The bio line on Justin Hamilton’s Twitter profile begins with “A Country Boy From Mississippi … ” Yes, this massive nose tackle deep on the Buffalo Bills’ depth chart hails from the Deep South.
And back in Natchez, Miss., life was regimented. Hamilton’s family owned a plot of land, a barn, horses and lived for the weekend.
That’s when the guy who’s now a 6-foot-1, 315-pound behemoth competed in the rodeo.
“I grew up around horses my whole life,” Hamilton said. “It’s just something that’s been with me since I was young. I’m from the country. I’ve lived in the country. I’ve never really lived in town. Having horses and going to rodeos every weekend was a big responsibility.
“You really didn’t have time to get into trouble. It always kept me busy.”
Now in Buffalo, Hamilton will learn from two of the best defensive tackles in football. A three-year starter at Louisiana-Lafayette, he finished his senior year with 25 tackles (nine for loss) and four sacks. The odds will be long come August. But on this eclectic defensive line – one that includes three players with 10-plus years of experience – Hamilton is the one bringing a dose of raw, down-home southern strength to the party.
Mom and Dad got Hamilton into the rodeo young and he continued all the way up to college.
Hamilton and his brothers excelled in the traditional roping events. His sister? She participated in barrel racing.
“It’s the environment,” Hamilton said. “You’re around a bunch of good vibes, good people. It’s just the environment I grew up in. It wasn’t a hobby, it was a lifestyle. It’s not something you just do for fun.”
He can’t pinpoint exact tournaments, championships or triumphs. Rather, these weekends were one wild blur.
In his roping events, participants lasso a calf while mounted on a horse bucking like an out-of-control pendulum and then tie up the legs. The event required balance, speed, accuracy and large belt buckles.
“You just have to go be the fastest, have the fastest time,” Hamilton said. “I’m pretty decent. I started backing away from them as I got into high school and was playing football – I still do it, though. I make time for it.”
This was a family affair, too. Hamilton’s sister starred in barrel racing, weaving around barrels in the arena.
As Hamilton added mass as he got to college, his weekends changed. With the Ragin’ Cajuns, he grew into a legitimate NFL prospect comfortable playing nose tackle and the 3-technique. He does see a correlation between rodeo and football, too.
“You have to go work hard, no matter what you do – whether it’s playing football, riding a horse, anything,” Hamilton said. “The rodeo lifestyle is very competitive and I feel that has translated for me to football.
“Work ethic. The same work ethic you have there, you have to have in football. It teaches you discipline.”
Hamilton’s No. 1 goal now is to make the team. He effectively engulfed double-teams in college – and put up an impressive 28 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press at his pre-draft pro day – but lacks the ideal height for the position in the pros. So the kid who has gone by “Juice” since he can remember is eager to put the pads on and grasp the nuances of the job from Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus.
“You can’t get any better than those two guys,” Hamilton said. “They both made Pro Bowls and I feel like I can learn a lot from them just by watching them work at practice. Watching how they do certain things. And just try to pick up different habits from each guy.
“They practice their craft exactly how they want to be in the game.”
In other words, he’ll learn how to be a technician. Only this time Hamilton is ramming into offensive guards instead of riding a horse.
“I’m just a guy trying to be all that I can be,” Hamilton said, “trying to make it, trying to prove that I belong.”