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Road warrior


Cobi Hamilton

The tattoo stares out of Cobi Hamilton's chest just like the sign looming on the side of that asphalt frying pan sizzling everything between Dallas and Little Rock.

The number 30 framed in the Interstate logo.

"I'm right in the middle. Two hours west of Little Rock and two hours east of Dallas," says Hamilton, the easy-to-find Bengals rookie receiver, of his hometown of Texarkana, Tex.

"I'm very proud of it. Not a lot of kids come out of there. We get a few. Ryan Mallett, LaMichael James. When you get an opportunity that means a lot."

There's a lot to celebrate back home. His mother, Deborah, was one of the first African-American female athletes at the University of Arkansas when she played basketball in the late '70s and his uncle, Lawrence Hamilton, is a Broadway singer and dancer who has starred with everyone from Eartha Kitt to Gregory Hines.

Hamilton's sister Kayla has also danced in the Theater District, but she could never convince her little brother to take it up.

"She tried to get me to dance. Dancing's not my thing. Not in a million years." Hamilton says. "I saw my uncle on stage in Little Rock when I was about seven or eight and he was great and it was sold out, but my parents probably had to drag me."

Barry Norton, his coach at Texas High School, is quite pleased he didn't lose Hamilton to 42nd Street. He thinks one of the reasons Hamilton wears his home on his chest, not to mention his sleeve, is because he remains a popular figure hard off of I-30.

"He's so well thought of. He's loved and respected here. From his coaches, teachers, classmates, they're so proud of him. He loves coming back," Norton says. "Cobi's a humble guy, but he's got a magnetic personality. People are drawn to him. His smile lights up a room."

But all a smile can get you on an NFL practice field is maybe an extra Gatorade. Hamilton is as easy to find as a state capital among the rookies because he looks the part of an NFL receiver.

He's 6-2, 212 pounds, and ran fast enough to win the Texas 4A 200 as a senior and played reliably enough to leave Arkansas as the school's all-time leading receiver with 175 catches. And he's flashed enough of those attributes in the nine Bengals voluntary field sessions (OTAs) that he's very much in the mix to secure that sixth and final wide receiver spot.

"He's all I expected and then some," says wide receivers coach James Urban. "He's shown a good football IQ. He's working at studying and we've got a lot of stuff in. He's physical, he's not afraid, he's strong, and he's faster than you think. He can run pretty well. There are some times when he opens up those strides, he can stretch the field pretty well."

Hamilton's size and speed and early outings project to a solid NFL contributor. But his fate on the 53-man roster in battles with veterans like Ryan Whalen and Dane Sanzenbacher hinges on special teams play and production with the backups in the preseason.

But for the moment, the trade two years ago that sent Bengals all-time leading receiver Chad Johnson to the Patriots for two players to be named not Ocho looks pretty good. The 2012 fifth-rounder turned out to be Cal's Marvin Jones, a leading candidate to be the second or third receiver after a rookie season he had as many TDs (one) and three more catches (18) than Johnson had in his final season. And Hamilton is the 2013 sixth-rounder Bengals president Mike Brown negotiated from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

"Two young receivers with a lot potential that have a lot of good football in front of them," Urban says. "Congratulations to Mr. Brown for making the trade. I'll take it."

A lot of good football in front of them.

Hamilton has been hearing it since he can remember.

"My coach back home always said I was a late bloomer. I got better every year," Hamilton says.

Norton saw Hamilton staying on the board until the sixth round and immediately thought back to the first time he saw him as a freshman.

"We've got a big school. There had to be about 35 receivers and he was just a guy," Norton says. "He didn't stand out. Just another tall, skinny kid. Then during his sophomore year he caught a crossing route and ran away from everybody. I told my coaches, 'That kid's got it. We got to get it all out of him.' "

That took a lot because as Norton remembers it, Hamilton didn't even know how to run. Terrible mechanics. He sent Hamilton to the track to learn in the spring of his sophomore year and in workouts that began at 6:30 a.m. he fell in love with running. Two springs after he flopped onto the track Hamilton not only won the state 200, but he anchored the championship 200 relay.

"He was behind when he took the stick and chased everyone down to win it," Norton says. "The thing about Cobi is that he wanted to be a great athlete and he helped make himself into one. I think he saw himself as a baseball player but I told him he'd be a really good football player if he stuck with it. By his junior year he was a good football player. Not great. He had good junior tape and I think that's why a lot of colleges missed on him."

Hamilton bloomed full flower in his first game as a senior with three TDs and four catches for more than 200 yards and he was no longer just a guy. But he decided to hang with the Razorbacks, one of those few that were interested early. It helped, too, that head coach Bobby Petrino threw it all over the yard in a receiver-friendly set, and that his parents met while they were students in Fayetteville.

But it was Petrino's sudden departure by motorcycle that probably set the table for the NFL overlooking Hamilton. With Arkansas scrambling, the team that was supposed to be top five and play Alabama for the SEC title imploded.

"It just wasn't me. We had a lot of other guys," Hamilton says. "We really had no leader. (Petrino) controlled everything and when you take that away, it's like, 'Who's next?' … When he left, everyone got lost in the shuffle."

Hamilton has a pretty good idea why he waited around during the draft. The mess at Arkansas and his measurables. But he's not buying it.

"I went to the Senior Bowl, I went to the combine. I've been around all the top receivers," Hamilton says. "I know I'm just as good or as better as the first pick receiver.

"I just feel like I'm a lot better and I'm going to show it. I think the combine stuff might have had something to do with it. I'm not a big combine guy. I'm not going to jump the highest. The numbers aren't going to stick out. But if I run routes and play football, that's my thing. I think some guys jumped me. A big vertical leap. I don't know why they look at that stuff."

For instance, there is the Hand Crisis. He isn't sure why some made such a big deal out his hand size. Hamilton was told he had an 8, smallest at the combine. But his 8.75-inch span is within a mere half-inch of two of the three first-round receivers' hands, and his arms are an inch longer than first-rounder Cordarrelle Patterson.

"Everybody else was nine, 10 inches," he says. " I never understood how big your hands are (mattered)."

The Bengals scouts and coaches were watching something else. Urban and director of player personnel Duke Tobin were intrigued once the fourth round hit and Hamilton was still there.

"Duke and Mr. Brown and those guys do a great job with guys later in the draft and I'm doing my homework, too," Urban says. "I liked that he had 90 catches in the SEC this year and a 300-yard plus game against Rutgers, which had one of the top defenses in Division I football with several draftable guys. He's played big-time football and he's a well-grounded kid."

It was that grounding that Norton thinks elevated him in his class of '09. He points to Deborah and Gene Hamilton, a plant supervisor and 30-year paper mill veteran, respectively. By Cobi Hamilton's count, 15 players on his team got $1 million worth of scholarships but only two hung with it.

"Two great parents that have supported him in everything that he's done," Norton says. "He had a lot going for him that not many others had."

Norton recalls a day during the Arkansas season that he called Hamilton and asked him about his next trip home, a four-hour drive from Fayetteville. He wanted him to have his picture taken with a youngster.

"He came in for our game that night, showed up in the office the next morning, met the kid, and then drove back," Norton says.

The Bengals are hoping he becomes as familiar with I-75 and 71.

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