Vanderbilt's Ryan Hamilton didn't set out to be a captain this year, but he still was elected one.
"I'm very honored," he said. "But it's not like I came out and tried to get it. The guys just thought I could do a good job at it."
Hamilton didn't set out to be a hard-hitting safety as a youngster either, but the writing was on the wall even in elementary school.
In third grade, Hamilton's parents were approached by the father of another player after a youth soccer game, who happened to be one of the league's organizers.
`Your son's done here,' was the gist of the message. Hamilton was playing too rough.
"That was it," Hamilton said. "That was basically when my dad figured it was time to strap on the pads."
And he hasn't looked back since starting organized football a year after his banishment from soccer. Now that he can knock people around all he wants, the 6-foot-2-inch, 210 pound Hamilton has enjoyed considerable success in the American version of football at free safety.
His 2008 season was easily his best so far with the Commodores, racking up 104 total tackles, 51 solo, four interceptions and three fumble recoveries, all ranking him among the best on the team and the conference.
Three of those interceptions came in a 23-17 win over Ole Miss on Sept. 20 where he put together a season's worth of highlights in four quarters. Hamilton returned one pick for a 79-yard score, recovered a fumble and also had a goal-line tackle on fourth down to prevent a go-ahead Rebel touchdown. His third pick sealed the victory as time expired in a performance that was, in a word, ridiculous.
All this coming from a player with one career collegiate interception coming in. He was named National Defensive Player of the Week by the Walter Camp Foundation for his efforts, and the Pennsylvania native in the No. 2 jersey was for the moment the No. 1 defender in America.
That win made Vanderbilt nationally ranked, and it made Hamilton nationally famous. A coming-out party, so to speak?
"I felt like I was pretty good before that," Hamilton said.
Hamilton has long formed a potent safety tandem with recently graduated Reshard Langford, who served as a co-captain last season and was the most veteran player on the team. Both those distinctions have passed to Hamilton in 2009, having recently been elected co-captain by his teammates and leading the Commodores with 32 consecutive starts.
"We worked so well together," Hamilton said. "He was one year ahead of me, but we were always right there next to each other doing the same things."
It's been a long time though since he held a position of official leadership. Hamilton hasn't been a team captain since high school ("I've got to get the rust off," he said), and while he was already one of the team's most experienced players last season, Langford was the older authority figure.
Hamilton doesn't need to embrace stepping into the role Langford left as both a force on the field and in the locker room; he feels he was always doing it.
"I see myself as a leader," Hamilton said. "I don't really try to do anything special. I just go out there and try to play my best, be a good example and get other guys motivated to play.
"I don't really see too many challenges. There might be a few things I have to do differently just because now there's a title involved. Guys have already been looking to me for the past couple years for leadership, so I don't really see too much of a difference."
What will be different will be the absence of Langford at strong safety, but Hamilton hopes to mentor his new compatriot in the defensive backfield, likely to be rising sophomore Sean Richardson, who backed up Langford last season.
"I've finally got a guy younger than me," Hamilton said, "show him some of the things Reshard did for me my first year. Kind of show him the ropes, and try to build up good chemistry like the way me and Reshard had it. (Sean)'s coming up good."
Hamilton will also be working on developing chemistry between Patrick Benoist, Bradley Vierling and himself as they undertake the important roles of team captains, a job on which Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson places special emphasis.
While many other coaches choose different leaders for each week of the season, the three selected by their Commodore teammates keep the important role for the entire season. They serve as the eyes and ears of the coaching staff for insight into a large squad that needs to form one unit.
"Always want to find out what the team's thinking through the captains," Johnson said.
There's no set criteria for them, in Johnson's eyes. That's what works for a player like Hamilton, who lets roles mold to fit him, not the other way around.
"To be honest, I'm ready to go out there and keep doing what I've been doing," Hamilton said. "Obviously, I haven't been a captain yet, but I think I know what it takes. I'm ready to do it."
"I've always thought that captains reveal themselves through their hard work and their concern for the team," Johnson said. "I think our team over the years has done an excellent job of voting for those guys who identify themselves."
No problem there. Hamilton was already identifying himself as a premier safety 14 years ago, and it wasn't even on a football field.