CJ Hamilton's name is synonymous with Kansas high school football
This column appears on page three of the 2022 Kansas Pregame Football Preview. Read the complete preview below, or the introductory column on Hamilton further down the page.
As a boy growing up in Smith Center I had one goal from the moment I saw my older brother and his teammates win the 1982 3A State Championship over Wellsville; to do the same thing with my classmates!
I remember being very aware of who the best teams in the state were back then, even in elementary school, partly because many of them played in the Mid-Continent League – Norton, Osborne, Plainville, Victoria and Stockton all joined Smith Center as football State Champions from the MCL in the 1980s – and partly because of the excellent high school sports coverage by my hometown Smith County Pioneer, and the daily newspaper for the area, the Salina Journal – which back then provided the very best coverage of high school sports for teams in a huge swath of northwest Kansas.
In high school I was aware of the best teams in 3A because the goal was to beat them: Plainville with Scott Smetana and DJ Basgall, Norton with players like Mike Coffey and Jeremy Hawks, Smoky Valley under coach Gary Sandbo, the Hesston Swathers with their unique mascot and unbelievable kicker, Ryan Achilles, Riverton with standout Andy Ball, Wichita Collegiate and future Notre Dame offensive lineman Chris Clevenger, just to name a few.
But one team stood out above all others – the Silver Lake Eagles – and one name was synonymous with Silver Lake football – CJ Hamilton.
I remember thinking early in high school, “I hope I get the chance to play Silver Lake.” (Full disclosure, I did not, my varsity career included zero trips to the playoffs, an embarrassing period in Smith Center that no one talks about, but I digress.)
From 1980 to 1989 Silver Lake made four 3A title games with three championships. The Eagles would add three more title game appearances in the 1990s – and two more titles, including one over Smith Center in 1997 in one of the all-time great championship games – before going on a historic run of 11 championship game appearances in 12 seasons from 2002-2013. The Eagles won just three of those title games, but the consistency, to finish in the biggest game of them all for over a decade, is unbelievable. To put it in perspective, many of the seniors from the 2002 team were almost 30 when the run of championship appearances ended in 2013. The Eagles haven’t made a trip to the state championship game since the 2013 victory over Beloit – in large part due to the emergence of rival Rossville as a state dynasty – but the man responsible for that consistency continued to lead his hometown Silver Lake to winning seasons until his retirement earlier this year.
Coach Hamilton retires as the all-time wins leader in Kansas high school football history with 447 victories in 47 years, with a two-year stint coaching collegiately early in his tenure at Silver Lake. Hamilton led the Eagles to 39 Mid-East League titles and made the postseason 40 times. He ends his career 15th on the all-time high school football coaching wins list, according to High School Football America.
The consistency is staggering. It’s hard to imagine anyone will coach long enough, and be successful enough, to pass Hamilton’s all-time win mark. Winning the league title 39 times, in one of the state’s very best small school leagues, is another feather in Hamilton’s hat. Wanna know how tough the league is? All five remaining teams in the MEL posted winning seasons last year with four of them posting seven wins or better.
Entering the 2022 season knowing Hamilton will not lead the charge at Silver Lake makes it feel just a bit different, but in the past few years I’ve gotten to know new Silver Lake head coach Logan Pegram. One of the all-time great Silver Lake offensive linemen, and a proud son of the tradition-rich program, Pegram appears prepared to take on the challenge of following the G.O.A.T.
And it’s not as though there won’t be a Hamilton on the sideline for the Eagles this fall. Sons Travis and Trevor, and nephew Nick, are all on Pegram’s coaching staff, and the field that Hamilton watched over for five decades features a permanent memory of his success, his signature in the recently installed turf at a field named in his honor.
Congratulations on an incredible career leading and inspiring multiple generations of young men, coach Hamilton!