Before taking the handoff that would beat Michigan, Penn State receiver KJ Hamler thought about where he’s from and where he’s headed.
He thought about growing up in Pontiac, Michigan, where some people told him he was too small and too slight to play major college football.
He thought about Pontiac, where some of his friends still struggle.
And he thought about what his father Thomas has told him repeatedly: “Can’t is not in a man’s vocabulary.”
Then Hamler took the handoff — a play quarterback Sean Clifford said wasn’t practiced much last week — and gained 4 yards on 3rd and 3. The play clinched Penn State’s 28-21 win over Michigan and meant, for the second consecutive week, that the offense closed out an opponent on its own terms.
Before taking the handoff that would beat Michigan, the 5-9, 175-pound Hamler told himself, “You’re built for this.”
“This is for all the doubters, when I was in high school, saying I wouldn’t get an offer,” Hamler said after the game. “It was for everybody who doubted me a lot. I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to get these 3 yards no matter what.’"
The PSU centerpiece: Once again, Hamler was the centerpiece around which Penn State (7-0) built its offense. He caught 6 passes for 108 yards and 2 touchdowns, had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown called back because of holding and then transformed himself into a short-yardage back at just the right time.
Penn State shouldn’t have needed Hamler’s heroics, which included his favorite play that barely anyone acknowledged. The Lions took a 21-0 lead, trading on a successful big-play offense, before that group crashed into 5 consecutive punts. A fourth-down, red-zone stop by the defense helped bail out the offense.
Hamler resurrected the group with a 53-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter, which wasn’t even his favorite play of the series. Hamler called his catch the preceding play, a 3rd-and-5, his favorite of the game. It was a difficult play on a re-routed slant across the middle.
A big personality: The redshirt sophomore has one of Penn State’s biggest personalities, one that former Lion Marcus Allen said was buoyant enough to replace him as the team’s live wire. On Saturday, Hamler’s eye black read “All Eyez On Me,” the name of the Tupac album he listens to before every game.
But after the game, Hamler was more serious, more reflective. This two-week stretch means plenty to him. He grew up near the University of Michigan, received an offer but didn’t go. He also was recruited seriously by Michigan State, Penn State’s next opponent, but didn’t go there, either.
He has friends across both rosters. Hamler played with two Michigan players at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s outside Detroit. At IMG Academy in Florida, where he spent his senior year, Hamler met his best friend, Michigan center Cesar Ruiz. He developed deep recruiting relationships with Michigan receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones and cornerback Lavert Hill.
Game was personal: So this game was personal to him. As was that third-down carry.
“The one thing that probably surprised me the most tonight is [Hamler] turning into a power back at the end of the game there, lowering the shoulder and hammering that thing in there,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “I didn’t expect that from all 137 pounds of him, or whatever he is.”
But Hamler pretty much guaranteed a first down. During a Michigan timeout, Hamler went across the offense shouting, “This is how legends are made.” He loved offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne’s “gutsy” call, which Franklin said was designed to counter Michigan’s overloaded defensive box.
There were two options: Clifford could keep the ball or hand off to Hamler, who went for the left edge. Hamler knew he was getting the ball, though he hadn’t played running back since youth football.
“I know last year we lost the 'Whiteout’ [27-26 to Ohio State],” Hamler said, "and I wasn’t really going back home with a loss."
Chanting his name: On the play, Hamler took a helmet to the head, which kept him on the ground longer than he expected. As he got up, the Beaver Stadium crowd (announced at 110,669) began chanting “KJ!” in unison. It was the first thing Hamler heard upon getting to his feet.
“I really couldn’t believe it,” Hamler said. "I asked people, ‘Are they chanting my name?’ I never in a million years thought that would happen."
After the game, and his TV interviews, Hamler joined his teammates for the last few seconds of the Alma Mater. Linebackers Jesse Luketa and Micah Parsons tackled him, and Clifford wrapped him in a bear hug. The remnants of his eye black (“All Eyez On Me”) glistened in the white light.
“I really want to be different,” Hamler said. “I want to change my family’s lives and just have an impact on the city of Pontiac. I want to do something big. I think that I can and I think that I will.”