- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

Steve Spurrier is right: Gibran Hamdan just looks like an NFL quarterback. At least when he opens his mouth.It’s a hazy, humid morning at Redskin Park, session one of Washington’s initial spring mini-camp. The first day of the rest of Hamdan’s football life. A day for tossing picture-perfect spirals (a few times), standing around (most of the time), and watching other guys take practice snaps (pretty much all of the time).As Hamdan makes his way up the grassy incline that leads from the practice field to the Redskins’ locker room, he’s met by a reporter. Then two. Then a half-dozen. Plus a couple of camera crews.The crush is somewhat surprising, given that Hamdan, a seventh-round draft pick out of Indiana University, is months away from throwing a pro pass. Or even holding on an extra point.”It might be different from other seventh-round picks, being a local product,” says the 22-year-old Hamdan, who attended Arlington’s Bishop O’Connell High School and lives in Potomac. “But I wouldn’t say I expected the attention.”Nevertheless, Hamdan holds court like a seasoned pro. Measured. Engaging. He even keeps a straight face when a television reporter asks him to assess team chemistry — an eye-rolling request, considering that Hamdan has been a Redskin for all of three hours. Give or take a few minutes.”You have to follow in the leaders’ path, the older guys, follow what they do,” he says. “They’ve been doing it right for a long time.”Vacant nods abound. Oozing casual self-assurance, Hamdan makes it look easy. The same way he makes hurling a 50-yard spiral off his back foot look easy. Which explains why the virtually unknown quarterback was drafted ahead of Miami’s Ken Dorsey. And why a player with one year of starting college experience is now competing with Heisman Trophy runner-up Brad Banks for Washington’s third-string job. “He’s a raw, raw talent that hasn’t played a whole bunch,” said Redskins personnel director Vinny Cerrato. “But he has an unbelievably strong arm. Coach Spurrier saw a talent and ability in him, kind of what we’re looking for in that spot — a developmental, project-type guy.”Despite his 6-foot-4, 219-pound frame, Hamdan certainly qualifies as a project. In fact, he probably knows more about infield shifts than calling audibles.Baseball was Hamdan’s first athletic love. He took to the game in Kuwait, where he lived with his family as a child. A strong-armed pitcher and steal-snuffing catcher, he later played on the U.S. National 15-and-under squad. At Indiana, he was the Hoosiers’ starting first baseman for two seasons, batting .335 with six home runs and 38 RBI last year.”Every time I went to a camp, it was a baseball camp,” Hamdan said. “Every time I got extra coaching, it was in baseball.”By contrast, Hamdan got into football almost by accident, mostly because his powerful arm made him a perpetual quarterback during recess pickup games at Potomac’s Hoover Middle School. Cut from the Churchill High varsity squad as a junior, he transferred to Bishop O’Connell, where as a senior he led the Northern Virginia area in passing and was named the Virginia Independent Schools Player of the Year. Around that time, Hamdan asked Indiana assistant baseball coach Jeff Calcaterra to pass along his game tapes to then-Indiana football coach Cam Cameron. Cameron saw enough potential to offer Hamdan a scholarship.”At Churchill, I didn’t really know what football was all about,” Hamdan said. “It wasn’t until I went to O’Connell that I started to get a little bigger and could play football well.”At Indiana, however, Hamdan went to the bench. Redshirted as a freshman, he spent three seasons behind current Pittsburgh Steeler Antwaan Randle El and threw six passes during his junior and senior years.”I got a lot of practice at holding,” Hamdan said with a laugh.After splitting his time between two sports, Hamdan saw his first extensive football action last fall, starting in eight of Indiana’s 12 games as a fifth-year senior.”Every day was a learning experience, and there were times that it cost him,” said Indiana quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Al Borges. “He probably threw more interceptions than he would have liked. He has to improve in every area, from footwork to making the reads.”Still, Hamdan’s arm was lively enough to catch the eye of Cerrato, who first noticed the quarterback while scouting an Indiana-Penn State game last November. Though Hamdan didn’t play, Cerrato liked what he saw during pre-game warmups and had quarterback coach Noah Brindise check out Hamdan’s game tapes.Hamdan got a second endorsement from Redskins trainer Dean Kleinschmidt — Kleinschmidt’s son, Rhett, plays receiver for the Hoosiers — and was invited to Washington’s pre-draft local player combine in early April. The lone quarterback in attendance, Hamdan received a wholly unexpected two-on-one tutorial from Brindise and Spurrier. For nearly two hours, the trio discussed everything from dropbacks to coverage schemes, with Spurrier often grabbing a football to illustrate.Slightly sore after throwing a few hundred passes, Hamdan left impressed. So did Spurrier, who after the draft gushed that Hamdan “looked like a pro quarterback” and could throw as hard as first-round picks Carson Palmer and Kyle Boller.Borges, who coached Boller at Cal in 2001, concurs.”Gibran’s arm is every bit as good,” he said. “He’s not played a lot, but the kid really is an untapped resource. With a little bit of seasoning, he could be a [heck] of a player.”Borges also called Hamdan a “coaches’ dream,” noting that when coach Gerry DiNardo installed a new West Coast offense upon taking over the Indiana job in early 2002, Hamdan was a regular attendee at early-morning film sessions.Likewise, Brindise praised Hamdan’s intelligence and eagerness to learn. A business major at Indiana, Hamdan graduated with a 3.0 GPA and was named to the Big Ten All-Academic team.”We could tell from one day that he took to coaching real well,” Brindise said. “It didn’t go in one ear and out the other. He soaked it in. He tried to do it exactly the way we asked him to.”Hamdan is nothing if not adaptable. Named for a Lebanese poet, he was born in San Diego to a Palestinian father and Pakistani mother. In 1984, a 3-year-old Hamdan and his family moved from California to Kuwait, where his father, Latif, worked as a nuclear engineer.While vacationing in San Diego in 1990, Latif received a chilling late-night telephone call: Iraq had just invaded Kuwait. The Hamdans lost their home and were forced to remain in the United States, eventually settling in Montgomery County when Latif landed a job with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”When you’re that young, you really don’t understand what’s happening,” Hamdan said. “But I think the experience helped me, seeing what my parents have gone through and how they’ve persevered. I learned how important it is to keep going.”Hamdan suffered a much greater loss during his sophomore year of college, when his girlfriend, Jenny Suhr, was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a deadly form of brain cancer that usually occurs in men over the age of 50. The daughter of an Indiana football administrative assistant, Suhr suffered her first symptoms in early November, during a family dinner on her 20th birthday. Three days after Christmas, she went into a coma. Suhr died the next day.”It’s something that will be with me forever,” Hamdan said. “I miss her dearly. If I’m fortunate enough to make my mark on the football field, that’s something that I hope to do in the future, raise awareness about cancer and help people.”When Randle El departed for the NFL last April, Hamdan finally got his chance to play — and promptly lost it to Tommy Jones, who beat Hamdan out during spring practice. Two games into the season, however, Jones suffered a mild concussion in a loss to Utah.Making his first career start against a Kentucky team anchored by pocket-collapsing defensive tackle Dewayne “Baby Sapp” Robertson — the No. 4 pick in last month’s draft — Hamdan took a beating. Sacked twice and knocked down a dozen other times, he threw two interceptions, the second returned 82 yards to clinch a 27-17 Wildcats victory.After the game, Hamdan’s father made his way to the Indiana locker room. He found his son bloodied and beaten down. But not unhappy.”Dewayne got to me a few times,” Hamdan said. “They all got to me a few times. It was tough, because I let my teammates down. But it was a good experience, because it was my first game experience.”Hamdan proved a quick study. In a 32-29 upset of No. 23 Wisconsin, he rallied the Hoosiers from a 29-10 third-quarter deficit, tossing three touchdown passes in the game’s final 16 minutes.Afterward, Indiana lineman A.C. Myler referred to Hamdan as “John Elway,” and the quarterback was named Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week. For the season, Hamdan threw for 2,115 yards with nine touchdowns and 14 interceptions.Despite pre-draft interest from Baltimore, Cleveland and Houston, Hamdan wasn’t convinced that he could make it in the NFL — at least not until his agent, Buddy Baker, sent him to the St. Vincent Sports Medicine Center in Indianapolis. There, Hamdan spent 10 weeks working with a strength coach, a nutritionist and former NFL quarterback Jack Trudeau.Trudeau’s message was simple: Work hard. Be prepared. Stay patient. Remain focused.In short, everything a backup quarterback already knows.”I put myself in the best physical condition of my life,” Hamdan said. “But more than anything, I gained confidence that I belonged in the NFL. I’m sure after I got drafted, some fans were like, ‘Who is this guy?’ “But the fact of the matter is, I’ve prepared for this opportunity. I’m not going to let anybody stand in my way. I think Washington is somewhere that I can develop into an NFL quarterback. I truly believe I can do it.”Time will tell. Back at Redskin Park, Hamdan watches. And waits. And watches some more. Following an afternoon practice, he remains on the field for extra work.With Spurrier and Brindise looking on, Hamdan fires 20-yard passes to receiver Scott Cloman. One toss lands low. Another flutters far right. A third sails high.”Ball in two hands,” Spurrier cajoles, pantomiming a throw. “Just try to run free and naturally.”Hamdan shuffles backward, the ball next to his chin. He plants his right foot. Shifts to his left. Opens his hips. Rotates his arm. Flicks his wrist.The ball hits Cloman squarely in the gloves. For a moment, Hamdan just looks like an NFL quarterback. He makes it look easy. Without saying a word.”When you look at him, he’s a big, tall, strong-armed kid,” Brindise said. “He looks the part. It’s going to be fun to work with him. We’ll see what happens in the long run.”

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