NFL player, long-lost friend reconnect in Middletown

Williams, a second-round draft pick (61st overall), and Hamner, a sixth-round pick (171st overall), were young and hungry to play at the highest level of football. They became fast and great friends.

“I was an offensive lineman (from Arkansas), and he was a running back from Minnesota so I’d always try to give him extra blocks … because I wanted him to succeed and I wanted to succeed,” said Williams during a July 8 talk to grade school, high school and college students at Cincinnati State Middletown. “But coming in together we had that bond and we were like, ‘We’re going to change the world. We’re going to shake up the game of football. You’re going to follow my block all the way to the end zone, and we’re going to do a dance together.’”

But as Williams eventually became a starter for the Eagles, Hamner, who lived in Middletown most his life but graduated from Hamilton High School, was regulated to the practice squad for much of the season.

They never saw each other after that season, until July 8 as their lives took very different paths.

Williams became a stalwart NFL offensive guard playing for the Eagles, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens. And after 13 NFL seasons, he earned Super Bowl championship ring with the Ravens.

Hamner became a fixture on the streets of Middletown, a city where he spent most of his childhood. While he lives on the streets, he doesn’t claim to be homeless.

“Living on this planet you have to sacrifice something, and what I chose to sacrifice was comfort,” said Hamner. “A lot of that decision-making to sacrifice comfort to get to where I need to be, that’s the reason where I am today.”

Then on July 8 serendipity happened.

Hamner was getting off a bus in front of Cincinnati State Middletown when Williams was finishing his talk at the community college. Someone happened to show him a picture of Williams. He immediately recognized his friend and after he was told he was inside, Hamner took off.

Emotions flooded the men’s minds and throats. They hugged.

“It’s like a part of my life was just accepted,” Hamner said seeing Williams. “It’s like a part of my life took some steps forward with seeing him coming here.”

Even though his face is bearded and he now has long dreadlocks, “As soon as I saw his face I knew it was Thomas. He just came walking in out of nowhere. I truly think it was divine intervention from the Lord.”

It was like time rewound to 2000 for Williams as well as Hamner. “He’s still Bobbie and I’m still T,” Hamner said.

DIFFERENT LIVES

Both men left their respective colleges before graduating and were selected by the Eagles in the 2000 draft, and for a brief time they were on the practice squad together. That’s where similarities in their lives ended.

Williams’ life was public — a starting offensive guard in the NFL for three teams and a Super Bowl champion. He’s currently a free agent after being released by the Ravens in March.

He’s on the verge of ending a prolific football career (he said he’s 50/50 on whether to play a 14th NFL season) and on the precipice of the rest of his life. He did finish his college education but wants to continue to learn and possibly put a few initials behind his name. But his life will be about helping the next generation.

“I really have a passion for helping somebody along the way,” said Williams, who wouldn’t mind being a youth football coach. “The kids, if you can instill something in them, that’s worth something — before this world gets a hold of them and jades them.”

Hamner just lives his life.

He has no aspirations other than to be the best person he can be, even though that can interfere with the law. He has been arrested by the Middletown Division of Police several times since 2004, mostly for trespassing or disorderly conduct — such as loitering at Atrium Medical Center or around the city building after hours. But on Oct. 15, 2011, he was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence against his mother.

According to the police report, “She said that he began cussing at her then grabbed her and threw her to the floor. He then jumped on top of her and pinned her to the floor.” Middletown Municipal Court records show he was charged with assault, which was reduced, and the charge was eventually suspended after being referred to the treatment alternative court.

Hamner’s life after football was a decision he consciously made, he said. He went into then-head coach Andy Reid’s office and told him he felt he had to leave the game because of “distractions.”

“Anytime you play sports, there is a thing called sportsmanship and what was going on in my life, it was a distraction from that sportsmanship and from the game,” Hamner said, though he didn’t go into specifics.

That distraction, which he said involved family, friends and strangers saying how he should live his life, did not put football high on his priority list.

“I was not going to set something higher than the game of football, the reason I was there in the first place,” Hamner said.

So he left and came back home where he lived from the time he was 4 years old until his freshman year of high school. He said he doesn’t live anywhere other than “the space I occupy.” He just lives.

“I’m never homeless. I’m not wanting for anything,” he said. “The only thing you can do is to control your actions and your judgments and your decisions, and for the most part I decided where I am today. There’s a lot of people that feel like they have a say-so of my life, about my life or through my life.”

Williams would have hoped they would have stayed in touch.

“He was a good guy; he was someone that you got to know and was real personable,” he said. “And I said whatever path you chose I was like, ‘I’m happy for you and just keep me posted and let’s stay connected.’”

TOGETHER AGAIN

When Williams signed with the Cincinnati Bengals before the 2004 season, he thought of Hamner, and he always wished he could connect with the man he considered a brother.

Hamner said he always felt apart of Williams’ career, watching him on television.

Williams would have liked him to be a physical part, saying, “I would have made sure he would have had a seat.”

But Williams will make sure he doesn’t lose touch with his friend. And Hamner said he doesn’t want anything from Williams, other than his friendship.

What’s up next for the reunited friends is probably a cookout at Williams’ home in Mason.

“Who knows what tomorrow may bring, but all we can do is to stay connected,” Williams said. “I’ll have him over the house and throw something on the grill, and we’ll just sit down and reminisce, talk, catch up and go from there.”

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