Football is like life. It requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication, and respect for authority.
—Coach Vince Lombardi.
Some people come into our life, and we are never the same persons. Their presence, friendship, and honesty with us in times of discernment help us to shape who we were meant to be: our true selves.
I first met Coach Tom Hamilton in May 1960. I was soon to graduate from Wilson Junior High School in Pasadena, California. A classmate and I snuck into the Pasadena High School varsity spring football practice at the old Smokestack field on the campus at Pasadena City College. Was it coincidence or God’s amazing grace that I would be there on that special day? We lined up for “non-contact” scrimmage. Before we started, varsity coach Dick Simmons announced with a bold voice, “I want you to meet our new varsity head football coach Tom Hamilton.”
And so it began.
In the first play of the practice scrimmage, Rick Flood, a pulling guard two years older than me, blasted through the line, crashed into me, and busted my nose. Blood spirted from my nostrils, flowing down on to my clothes. Coach Hamilton walked me over to the sidelines, told me to lie down and be still. They later escorted me off the field and admonished me to come back when I was actually a PHS student.
Little did I know that for over forty-four years, Tom would become my best friend and mentor.
Coach Hamilton began a long, successful run as PHS football coach that fall at the new Pasadena High School campus on Sierra Madre Blvd. I remember that in tenth grade, all our home football games were in the Rose Bowl, because the Pasadena City College field was being renovated. Imagine: high school athletes playing football in the famous Rose Bowl: the site of Super Bowl, National Collegiate Football championships, Olympic Games and FIFA Women’s World Cup Soccer. On the PHS team, I made lifelong friendships with teammates Bruce Corker, Pat Cayce, Gary Griffith, Dennis Cosso, Rob Johnston, and Greg Vartanian. Coach Hamilton’s first year of coaching in 1960 was a disaster, losing every league game.
Those first three years at the new PHS campus were a building time for the program, which finally culminated on November 1962 in the annual rivalry game between the two Pasadena schools, John Muir High School and PHS in the venerable Rose Bowl. The intense rivalry drew fifteen-thousand fans. Both schools celebrated Homecoming to draw out the loyal alumni. PHS had lost this game the previous eight years. With the score tied 14-14, seconds to go, quarterback Phil Olwin ran a broken play into the end zone for a touchdown. That victory highlighted our senior year. The football team joyfully carried Coach Hamilton on their shoulders off the field. Coach Hamilton’s career took off from there through the 1970s. The football team rarely lost a game and usually beat John Muir High School.
With a student body of 4200 students in grades 9-12, PHS channeled hundreds of young men through sports programs. I was a face in the crowd, a mediocre athlete. Tom Hamilton coached me in football and baseball. Teenagers have special radar for hypocrisy and facades. I could see in Tom an honorable, good man. I think that was the spark that inspired further contact with him when I was in college and seminary.
A lesson Tom gifted all of us in athletics was this: there is a place deep within us, when we are beyond thirst, beyond tired, when we do not believe we can give any more, there is a place deep within us where we find the fire to do that which we did not think we could do! I believe Coach Tom helped us connect with the fire deep within us, that is the awakening of our true self.
Coach Gary Griffiths remembers:
“He was just the most unforgettable person I’ve ever met. The most principled. I think the thing that sticks most in my mind was his concept that you play by the rules to win. Everything was done in the right way. So many coaches were unscrupulous. He set an example for all of us coaches to follow.”
Arcadia High School football coach Dick Salter remembers his beloved friend:
“The coach I respected most was Tom Hamilton. He had such high integrity. More than anything else, he was a great person. He was a person of high character and great motivational skills for his kids. He ran wishbone for a while, he ran an unbalanced line like Michigan State, he ran the veer for a while, the I formation. He would adjust to the personnel he had. When he had a good quarterback, he’d run the option. That’s why Tom did so well. He utilized his people well. Even if you lost to him, you felt good, because he was such a good person.”
Former PHS football player Mickey Segal, President of the Rose Bowl Legacy Foundation, remembers:
“Coach Hamilton was an inspiring leader. He was able to get 110% performance from every player. But more importantly, he was able to teach and develop character and responsibility in each and every one of us.”
After I graduated from seminary in 1970, I visited Tom at a football practice. He invited me to pray a blessing for the team the following week. From that day until the 1990s, I drove at least one-hundred-fifty miles almost every Friday night to be with Coach Tom and Coach Gary, as the chaplain to the PHS varsity team.
A mental image burns in my mind:
We are in the Rose Bowl locker room, the most famous football stadium in America, for the annual Turkey Tussle football game against John Muir High School. Tom has helped the players focus again on that fire deep within. We kneel on the Astroturf carpet, in a compact circle, clasping heavily taped hands, the Muir High School drums beat a primal cadence that echoes within the bowels of the stadium and right outside our locker room door, and I pray, yes, I pray for victory. Has there been another day when we felt as alive as that day, felt more like brothers, and blessed to be with Coach Tom Hamilton?
From the wisdom of Celtic spirituality, there is the counsel to remain planted where you are, to stay in place, to resist the allure of seeking greening pastures.
Spiritual writer Philip Sheldrake reflects: “The desert tradition of monastic life, by which Celtic, especially Irish, spirituality may have been influenced, placed a central emphasis on the importance of staying in one place, specifically the ‘ cell ‘, in order to find God.”
The commitment to be planted where you are is an invitation to the Holy Spirit to help you dig deep into the soil of your life and the needs of the world around you.
When both of our careers had achieved some success and the lure of “bigger and better” tugged at our conscience, Tom had several opportunities: assistant coach at the University of Southern California; head coach and athletic director at Santa Monica High School, where he could focus completely on football; coach at an Orange County high school.
Tom decided again and again to remain where he was at PHS. Those decisions were hard, because the demands on coaching were soon to take a dramatic turn.
I frequently visited Tom at his home in Altadena with his life partner, Dr. Lynne Emory, a kinesiology professor at Cal Poly, Pomona, and acclaimed historian on women in the Olympic Games. I would find Tom in his garage working on carpentry. He built a fabulous dining room table, cribs for grandchildren and bookcases. Or I would find him working in the garden with Lynne. He would drop everything and take me into the living room of his modest home. Lynne made coffee and Tom had Royal Crown Cola. We talked. There was a presence in him. He was my best friend, and only after he died did I learn that many men like me felt like adopted sons.
Tom was “father-confessor” as I struggled with a decision to go to Maryland as rector of a large, well-to-do Episcopal Church. He helped me focus on where my real passion was and still is: urban ministry in a struggling, multicultural, inner-city church in the Logan Barrio in Santa Ana. He helped me to remain in place, and from that decision, new ministries were birthed: an after-school tutoring and youth center to counter rising gang violence and an early childhood education center for the poorest families of Santa Ana.
Once when our son was in the hospital in Pediatric ICU and his life seemed like it could end, I received a surprise phone call from Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. His own son had died ten years earlier. We talked about what it feels like being a religious professional, and how God can seem far away when we are in crisis ourselves and our loved ones are suffering.
Rabbi Kushner quoted from his recent book:
“One of my favorite aphorisms comes from a nineteenth-century Hasidic rabbi who once said, ‘Human beings are God’s language.’ When we call out to God in our distress, God answers us by sending us people.”
I do not believe God caused Erik’s many health crises and suffering. God was with us in the people He sent: medical staff, therapists, and Coach Tom’s many phone calls and personal visits.
In the dark nights of my soul, Tom Hamilton has been God’s language to me. He always accepted me where I was. If he did not hear from me for a while, he called me. He helped me to stay in touch with the fire that burns within and to resist the allures of the false self: who I am, what I do, what I have, what others think of me, and to focus on my true self, which has something to do with spending myself for the needs of others.
In the late 1970s, a shift in the demographics of the Pasadena Unified School system challenged Coach Tom Hamilton to adapt to a new cultural world. Coach Hamilton became “Coach Ham.”
For decades, Pasadena had some of the best schools in California, influenced by connection to California Institute of Technology. When I attended PHS in the early 1960s, the quality of education was comparable to an excellent private school today. The student body was mostly white, with perhaps five percent African American and five percent Asian-American. Some of my classmates were born in Manzanar and other World War II relocation camps.
My father attended John Muir Technical High School in the 1930s. The school covered the northwest sector of Pasadena, including a vibrant Black community dating back to the 1880s. Jackie Robinson and his brother Mack were outstanding athletes at John Muir, being on the same sports teams as my father and his brothers Earl and Kenneth. As I read Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, I noticed brief mention of his high school days. His experience of racism at the school and segregation at local recreational facilities affected his remembrance of those early days in Pasadena.
In 1970, a federal court ordered desegregation busing because of “de facto” segregation in the northwest sector of the district, which could affect equal access to quality education. White students dominated the other areas of the city. The Pasadena Unified School Board fought the court decision for a decade. As a result, Pasadena High School became very multicultural and there was a significant white flight to schools in Arcadia, San Marino, and La Crescenta. Private schools went on wait list and new private schools were launched.
The demographics of PHS and its sports teams changed to be more honestly reflective of the real world. Tom became a multicultural coach. The classroom teaching and coaching roles changed. As mothers and fathers had to both work to support family, teachers and coaches became support persons for homework and academics, health care, and father confessors.
The lure of violent gang life encroached on Pasadena schools as well as the Logan Barrio, where my parish was in Santa Ana. The Bloods and Crips gangs preyed on vulnerable youth, offering alternative “family” and a downward life leading to prison, drug addiction or death. Sports teams and coaches like Tom Hamilton saved many young men, giving vision and hope for the future.
How did Tom adjust to this cultural shift and establish rapport with the black and Latino students? He was the same coach, the same mentor and teacher, who cared deeply about each player.
One of these young men from the Black neighborhood of northwest Pasadena was Stacy Harvey. Stacy joined the team, as gang life tugged at him and his friends. He came to varsity football in the last years of Tom’s coaching. Physically and charismatically bigger than life, he was a natural leader as quarterback. I have this indelible memory of Stacy in his last game against John Muir High School, 1982. The play was quarterback keeper. From the 50-yard line of the Rose Bowl, Stacy blasted through the middle of the line and, like a Sherman tank, continued straight up the field with two Muir players hanging on to him, carrying them all toward a touchdown.
When defense was on the field, I often sat with Stacy on the bench and our friendship began. I stayed in touch with him as he went off to Arizona State University. He had an outstanding four years playing football, culminating in his team’s victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. As a linebacker, Stacy led the team with eleven tackles in that game.
He had a long career in management with Los Angeles County Public Works, raised a family, and stayed connected to his PHS friends in the northwest Pasadena neighborhood. Our friendship became closer during the five years we worked together on the Board of the PHS Alumni Association. The school has a history going back to the 1880s, thousands of alumni, but Stacy and his classmates of 1983 were the only ones to launch an alumni association. The Alumni Board met every month. Around the table were the men and women who grew up with Stacy in his neighborhood. All the men had played football and remembered me as a priest to the team. I am grateful to be drawn into the lives of these men and women and to see their devotion to their families, their church, their careers and especially to PHS. Because these neighborhood friendships had deep roots, like any extended family, there were intense arguments. As President, Stacy had a forceful presence, too authoritarian sometimes, but he could motivate these folks to donate scholarships, organize campus work projects and fund equipment for athletic programs.
Stacy had a big heart spiritually, but his physical heart grew weak. I visited Stacy at Huntington Hospital after his heart bypass surgery. This health crises had also been a spiritual catharsis. He knew that he almost died and intended to make amends with friends and family. God was close to him. A few weeks later, Stacy died in his sleep.
Powerful expressions of love and appreciation for Stacy filled the Pasadena High School auditorium at his memorial service. Twenty of his teammates from Arizona State University attended, as well as dozens of rival John Muir High School football alums. Stacy’s son spoke about Stacy’s legacy in sports and as his beloved father.
Ironically, a few weeks before he died, Stacy had planned a picnic at Brookside Park to thank all the people who helped him during his illness. The afternoon of that planned picnic was the day of his memorial service. Lifelong friends from the northeast Pasadena neighborhood, a devoted extended family, celebrated the reunion that Stacy had planned.
Coach Tom Hamilton’s life was also cut short with lung cancer. Tom did not smoke, but I wondered about the effect of those years of smoggy days in Pasadena and his coaching outside at the football field. Up to then, he seemed to always be in training, walking several miles early each morning around the Rose Bowl with his beloved Lynne Emery. The cancer drained him. He struggled for each breath. I have this memory: I am with Tom at his home. A bleak winter day. I help administer morphine under his tongue to assuage the panic that comes with a dying lung. I hold his big hand and gaze out the window at a bird on a barren tree branch. I felt so helpless. There are no words to say, just hold on tight and channel my love for him. Coach Gary Griffith was a caregiver for Tom in those last days. Two days after my visit, Gary called me to say that our beloved Tom had died.
October 31, 2019, I am again at the Rose Bowl. This time I am with former coaches and players to dedicate Tunnel Four in memory of Coach Tom Hamilton. It was a few hours before the annual John Muir High School-PHS rivalry football game. Coach Hamilton’s son, Tom Hamilton, Jr and his family welcomed the gathering. Later, in the football game, Tom flipped the coin at the traditional coin toss before the game began.
Here is a portion of my presentation at this dedication:
“What is a successful coach? Not the win-loss calculation. Not the number of his players that went on to Division One universities or the National Football League. For Tom, it was the nurture of the whole person during those tumultuous years of late adolescence, so many temptations pulling at them. You, his former players, are the proof of a coach who chose long-term commitment through all the hassles and impediments to teaching and coaching. You returned to the school yourselves to teach or coach at PHS.
“I was talking with Coach Skip Robinson of Pasadena City College a few months ago, reflecting on how Tom was my best friend. Skip said, ‘I felt like his adopted son.’ And now I have met many men who describe a feeling of special relationship with Coach Tom Hamilton.
“Tom is imbedded in this Rose Bowl. He played in the first Turkey Tussle game in 1947. Most of the home games of his early coaching years were right here in the Rose Bowl. When he retired, he walked around the stadium every morning at 6:30 a.m. with his beloved Dr. Lynne Emery.
“I believe the last time Tom came to the Pasadena-Muir game at the Rose Bowl, he entered with me through this Tunnel Four. As we walked through the tunnel down the long steps to the grassy playing field to be with the team, it took at least a half hour, because the aisle was filled with former players, now fathers and grandfathers, and police officers, who wanted to greet again their beloved coach.”
In a reversal of the image of the stairway to Heaven, I imagine this: Coach Tom Hamilton and Stacy Harvey walking down the stairs of the Rose Bowl, slowly passing by former players and coaches, friends and fans, and teammates, as they walk arm in arm onto the Field of Glory.
This prayer wells up within my heart: Lord God, as I wrote this reflection on Tom and Stacy, you awakened in me again my love for these two good men, my friends, and my grief still aches. Thank you, surprising and generous God, for inviting me into their lives, for the genuine gift of deep, honest, joyful friendship with them. Rest eternal grant to them and may Light Perpetual shine upon them. Amen.
Sheldrake, Philip, Living Between Worlds. London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 1995.
Pat Williams, Vince Lombardi on Leadership: Life Lessons from a Five-Time NFL Championship Coach. Charleston, SC: Advantage Media Group, Inc, 2015.
Hung, Steve, Tom Hamilton, PHS Icon, Dies of Cancer, Pasadena Star News, March 15, 2004.
Brad Karelius, Dedication of Tunnel Four in Honor of Coach Tom Hamilton, October 31, 2019.
Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World. New York: Knopf, 2009.
Inspire: Rose Bowl Legacy Foundation.
 Williams, Vince Lombardy on Leadership, 181.
 Steve Hung, Pasadena Star News, March 15, 2004.
 Sheldrake, Living Between Worlds, 60.
 Karelius, Dedication of Tunnel Four in Honor of Coach Tom Hamilton, October 31, 2019.