GREENWOOD — Victor Hampton walked the track at Greenwood High, a T-shirt featuring the Cincinnati Bengals logo hugging his chest and a cap with the same logo doing its best to contain his braids. Surrounded by adoring children and flanked by fellow ex-South Carolina/current NFL players, the smile couldnt be pried off Hamptons face.
A similar T-shirt and cap probably could be found for around $50 at any sporting goods store. Hamptons are priceless to him.
It feels good, man, said Hampton, offering a handshake and a hug for everyone. Long time coming. I came in to OTAs, had my two weeks, showed why I was graded at what I was graded at. They know they got a steal.
Hampton wasnt signed to a multi-year deal and will be competing with several dozen others to make the Bengals final roster. He knows the odds of sticking with the team are stacked against him, and breaking into the starting rotation is an Everest-like climb.
Odds have been stacked against Hampton his entire life. They got taller when he declared for the NFL draft, vacating his final season of eligibility at South Carolina, and wasnt picked. That was a surprise, but Hampton figured he would be like teammate Kelcy Quarles and several former players wait for a call the next day and head somewhere with a free-agent deal.
The phone didnt ring.
It didnt ring May 10 after the draft, and it didnt ring May 11.
It didnt ring May 18.
As many shook their heads and wondered what might have been, Hampton did the only thing he could work out and stay in shape. He didnt give up after a checkered high-school career, and he didnt give up after Steve Spurrier briefly kicked him off the Gamecocks so he wouldnt start now.
We all knew that I had the talent, we just had to get some things straight, Hampton said. There were some questions about my character and about off-the-field trouble. Once that got cleared up, calls started coming in.
NFL teams had gotten word of Hamptons past, and two incidents before the draft had to be addressed. Hampton, Quarles and Chaz Sutton had been wanted for questioning after an incident at a New York club (all were cleared of wrongdoing). Then, a report surfaced that Hampton had been arrested in Columbia on April 6. While Hampton said that it was simply a family dispute that got out of control (his sister Victoria also was arrested), pro teams were concerned.
A first-round talent would have dropped but still been drafted. When the talent in question was projected anywhere from the third to seventh round, NFL teams figured, Why bother?
Hampton understood that. It didnt make it any easier.
I made sure I was in Vics ear, said Akeem Auguste, like Hampton an undrafted free agent who latched on with Super Bowl champion Seattle as a practice-squad member. I was in that same situation last year. You dont know whats going to happen, nobody wants to take a chance on you, but you know in your mind that you are capable of everything everybody else is. Who knows why they didnt want to pick you?
Hampton kept training, praying and hoping. The phone rang.
The coaches had been talking to me since the draft, so we had to clear up some of my former cases, he said. Coach Spurrier put in a word as well, told them I was a great player and a great guy and that Id be good for the locker room. They got me in there, and that was all they needed to see.
Hampton impressed the Bengals, and they offered him a spot in camp. Hampton canceled a New York Giants tryout, then received his official team-issued gear and began grinning.
A month later, it hasnt left his face.
Im excited about going back to camp, ready to get back, put some pads on and show how physical I am, show them how I can cover and continue building on the success I had in the two weeks up there, and fight for a job in the rotation, he said. If not in the rotation, I should definitely be good enough to do special teams. Right now, Im just worried about going up there, getting better each day, whether its kickoff, punt returns, catching kick returns or continuing to cover as well as I was covering. I dont worry about the numbers, I just worry about me.
Auguste smiled at his pals good fortune. He knew it would happen.
Its just the game, he said of the waiting. But once you get in once the Gamecocks get in, we stay in.