You’ll hear him. You’ll hear him just before you smell the burn, right after the comet’s tail tickles your nose.
KJ Hamler brings the kind of trash to the party that puts a B-movie marathon to shame. The only thing quicker than the kid’s yap is his feet.
“On the way to the game, he’s so focused,” explained Jeff Phillips, the Broncos rookie receiver’s position coach at St. Mary’s Prep in Orchard Lake Village, Mich. “But after the game? Oh, Lord.”
You can’t guard me.
You couldn’t check me in a phone booth.
Hey, where’d your hair go?
Dude nailed Phillips with that last one.
“He’ll start to crack jokes on me, making fun of me,” Phillips chuckled. “I’m one of those 30-somethings that went bald. He’d ask me where the hair went. “In practice, he’d try to get me to come out there. I played a while ago. There was a time I would go out and (run) with the kids. I’m 39. I know when not to do it.”
What’s the matter, coach? Scared?
“He told one kid. ‘You (stink),’” longtime mentor and youth coach Reggie Wynns said. “He said, ‘I don’t know why you’re trying to guard me. You (stink).’
“He doesn’t talk trash like Michael Jordan. But he’s a competitor. He’s a player. He’s a good guy to watch. Always running his mouth. Always got his gab.”
Always pestering. Always looking for a dig. And a laugh. This from a guy who used to lug around a “Looney Tunes” backpack and considers Bugs Bunny to be his spirit animal.
At Penn State, the newest Broncos speedster once used a campus emergency call box to ask for help because he’d gotten lost on campus and was late for a meeting. Or so the legend goes.
You couldn’t make KJ Hamler up if you tried. Let alone catch him.
“I’ve been the underdog my entire life,” Hamler said. “I’ve always had something to prove just because of my size, so I had to develop in other areas to help out.
“The ‘dog’ mentality is something I do on and off the field. I don’t take anything from anybody. I don’t back down to anybody. It’s like a David-and-Goliath story. I’m the smallest guy, the smallest frame. But I’ll give you everything I’ve got.”
* * *
Wynns has about 100 Hamler stories. None of them are boring. Heck, most of them are even printable.
But if you want to get to the soul of KJ Hamler, if you want to see what makes the kid tick, Wynns rolls the clock back to about six summers ago, when the 5-foot-9 wideout was a precocious 10th-grader-to-be.
Hamler refers to Green Bay Packers receiver and former Michigan standout Devin Funchess, five years his senior, as a “godbrother,” the pair having both grown up in suburban Detroit as part of Wynns’ Rising Stars recruiting program.
So Funchess decides one off-season to bring one of his cocksure Wolverines teammates, Jabrill Peppers, back to the old neighborhood to run and train with the local kids. When the 5-11 Peppers saw that he was assigned the not-quite-5-8-at-the-time Hamler, he took one look at the skinny receiver across the line and figured he was in for a soft afternoon.
“Jabrill was like, ‘Oh, shoot, this is the guy I’m going play with?’” Wynns recalled.
“And he ran by him,” Phillips said. “(Peppers) tried to get him off the line. He couldn’t do it.”
The next time they got matched up 1-on-1, Wynns said, Peppers “tried to just beat him up. I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to go through that.’”
The higher you set the bar, the more determined Hamler is to raise it. At the Sound Mind Sound Body (SMSB) camp at Wayne State in June 2016, Hamler and Ambry Thomas, then a Michigan commit, went after each other like a pair of mama badgers. If the future Broncos wideout dropped a ball, he plopped down and did 10 push-ups on the spot.
“He was always a good student, always worked hard, and that has always been his strong point,” Wynns said. “If he had a bad game, he was going to have a better game the next (week). He was going to work his butt off. He hated losing.”
* * *
Hamler lost two of his best friends within an 18-month span. In March 2017, Solomon Bonner Jr., just 14, died from what authorities described as an accidental gunshot wound during a card game. In August 2015, Wynns’ son Eric, a wide receiver at Saginaw Valley State, was killed in a 1-car crash while driving back to school.
“My son was probably the same size as KJ,” Reggie Wynns said. “When he would train here, KJ just followed him around.
“Eric loved him. Eric loved KJ, really loved KJ. Took him under his wing, route-running with him. It was tough. (KJ) just used every bit of energy, that negative energy, painful energy, just to be great.”
“It focused him more,” Phillips said. “It gave him more of a drive.”
Deep down, beneath the bluster and the burn, Hamler is a details ninja. A free thinker with a poet’s heart and an artist’s eye. At one point, Hamler taught himself to draw, freehand, pencil sketches of whatever tickled his muse. Football players, usually. Football anything.
That’s as close to introverted as Hamler gets. The quick wit, like the quick feet, were gifts inherited from mom and dad.
Latonya Gooding, Hamler’s mother, is a natural in front of the camera. She started posting birthday rap videos for KJ three years ago, a long-distance dedication to celebrate her son turning 18 while at the IMG Academy in Florida, half a country away from home.
Dad picks out the beat. Mom writes and performs the lyrics.
“But that’s going to be the last one in the NFL,” Gooding cracked. “Now they’re going to kill him when he goes to training camp. They’re going to blaze him if we do one for 21 (next month).
“Our personalities — especially mine — are really KJ’s. We’re just fun people. What you see is what you get.”
If the birthday raps are any indication, Broncos fans are getting a cat they’re going to fall in love with. Instantly.