In football and life, Unity's Hamilton has learned to be ready for anything
TOLONO – Football – and really all athletics – emulates life in one basic and important aspect: You never know what to expect next.
Scott Hamilton, Unity High School's veteran football head coach, understands that as well as anyone.
Last offseason, in the months following the Rockets' Class 3A state title-game appearance, he and his staff projected a strong senior nucleus for the 2010 season. Matt Franks, Seth Gooch and Dustin Jolley would be individuals around which the team would be formed.
"Coach (Tony) Reetz and I designed our offense around those three," Hamilton said.
When the Rockets practiced for last week's postseason opener, Franks, Gooch and Jolley were on the sideline. Of the trio, only Gooch (knee injury) has the possibility of playing in Saturday's 1 p.m. second-round home game against Central A&M.
An important visit
Life throws unexpected curveballs.
Hamilton experienced that in the fall. Five days before football practice started in August, he underwent surgery to remove 12 inches of his colon. The day before practice began, he was released from the hospital.
He had no reason to believe he was ailing physically; no indication that anything was wrong. Just a desire – based on family medical history – he said, "to be proactive with my health."
A routine doctor's visit, which he schedules every six months, led to a colonoscopy. That test revealed a malignant polyp on his colon.
At age 41, Hamilton is now a cancer survivor.
"The doctor who did the surgery said I was cured," Hamilton said, "but we'll monitor it closely. Once you have it, there's a tendency to have more polyps."
A healthy approach
In retrospect, Hamilton said there were no warning signs that he missed.
"I never felt bad; never had any problems or issues," he said.
What he did have, however, was knowledge. His father Rich, at age 53, had a section of his colon removed after cancer was discovered in a routine screening.
"He had no signs of anything," Scott Hamilton said.
Like his father, however, Scott Hamilton had a history of elevated cholesterol levels.
"Three or four years ago I got into a more consistent exercise plan," he said, "and lost 15 or 20 pounds."
His routine included five cardiovascular workouts a week and, he said, "as far as diet, eliminating a little red meat, trying to eat more chicken, and portion control."
As a result, and combined with medication, "my cholesterol has been down," he said.
Rich Hamilton, a former mathematics teacher in Collinsville, is enjoying his retirement with his wife, Sherry, in Florida. Their eldest son now is undergoing additional tests.
"They want to see if there are any genetic traits which could be passed on to my brother and his kids, or to my kids," Scott Hamilton said.
Colon cancer is regarded as "slow moving," Hamilton said. Early detection is a key for long-term survival.
For that, he can thank himself.
"I'm not really sure what triggered me to be proactive," he said, "but I am confident that me being proactive played a big part in where I'm at right now.
"I'm a proponent of staying on top of things and taking care of yourself the best that you can. You can't live every day being scared to live, but you can take measures to help yourself."
Plenty of helpers
During the early days of preseason practice, Hamilton felt more like a visitor than a coach.
"For the first two weeks, I didn't do much except ride in a golf cart," he said. "I had three coordinators that took care of things. Dave Fink handled the game-planning and defense. Tony Reetz handled most of the offense, and Dave Bass handled the special teams."
By Unity's homecoming game (Sept. 24), Hamilton said he was pretty much "going at it full."
And now, 13 weeks after the operation, "I feel good," he said.
The coach and athletic director had less pressure than normal at the outset of the school year.
"The people I work for allowed me a little freedom and helped me get things ready," he said. "My secretaries at the high school helped with all of the physicals, insurance waivers and getting out practice schedules."
Starting a legacy
Growing up in the southern Illinois community of Roxana, Scott Hamilton and his brother Chad, younger by two years, were active in multiple sports.
"I never really had a passion for any one sport," Scott Hamilton said. "When I went to college, I knew I wanted to coach, but I didn't know what."
Hamilton's high school football coach, Charles Raich, gave a recommendation at the school where he had gotten his start, Hardin-Calhoun, and a young three-sport coach joined the staff in the fall of 1992. Hamilton helped Ric Johns in football the only two years the school won state championships (1992 and 1993), and also assisted in basketball and baseball.
Had he stayed a third year, he would have become the boys' basketball head coach. Instead, he opted to venture to Champaign County in 1994 and replace Joe Summerville as the football head coach at Unity. Seventeen years later, the Rockets have qualified for the playoffs 17 consecutive years.
"My dad's impact on me has been great," Scott Hamilton said, "but two who helped guide me professionally were Charles Raich and Ric Johns."
Raich, Hamilton said, "reminds me of Oscar Hicks in that he did a little of everything and you never heard anyone say a bad word about him. Johns was also a positive mentor. "He showed me a lot about teaching and how to treat kids," Hamilton said.
Hamilton isn't sure that the cancer diagnosis changed him as much as another event.
"Being a father of three girls has definitely changed my perception on how things work and the relationships you have," he said. "As a coach, I've changed a lot.
"Having my own kids, I have a better understanding of treating others the way you want to be treated. When I deal with kids, I try to treat them the way I'd want mine treated."
Some might call it mellowing.
"I try to maintain the same work ethic, the same preparation," he said. "Maybe the delivery (of the message) is a little different. I'm more of a positive coach."
Add thankful to the list as well. The group of well-wishers this fall included coaches from the Okaw Valley Conference as well as others from the area.
"Sometimes it's not what they say, but that they care enough to call," Hamilton said.
Repeat, and repeat
In many ways, the first two rounds of postseason play have required less preparation time for Hamilton than in recent years. The Rockets' first two foes are ones from the conference that Unity had played in the regular season.
"I liked playing someone two hours away, someone you had to dig up stats on or find that little piece of information that would help you win," he said, "but one thing this is doing is fast building rivalries back with some Okaw schools."
Unity was successful in its rematch last week against Monticello and hopes for a similar outcome against St. Teresa.
"We ended up with about six of their 10 games (on film)," Hamilton said. "We had some common opponents early in the season.
"As we were going through the game plan this week, the kids remember stuff we did the first time against St. Teresa. We're trying to take advantage of that and shorten practice."
If preparation is truly a key to success, Unity's team, as well as its head coach, are in good shape. A proactive coach will make certain things don't change.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.