ELLENSBURG — Donte Hamilton paced back and forth in the Central Washington University football team’s locker room at Terry Fox Field on the campus of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.
The teams’ Sept. 8 Great Northwest Athletic Conference opener was in the midst of an hour-long lightning delay, and through a backdrop of thunderous crashes and pulsating lights Hamilton found himself shouting — both to no one in particular and to the team as a whole — a stream of statements designed to keep his teammates’ heads in the game.
“I was just yelling stuff that needed to be said,” the star linebacker and Kamiak High School graduate said, “making sure people weren’t getting on their phones, making sure everyone stayed warm and loose because we were going to have to go back out there eventually. I was talking about football so that our minds would stay locked into football.”
“During that time he was instrumental in getting the guys locked back in,” Central defensive coordinator Nate Johnson said. “We had gotten off to a slow start both defensively and offensively, and after the delay we came out and played much better.”
Indeed, leading just 8-7 late in the first quarter when the lightning arrived, the Wildcats went on to blow out SFU 36-14. The locker-room moment was indicative of what Hamilton’s leadership has meant to Central, both on the field and off it.
On the field Hamilton has had an incredible season. The sixth-year graduate student middle linebacker, who measures 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, might as well have the GNAC Defensive Player of the Week award named for him after he captured it three times through the season’s first five weeks. That included a jaw-dropping performance in Central’s 30-20 upset victory over 11th-ranked Midwestern State on Oct. 2 in Ellensburg, in which he had interceptions on three conseutive fourth-quarter drives as the Wildcats rallied from a 20-17 deficit.
“The first interception was probably the only one I earned individually, I got a good read on the quarterback and jumped the pass,” Hamilton said. “The second one we brought the blitz and Michael Chisley smacked the quarterback, the ball floated into the air and I was just in the right place at the right time. The third one I think the ball skimmed Zach Stecklein’s helmet, which messed with the receiver’s ball tracking, and it went through his hands and right to me.
“Since I’ve been here we’ve never had a win like that, especially at home. That was probably the most excited I’ve ever been in my life.”
That is just a snapshot of what the do-it-all Hamilton has been for the Wildcats’ defense. Overall Hamilton ranks second on the team in tackles (46) and sacks (4.0), and he leads the 4-2 Wildcats in both tackles for loss (10.0) and interceptions (five).
“He’s found a way to put up exceptional numbers in different areas every week, which captures the attention of people handing out those awards,” said Johnson, who considers Hamilton’s speed to be his biggest asset on the field. “Whether it was all the interceptions, or getting a bunch of sacks the week prior, he has the tools to do it in a bunch of different ways.”
But as well as Hamilton has played, his biggest impact has been with his leadership.
At 23 years old, Hamilton admitted he entertained the idea of not returning for one final season. He’d earned his degree in sports management and at least asked himself the question of whether it was time to get started with adult life.
But Hamilton barely played the previous two seasons. After being named first-team All-GNAC in 2018, his 2019 season ended during Central’s third game because of a sprained ankle that required surgery, and the 2020 season was reduced to a single game because of the coronavirus pandemic.
So Hamilton felt he had unfinished business. And the coaching staff was thrilled because they knew Hamiton was going to be a leader.
“He’s really the heart and soul,” Johnson said. “The guys follow his lead, and if something isn’t going the way we want it to, he’s the guy people look at to right the ship.”
How sure were the coaches that Hamilton was the man to lead the defense? Every year the Wildcats give No. 44 to the defensive player who’s the strongest leader. Hamilton received that honor this year, trading out the No. 23 he wore the previous three seasons.
“(Head coach Chris) Fisk called me into his office before practice and said, ‘Hey, I need you to talk to the team before practice,’” Hamilton recalled about the August day he was given No. 44. “Then I go out to talk to the team and he brings the jersey out. I thought I was giving a speech, but end up getting an award, and I was surprised. I had a big smile on my face every day.”
But Hamilton earned that number, and he continues to earn it. He’s a constant vocal presence at practices, giving hoots and hollers to bring a positive energy and keep things fun. And being as much as five years older than some of his teammates he’s a mentor — and sometimes something of a bonus assistant coach.
“We kind of have this weird dynamic where we have some old guys like myself and then guys just out of high school, so there’s a big gap in age,” Hamilton said. “It’s interesting because we’re teammates, but we’re also coaching them up on how to do things the right way. I think the young guys are doing a great job of grasping how we do things, they’re coachable, and it’s made being a leader on the team super easy.”
The team has grasped things well enough that it’s already on the verge of clinching the GNAC championship. Central had a bye this week, and if it beats Western Oregon at home next Saturday it’ll secure the title. Therefore, Hamilton and the Wildcats have their sights set high.
“I think we’re capable of a national championship,” Hamilton said. “That’s been the goal since day one. I really think this team has bought in to each other, we love to play with each other, and things started clicking in that Midwestern State game. I think the sky is the limit for this team.”
And Hamilton will be the one leading the way.