It’s been a bit of a journey, but Meadowdale High School graduate Connor Hamlett is living a dream many of us have. On Saturday, he’ll run onto CenturyLink Field for the first time as a professional football player when the Seattle Dragons of the new XFL take on the Tampa Bay Vipers at 2 p.m. in the franchise’s first-ever home game.
Not bad for a guy better known for his basketball ability growing up in Lynnwood.
“It’s going to be awesome,” said the 27-year-old Hamlett. “I played there once in college but it’s not the same as playing for a pro team. We’ll have a good amount of fans, they’ll be rowdy. I’ll take it in for a second and then get focused. It’ll be special.”
The road to this point hasn’t been an easy one for Hamlett. Though he helped Meadowdale to sixth- and fifth-place finishes at the state high school basketball tournament and was named the Everett Herald’s Boys Basketball Player of the Year as a senior in 2010, his coaches told him that his future was more likely on the gridiron than the hardwood. A 6-foot-7 post player works at the prep level, not as much in college. An athlete of that size on the football field could be quite a weapon.
Oregon State University thought so, and Hamlett had an excellent career for the Beavers. He finished third all-time at the school in receptions for a tight end and earned first-team Pac-12 All-Academic honors.
Hamlett wasn’t chosen in the NFL Draft but signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2015. That ended up being the first of five stops in the NFL, including with the Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints, Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys. Most of his time was spent on those team’s practice squads but he made the most of his debut, scoring a touchdown on a 17-yard catch for the Browns against the New England Patriots in 2016.
“I remember it vividly,” he said. “Once they called the play I knew I would be able to make a play if I got a chance, and that’s what happened. It was pretty exciting.”
Still, the life of a fringe NFL player isn’t easy. There’s no guarantee week to week you’ll even be on the team, much less get to play. During training camp with the Cowboys in 2017, Hamlett broke his fibula. It was the last time he was part of a NFL organization.
“A lot of people don’t know the grind that a fringe player like me goes through,” he said. “You never know if you’ll have a job. So you work constantly to show that you can do this.”
After recovering from his injury, Hamlett got another chance last year, this time with the Arizona Hotshots of the new Alliance of American Football. But that didn’t go quite as planned either, as the league folded just eight weeks into the season. Hamlett said that while that was one of the most fun times he’s had on a football field, seeing the league disband gave him some thought as to whether his football career might be over.
He got a job with a company called Popmenu, which provides guest-engagement software for restaurants, to gain some work experience. He also has helped coach football at Meadowdale for the past two years.
Then the XFL came calling. The league, owned by professional wrestling kingpin Vince McMahon, has eight teams and will play a 10-game season this spring, with the first week kicking off this past weekend. Seattle was awarded a franchise and selected Hamlett in the seventh round of its inaugural draft.
The opportunity to play at home for the first time was too good to pass up.
“Seattle was really the only place I wanted to come to,” said Hamlett, who lives in Edmonds with his wife Julia, 22-month-old daughter Sofia and newborn son John. “I have a lot of family and friends here who are excited to see me. It can be tough to be away from your family and kids for four months so it’s going to be great to be around to help out.”
While the Dragons lost their first game to the DC Defenders, Hamlett said they’re ready to turn things around for their first home game. While he said he still hopes to make it back to the NFL, he’s loving his time with the new league and using his experience to help the athletes he coaches at his alma mater.
“Even though it’s not the NFL, it means something to be able to say you’re a professional player and use that to be a positive influence,” he said. “You learn so much playing sports, not just athletically but in life. I can talk to them about hard work, overcoming adversity and just try to help have a good influence on them.”
— By Mike Allende