A few days after the Detroit Lions‘ preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons last summer, linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton started peppering his position coach, Kelvin Sheppard, with questions about what it was like to be a coach.
What was the best part? What was the worst part? What were the hours like?
“He said, ‘I already know what you’re getting at. I had to have the same realization with myself at some point,’ ” Hamilton recalled in an interview with the Free Press this week.
Hamilton, who entered the NFL as a sixth-round pick in 2018, made his bones as a special teams player for three seasons with the Washington Commanders and missed the entire 2021 season with injury. He saw his place near the bottom of the Lions depth chart and decided it was time to start thinking about his future.
RUSH HOUR:How James Houston could have Micah Parsons-like impact on Lions defense in 2023
CARLOS MONARREZ:Lions fans must not only accept losing key contributors. They must embrace it
He played 15 late-game snaps in the Lions’ first preseason game of 2022, behind young linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez and Derrick Barnes, saw the money the team gave linebacker Chris Board in free agency and knew veteran Alex Anzalone had one starting job locked up.
Hamilton’s coaches — Kirby Smart, his defensive coordinator at Alabama; Jeremy Pruitt, his linebackers coach and then his DC with the Crimson Tide; and Rob Ryan, his position coach in Washington — had told him for years he would make a good coach one day. For the first time in his life, Hamilton started to wonder if that day had come.
When the Lions had a player-led practice a week or so later, after their second exhibition game, Aaron Glenn let Hamilton act as defensive coordinator. And when the Lions released Hamilton in their first round of cuts the next day, head coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes told him if he had trouble catching on with another team, he had a place on staff in Detroit.
“Every player has to have that revelation one day,” Hamilton said. “It could be in Year 1 for you, it could be in Year 6, it could be in Year 5 like it was for me. It could be in Year 10. So I had that revelation where I’m like, ‘I see where this career’s going, and I need to start setting myself up for my future,’ because that’s one thing: Life goes on after your playing days are over.”
Hamilton spent a week and a half after his release mulling his future.
Did he want to go the journeyman route, making the workout rounds and maybe bouncing from team to team, spending weeks on a practice squad in hopes of getting a late-season call-up? And was he OK with never strapping on a helmet again?
Yes, Hamilton decided, he was content with his career. He never landed the $100 million contract he dreamed of as one of the top high school linebackers in the class of 2014, but he played four NFL seasons, fought through a slew of injuries and started seven games during his three years in Washington.
In early September, the Lions hired Hamilton for their minority coaching internship; after spending the season as a defensive assistant, as which he worked with linebackers and defensive backs, Hamilton is set to coach cornerbacks in the Senior Bowl college all-star game next week.
For Hamilton, an Alabama native who never got a chance to play in the Senior Bowl because of injury, the appointment has brought his football career full circle, with the end of his playing days serving as a springboard to what he hopes will be a long, successful run as a coach.
“(When) coaches would say (you’d make a good coach), as a player like you’re like, ‘Man, forget that. I’m going to sign that $100 million contract and I’m going to retire and live my life,’ ” Hamilton said. “There’s very few people who get those contracts and things go exactly how they want it to go, and I think that, now I look back and think about it, I think about some of the coaches who were telling me that, very successful, and they saw something in me.”
Hamilton said this season was both enjoyable and eye-opening.
He worked with players who weeks earlier were his peers, but made sure to draw a line personally and professionally as coach.
“It’s a different respect,” Hamilton said. “I totally believe in, I’m your coach, I’m not your friend. We’re here to work and we’re here to get better, and at the same time, I get it. I was just playing with you guys. At the same time, you got to know, we’re not buddy-buddy. We can talk and laugh and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, we’re here for one common goal and that’s to do what we got to do to be successful and win ballgames.”
And he was part of the team’s midseason turnaround, which he credited to the “special culture” Holmes and Campbell are building.
For the Senior Bowl, Hamilton will travel to Mobile, Alabama, on Saturday for a staff dinner — he is part of the American team coaching staff, with Chicago Bears offensive coordiantor Luke Getsy serving as head coach — and begin meeting with players when they arrive Sunday.
He should gain valuable insight on prospects who could help the cornerback-needy Lions in the draft — Virginia’s Anthony Johnson and Kansas State’s Julius Brents are among the top corners on his squad. He should also gain valuable experience that he hopes will propel him toward one day being a head coach.
“I definitely have aspirations to be a head coach, but I know time will tell when and if that comes,” Hamilton said. “Just trying to each day just learn a little bit by a little bit. Just keep on sharpening my knife and just keep on chopping that wood so I can be the best version of Shaun Dion Hamilton I can be and just continue to just learn so when that opportunity presents itself, I’ll be ready.”
Contact Dave Birkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.