Changing the image and mentality
by : Jim Hague
Sep 06, 2005 | 368 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When Robert Hampton was a standout football player at Lincoln High School in the early 1980s, he never thought about anything but winning.

"We always won," Hampton said. "We weren't used to losing. I played for Harry Massey and Franklin Walker and we won all the time."

After Hampton graduated from Lincoln, he went on to play college football at Boston University, then Northeastern. Hampton then got a job in the business world, working on Wall Street for 18 years, content with the rat race of high finance.

But there was always something missing in his life. He moved to Monroe, North Carolina, which was a culture shock from his native Jersey City. He took a job as a banker in the Wachovia system. He then started to work in an after-school program at the neighboring YWCA, working with kids.

"I felt that was my future," Hampton said.

Hampton left the business and banking world to take a job as a teacher in a prison school.

"I got the teaching bug," Hampton explained. "It was in me. It was what I was supposed to do."

During one harmless conversation with Walker, his former grid coach at Lincoln and current assistant superintendent of schools in the Jersey City Board of Education, the idea was bounced around about a possible return home to coach and teach.

"Franklin Walker asked me to come back to Jersey City," Hampton said. "He wasn't happy with the way things were going and thought I could give them what they needed."

So in 2002, Hampton came back to Jersey City, taking a job as a teacher at Snyder High School and becoming an assistant football coach at his alma mater. Hampton was the freshman coach during his first year back. He was happy to have guided the Lincoln rookies to a 6-4 record.

"They were competitive in every game," Hampton said. "They beat Emerson and Union Hill and played with St. Peter's and North Bergen. We made some strides."

However, the Lincoln varsity was not. The Lions were awful. Make that beyond awful, going through the 2002 and 2003 seasons without a single win. The losing streak extended well into the 2004 season, before it finally stopped at 28 games last November, defeating Dickinson and then Newark Central in an NJSIAA consolation game. Losing became more than just part of the mainstream at Lincoln. It became a way of life.

When Hampton was asked to become the new head coach for the 2005 season, replacing the deposed Adonis Blue, the first thing he had to tackle was the mental approach.

"These kids were not used to winning," Hampton said. "They didn't know it was like to win. The only taste of winning they had was as freshmen. I tried to explain to the kids that they could win. We won and we weren't that good. They just needed to know that if you have a grasp of the sport and if you work hard, you can win. You have to understand what the game is about and make sacrifices."

Hampton had to make another change, dealing with the players' character.

"That was a goal bigger than themselves," Hampton said. "They had to eliminate all selfish things and stop thinking about themselves. They had to respect the game of football, respect the opposition, respect the coaches, but more importantly, respect themselves. We talk about character every single day."

Hampton then had to tackle one more chore. He had to get players. Everyone told Hampton that Lincoln's hallways were packed with talented athletes. He just had to get those kids to come out and play - and come out with the proper attitude.

"I think I recruited well within the school," Hampton said. "I went around and got kids who once played, then quit. I got others who never played before, but were just good athletes."

Hampton also got kids who teachers and administrators never dreamed would put on a football uniform to come down to the first days of practice.

"They just weren't taught discipline," Hampton said. "They were going to get discipline with me."

Many of the kids bought Hampton's pleas. Some didn't.

"I had most of them buying into the situation, but I had to make sure to keep some of the outside element away from our locker room," Hampton said. "I got rid of about eight guys who really weren't committed to playing. I had to let everyone know I meant business and what I said goes. I can't have outside people becoming nuisances."

Needless to say, Hampton put the hammer down. There would be no outside influences, no showing up for practice one day and not the next, no meandering down to Lincoln Park late. Hampton had to change the face of the entire program.

"It's the only way it was going to work," Hampton said. "I think they all understood that they had to give just a little bit more."

He also rounded up some dedicated veteran assistant coaches, guys like former Lincoln head coach Tom Ferreiro, who came back to Lincoln after three years of being the offensive coordinator at Bayonne, and Vahon McCullers, who has been an inspiring assistant coach at places like Snyder and Ferris in the past.

"We have some athletes, but we also have that huge albatross, the idea that we can't win," Hampton said. "People think we can't win because we're Lincoln. But these kids now know they can win. They believe in themselves, the way they looked in some 7-on-7 scrimmages, the intensity of the practices. I'm telling you, we have athletic ability and we will be able to move the ball. Tommy did a great job with the offense and we have the athletes. We can't play smash mouth football, but we can play Lincoln football, the 'get to the edges' style, the type of football that I've been accustomed to and grew up with."

So Hampton is working to change the face, the perception, the entire identity of Lincoln football, one that has been totally downtrodden for ages and can't go anywhere else but up.

He'll count a lot on newcomer quarterback Hector Gutierrez, a senior who has spent most of his time in school as a member of the track team.

"Hector has a strong arm and is extremely quick," Hampton said. "It's his first year as a quarterback, but he's going to have a good year for us."

Two-way lineman Willie Jones (6-1, 255) earned some mention on All-County teams last year. "He's an animal," Hampton said. "He's going to be hard to handle."

Jean Medeus is a 6-3, 240-pound linebacker who has the look of a stud. There are others like Delvin Berry, Devon Whitehead, Joey Lee, Nicquan Scott and Darron Megargel, players who make Lincoln look like a legitimate football program once again. There is size, quickness and more importantly, players.

Lincoln has football players, like everyone thought the school always did. It's just up to Hampton now to keep them on the field, keep them out of trouble and keep them eligible.

"It will be a challenge," Hampton said. "But I'm enjoying this. This is great stuff. I'm very lucky to have a great staff, but I'm really cautiously optimistic. We've had some touch-and-go moments, but we're ready."

The Lions will open the Hampton era Sept. 9 against Emerson. It's a day that the new coach is looking forward to with nervous, anxious anticipation.

"Once I got the job, it's the day I wanted more than any other," Hampton said. "If we're going to be competitive, we have to get in a dog fight right away. It would be a good way to start."

Looks like the good start has already taken place.

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