbell sprung a player-run practice on the roster in August, and Hamilton took command of the defense that day.
“I’d probably say by the time training camp started to go the way I didn’t want it to go as a player, I began to look at the game a bit differently,” Hamilton said. “I became an even bigger cheerleader and I felt like I started to become a coach. When you’re not on the field, you’re thinking, ‘How can I impact this player?’ or ‘What pointer can I give this guy so he doesn’t make a mistake here?’
“Definitely, I thought that was a great idea by Dan, just spicing things up during training camp,” Hamilton said. “You know, guys get tired of beating up on each other, so kudos to him. But it definitely did. Running the show, calling the defense, it motivated me and gave me even more of an itch to do what I ended up doing.”
The learning curve
Hamilton officially joined the coaching staff a few days before the regular-season opener through the team’s Williams Clay Ford Minority Coaching Assistantship program. Starting on that bottom rung of the ladder, he naturally fit in and assisted position coach Kelvin Sheppard with the linebackers, but also got the opportunity to work with the team’s defensive backs.
As a former middle linebacker who served as a captain and quarterback of the defense in Alabama, Hamilton already has a deep understanding of how the entirety of a defensive scheme works. Now, he’s working on refining his understanding of how the fundamental skills and techniques are applied at the different positions, to round out his ability to teach.
“I know how I’m wired; I want to know about all 11 (players), their technique, how they’re supposed to be doing it, how they do it,” Hamilton said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. Being a linebacker, we’re the quarterback of the defense, so we have to be ready to run the show. I’m just taking that next step to know everything, from the corners, safeties, defensive line, nose tackle — that was the biggest learning curve.”
Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, who played cornerback in the NFL for 15 years, was another voice who encouraged Hamilton to consider coaching. Now, after trying to develop Hamilton as a player, he’s helping develop him as a coach.
“As much as I wanted to be able to showcase my skill set and things like that, everything happened for a reason,” Hamilton said. “I feel like my place, being here in Detroit, was for me to do what I’m doing now, being around a great staff, a great head coach like Dan, great mentors like AG, who can groom me to do something I can be doing for a long time.”
The next step is the Senior Bowl, where Hamilton will get to further test himself, coaching a position he never played. And while he’s not looking at it as any kind of audition, it could be viewed as such from the outside looking in, after defensive assistant Addison Lynch left the staff last week. He worked with the defensive backs in Detroit last year and Hamilton is working with the DBs in Mobile. It’s easy to connect the dots.
Regardless of the greater implications, it’s a special trip for Hamilton, who is an Alabama product through and through, having been born and raised in the state.
“It’s definitely super special, man,” he said. “It’s so exciting because growing up in the state, I remember always hearing about the Senior Bowl. It’s a huge deal for the state of Alabama. Coach (Nick) Saban always shows up. I got invited to the game (as a player in 2018), but I was injured and couldn’t play. Now, to be able to come back after playing a couple years in the NFL, to be a coach in it, it checks a big box for me.”
As for Saban, Hamilton hasn’t touched base with his former coach after transitioning to the other side of the profession, but that’s on the agenda for the offseason. Ultimately, even though this is a new venture, Hamilton has big goals as a coach. He wants to follow in the footsteps of guys like Sheppard and Glenn.
And even more so than with those colleagues, Hamilton is inspired by 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, because of the similarities of their paths.
“I feel like we’re very similar in the way he was born and raised in Alabama, went to the University of Alabama, was a team captain,” Hamilton said. “He made it to the NFL, served in lower coaching roles, became a linebacker coach. Now, he’s a coordinator and he’s up for head-coaching jobs. He’s a great guy, not just as a football coach, but he’s a tremendous human being.”
In 2018, when Ryans was serving as the 49ers’ inside-linebackers coach, he worked out Hamilton ahead of that year’s draft. That experience left a strong impression with Detroit’s young coach, and he’s looking to pay it forward at the Senior Bowl.
“(At the Senior Bowl), I get to be around guys that are trying to get to the NFL,” Hamilton said. “It’s great for me that I can go there and tell the guys, ‘Everything you want, I’ve been there. I’ve done it. I’m not just a coach, but I’ve played in the league.’ It’s great to be able to help young me to fulfill their dreams.”