Remarkable, heartbreaking, extraordinary beach volleyball story of JD Hamilton

HERMOSA BEACH, California — There was a fun story emerging a few weeks ago at the AVP Hermosa Beach Pro Series, a couple of good friends, winning matches they shouldn’t, in a unique style of play that, against all odds, continued to befuddle.

We were intriguing to watch and easy to root for, JD Hamilton and me, a couple of tattooed underdogs. A team with no expectations, a writer and a redneck, playing on house money.

It was, on the surface, the classic story of the overlooked team overperforming. That’s the story many asked me to write after our weekend concluded on July 8, a seventh-place finish and two highly unlikely — to most, anyway — upsets in hand. But the story is deeper than that. Leagues and miles and lightyears deeper. A story replete with drugs and murder, of persistent demons and timely angels, of repeat failure and a stubborn streak to break a wicked cycle of evil and addiction. It’s a story both tragic and heroic, as remarkable as it is heartbreaking.

It’s the untold story of JD Hamilton.

Angels, demons, drugs and alligators 

“Man, my heart is beating pretty fast,” JD says over the phone. “I’m going to need to breathe through this.”

It’s Monday afternoon. I’m in my office in Hermosa Beach. JD is in Mobile, Alabama, the most unlikely of residencies for a 30-year-old who just finished seventh in the country in a professional beach volleyball tournament. It’s fitting he’s speaking from Mobile. It is both where his life began and where it could have ended, both literally and figuratively, or at least come unraveled to the point beyond fixing.

In a literal sense, it could have ended in any number of ways that would seem impossible, borderline fictional, to his peers today, many of whom hail from wealthy, affluent, and well-educated families in Southern California. Could have ended on any of his walks by himself to kindergarten at Mary B. Austin Elementary School. He doesn’t know how far that walk was. Maybe a mile. Maybe shorter or longer. Regardless of the length, it was, JD says, “not a walk that kids should be taking.” Yet it was a walk that, should JD have any designs on getting an education, he would have to take. On his own, and on his own volition.

His dad, John, was out of town for two weeks at a time, working as a plumber. He’d pop in on the weekends before he’d have to leave again, gone for another half-month. His mom, Linda, couldn’t be bothered to wake up and get her first child ready for school. So it was up to JD to wake and dress himself before walking to kindergarten.

He failed that first year, on account of missing too many days.

He passed the following year, but soon he had other responsibilities, such as taking care of an infant younger brother, who goes by Alex but whose first name is Peter. Adding another human to a life equation is difficult enough. Adding one when that toddler was around 2 years old while selling the house and moving into a 32-foot boat called The Eagle became a hinge point for the Hamiltons: That, JD said, is when “things got crazy.”

They moved into Winters Marina in nearby Satsuma. He isn’t sure why they sold the house, why they decided to move into The Eagle. Then again, he had just started the first grade. Even if he had the time to ponder such questions, what first grader would have the capacity to ask them? The drug scene, which was bad in Mobile, only worsened in the marina. His mother, never an early riser, wasn’t waking until late in the afternoon, sedated in a drug-induced haze. JD, already responsible for his own education and, for that matter, life in general, now bore the responsibility of getting his younger brother ready for the day. He’d wake him up, throw a life jacket on him, and then head to school at Robert E. Lee Elementary.

“Alex would just sort of be,” JD said. “If he didn’t have a life jacket on him — I don’t know what he did for the whole day, either. He was like Tarzan. I would put a life jacket on this kid and he would just be there, at the marina.”

There were times that JD would come home and there Alex would be, swimming in the water, unsupervised. Alex didn’t seem to mind the fact that the marina was home to thousands of alligators. The ignorance of a toddler was, perhaps, a life-saving trait for Alex. Soon the Eagle was replaced by a 55-foot stationary boat called The Escape. Dad quit his job as a plumber, swapping it to fish for catfish commercially.

“That’s when things got insane,” JD said.

Dad was home more, but the loose financial security of a full-time plumber was gone. When it would rain, they’d place pots and pans around the house to catch the water that would leak through the roof.

“An American shithole,” JD calls that boat. “Things went haywire. We were out of money, we were living off food stamps. We were already in a bad living situation but now we were super poor. That first Christmas after he quit, I remember my favorite Christmas present was one of those things from Dollar Tree that has one dollar at the top and it’s cardboard so you can’t take the dollar off.”

There was a night when JD ate dinner at his aunt Michelle’s house. She cooked him a hot meal, let him sleep there. When he told her thank you for cooking him dinner, she didn’t think much of it at first. Twenty minutes later, though, she wondered: “Don’t you get cooked food at home?”

“No,” JD replied, “I cook all the food.”

He was 9.

But that boat, and the wild lifestyle of two free-wheeling kids who had no rules and even less oversight, did offer one saving grace in abundance: Fishing and hunting. Dad taught him how to bait a hook and reel one in. JD would take out a canoe by himself to fish and hunt across the river. He was as self-sufficient of a 9-year-old as could be, yet even the most survivalist of children need help. His grandparents — “angels,” he calls them — had picked up on the signs, as did Michelle and her husband, Robert, as well as his uncle Richard, all of whom played, and still play, critical roles throughout his life. It was his grandparents, however, who took JD and Alex in when things reached a tipping point.

“He was 4 years old and just rabid,” JD said of his brother at the time. “He liked to be naked, because I didn’t really dress him. He liked to pee wherever he wanted. He just hadn’t been trained. He just had food and water. They take on this huge burden of raising me and my brother at this point.”

They lived with their grandparents for a year before they handed JD and Alex back to John and Linda. One more chance to raise their children right. It didn’t take long before Linda succumbed to the siren song of hard drugs — JD isn’t sure what, exactly, his mother was on — overdosing late into the night when JD was around 11 years old.

“I ran from that house at like 2 a.m., panicking,” JD recalled.

He had intended to run to his grandparents’ house but panicked all over again when he thought about what might happen should he tell them. He ran back, asking his father what they should do.

Imagine, for a moment, that conversation, the interaction between a father and his firstborn, a preteen who had already seen too much. What do you say to a child who had just stumbled upon his mother, incapacitated, on an overdose?

Go back to sleep.

Linda survived and was placed in a rehabilitation center. JD, Alex and their father moved back in with his parents. That should have been the turning point, the hinge where life began to alas shift in the proper direction. On the morning of October 5, JD woke up around 7 in the morning but, being the stubborn little cuss he was, decided “I’m not getting up till Nana gets me up,” he recalled. Only she never came in. It took until 9:45 for JD to finally leave his room.

There, he saw his entire family, all learning of the news: His father had been murdered.

“That just messed me up,” JD admitted. “My dad was awesome, he always showed me love. He was not an abusive human, he had a really big heart, and the only thing he did wrong was be so loyal and so blind. He was a good guy. He taught me how to hunt, how to fish. He told me you have to stand up for yourself. The things he instilled in me are still there. That sucked.”

In death, however, angels, as JD describes them, began appearing in his life in all forms. He had his grandparents — Nana and Pop — who enrolled him into St. Luke’s, a private school in Mobile that currently boasts on its website as being the top-ranked school in the state. Against all odds, JD had been a straight-A student in public school, this in spite of his essentially raising himself, walking himself to school, underfed and underslept and traumatized to every degree. St. Luke’s challenged him in a different manner, stretching his academic and social skills beyond anything he had experienced.

“I thought I was a smart kid but now I’m making Cs, I can’t keep up socially. I didn’t even get sarcasm. I was so far behind,” JD said. “I didn’t catch up to other adults until the last few years. It was a huge culture shock.”

Then came the outlet that would, in many respects, save his life: Sports.

“Sports taught me everything about life,” he said. “All these other things how to deal with pain threshold. So my emotions — I’m deep. I have a good depth of understanding of pain and what people are going through. We played a lot of sports, I found out in eighth grade that soccer is my thing. I wasn’t the best soccer player initially, but I was better at soccer than I was in other sports. I was just committed as hell for that.”

Through soccer, more angels appeared in his life. He essentially moved in with a neighborhood kid named Bradford Dix and his father, Dennis, his senior year of high school. He’d known the Dixes for years, having met Bradford when he was 10 or 11, JD isn’t sure. Dennis wasn’t unaware of what JD’s life had been. He’d known John. Knew enough of JD’s story.

“Like a dad,” JD said of Dennis. True enough, Dennis performed all the duties typical of a father. JD stayed over virtually whenever he wanted. When he graduated from St. Paul’s, another top-ranked private school in the area, and enrolled at South Alabama after a year of playing soccer for West Alabama, Dennis made Bradford and JD a deal: He’d get them an apartment and pay for half of it, so long as the kids kept their grades up.

“All we had to do was not fail,” JD said, laughing now. “And of course, we failed.”

But Dennis’ patience was long, particularly for JD. He had earned a college degree in youth ministries at Jimmy Swaggart Bible College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So what if JD failed one year? Or even two? Here was a lost teenager who had virtually shown up on his front porch with his son, a situation that may not have been his fault, but one for which he began taking responsibility. When he would introduce JD to strangers, he’d call him his son.

“Dennis was a godsend,” JD said. “He taught me so much about hustle and grind. He had kind of a savior complex, he wanted to help me. Everything you could think of as far as being a hard person at home — I would argue with my granddad, argue with everything, I was so mad after my dad died for so long. Dennis wanted to help, and I’d be in Dennis’ house, eating Dennis’ food, I’d be grabbing pizza rolls from this dude’s freezer, putting it on a plate, and arguing with him. He put up with all of those growing pains, helped mentor me into a better person.”

Even after JD dropped out of West Alabama, Dennis, and another man named Wyatt Engwall, supported JD through a number of other failures and sideways journeys. He failed out of South Alabama in 2013, waited tables for a bit, and ultimately decided to get a welding certificate. Nothing stuck. In 2015, he decided to go back to school, enrolling full-time in 2016. It was, in a number of ways, a life-changing decision. It would take him five years to get a degree in engineering that would change the financial course of his life.

At South Alabama, however, JD would discover volleyball.

JD Hamilton/Rick Atwood photo

“From then on out it was just all beach volleyball”

The old men playing their weekly game of old-man grass volleyball at Hobbit Park were a man down. Out of a nearby ditch that formed a decent halfpipe for redneck skateboarders came a tan and lean kid, maybe 19 years old. Long hair. Bit of a punky look to him, but he seemed athletic enough.

“Hey man,” they told JD Hamilton, “we’re a man down. Can you fill in?”

JD took a look at the group. Volleyball?

“That’s a girl’s sport.”

But they were convincing, those old fellas. Within minutes, JD was on the court with them, and soon he was returning every Sunday. He wasn’t good. Not really. But he was athletic enough. Besides, he was young. He’d do well at the upcoming fours tournament called Fuds, named after its chief sponsor, Fudpuckers, in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.

They played in the B division, “and it’s a long walk to get to B,” Hamilton said, laughing. On he walked. Past the open players bouncing balls onto the boardwalk, past all the pretty women and their tanned and fit bodies, past all the bars packed with players, drinking and laughing and hugging.

Hook, line, sinker.

“Once I saw Fuds I said ‘Man, I want to get proficient at this, I want to get good at this,’” Hamilton recalled. “From then on out it was just all beach volleyball.”

Evan Cory, JD Hamilton, Cody Caldwell and Travis Mewhirter celebrate a point at Fuds. Photo/Nate Pugh

When he returned to South Alabama, he became a regular on all the local Facebook pages, begging for games or practices every day, seeking partners for the tournaments that would pop up on the weekends. The only players who would regularly join him were a pair of girls, Yiting Cao — known to most as, simply, Ting — and Abbey Roam. It would be Ting who first partnered with Hamilton in men’s tournaments.

“I still got served,” Hamilton said. “Ting could hit harder than most of the dudes.”

The locals noticed his passion. A man known affectionately as Catfish taught him the difference between a cut shot and a high line. He’d take trips to Pensacola, playing pickup, putting his flip-flop down to mark his place in line, losing, then putting his flip-flop right back down again.

“I’d play as much as I can,” he said. In August of 2013, he took it a step further, driving west this time, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with Ian Bicko, another South Alabama student who played pickup regularly with Hamilton. It was more organized in Baton Rouge, with tournaments and brackets and pool play and even prize money.

It just so happened that in August of 2013, Joey Keener had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, wonderful idea. The top players in the area had all mostly retired. This was both good and bad. Good, because Keener and Jordan Merceron, another small, ball control-oriented player, could clean up the tournaments and rake the cash prizes. Bad because, well, it just got plain boring. Keener grew tired of the tedium of smoking teams every weekend. So he concocted the grandest of plans.

“Let’s challenge us this tournament,” Keener told Merceron.

“OK,” Merceron said. “So are we just going to hit cut shots and high lines all day?”

“No. We’re going to crush margaritas and hit skyballs!”

“Man, I wasn’t thinking that, but let’s go!”

And so it went, Keener and Merceron downing one margarita after the next, humiliating teams with their whimsical serves and laissez-faire attitudes.

“I was shit drunk, talking a lot of shit, being an idiot,” Keener said, laughing at the memory, “and we ended up winning that tournament.”

“We were trying so hard to win,” Hamilton said. “They just ball-controlled everyone to death.”

Hamilton, as he is wont to do when he meets someone from whom he can learn a great deal, pinned Keener down at a table by the bar.

“You think I’m good?” he asked Keener.

“No, you’re not good, you’re actually pretty bad,” came the blunt reply.

But Hamilton had made an impression on Keener, and Keener on Hamilton. In Keener, Hamilton had found his key to getting to the next level which, in his mind, was crushing margaritas and winning cash tournaments in Baton Rouge.

“After that, I was constantly texting Joey, ‘Please let me play with you, one practice, one tournament,’” Hamilton said.

Ian Bicko and JD Hamilton at the tournament in Baton Rouge/JD Hamilton photo

Keener had no intention of letting Hamilton in his practice group. Not yet, anyway. The kid was still too young, too raw. He’d ruin the drills. One day, however, Keener’s group was a man shy, and Merceron, unbeknownst to Keener, texted Hamilton and asked him to fill in. He happily made the three-hour drive from Mobile to Kenner, Louisiana, where he met a shocked — and pissed — Keener.

“I wasn’t prepared for him to be there, because he sucked,” Keener said. “He was going to make our practice suck because he wasn’t that good, but he drove all that way so I had to let him do something. So I let him in the drills or whatever we did that day, and I told him when we break to play games, you can’t play. You might have fun, but nobody else is going to have fun. He took that pretty well on the chin. I’m big on passion and a little bit of talent will go a long way.

“I’ve seen these guys who will drive from Alabama through Mississippi all the way to New Orleans and they would come just to be a part of this group that we had. I stayed after and talked with him and said I know that sucked, but if you keep doing this, you’ll get your turn. Whether I let him play or not, he kept coming.”

Twice a week, every week, Hamilton would drive three hours to Kenner, practice for a bit, watch the games, then drive all the way back.

“It sucked, man,” Hamilton said. “It really stunk.”

He’s nothing if not persistent, Hamilton. Every week, he’d ask Keener to play in a local tournament. And every week, Keener would blow him off. Eventually, though, he wore him down, and Keener agreed to play a tournament in Navarre Beach, Florida, with Hamilton.

“JD was so bad that he didn’t have a high line. He had zero high line. He didn’t know how to hit it down the line,” Keener said, almost in disbelief. “The next game, we were about to play a team where I could throw my flip flops out and we would win, so I told him you’re only hitting high line. You’re only hitting high lines the whole game. So he works on high line the whole game, and then we’re playing against Matt Blanke and Jody Pigford the next game, and we win, and then we play Derek Zimmerman and Evan Cory, and it’s 21-21, JD hadn’t hit a high line the whole game, and I said ‘JD if you hit one high line we win this game.’ He hits angle in Derek’s lap, angle in Derek’s lap, we lose, and he goes ‘Dude are we going to play again?’ And I said ‘We’re not playing again until you hit a high line. Figure it out.’

Keener pauses. Laughs.

“I don’t know what he did, but that f***** came back with a high line.”

His rise in the area was quick. He evolved from being unable to hit an effective high line to winning virtually every tournament on the Panhandle. It isn’t saying much, given the scale on which he competes now. The only truly open player in the area then was JM Plummer, who was qualifying on the fledgling NVL Tour. Still: Through Keener, Hamilton had become the open-level player he aspired to become, someone who could crush margaritas and clean up and rake the cash prizes. Now he had his eyes on a new peak to ascend: Qualifying for a main draw on the AVP Tour.

Joey Keener sets JD Hamilton/Navarre Beach Photo

“You thrive in chaos”

We were up 12-8 or 13-7 in the third set. I can’t remember exactly which. What I do remember is that we were two, maybe three points away from qualifying for AVP Hermosa Beach. It would be a seminal moment in JD Hamilton’s life: His first professional main draw.

“I remember the last switch of the game,” Hamilton recalled “My legs were actually shaking. I was already fighting tears. I was like ‘Man, stay here, stay present. Come on man, it’s not over.’ That moment, I’ll never forget it.”

He had been envisioning that moment for more than a decade. Ever since he saw his first Fuds, since he learned about the Association of Volleyball Professionals, since he discovered that there was more to beach volleyball than crushing margaritas and hitting skyballs. His journey began, as most of his life had at that point, with utter humiliation.

JD and I played our first AVP qualifier together. New Orleans of 2015. God, we were terrible. Lost 21-19, 21-14 to a pair of Californians named Dillon Lesniak and Bryce Mayer. When we saw our draw and did the research, learning that we were playing a team from the vaunted West Coast, we were terrified. I was, anyway. Californians? We had no chance. We still have the video of that match. Had a good gas watching it the night before our main draw debut in Hermosa. It wasn’t so funny at the time, of course. We retreated to the bar at Coconut Beach, sorrowful and drunk.

We both persisted, in our own ways. I moved to the West Coast four months later. Hamilton tried and tried and tried again. Made it to the second round in New Orleans the following year with Evan Cory, when rain rendered the courts so unplayable that the AVP truncated matches to games of 11, 11, and 7. We gave it another go the following year, in Austin of 2017, losing our first match. He made it to the third round in New York, the final round in Seattle, and the final round in back-to-back qualifiers in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan with Christian Honer. Throughout, he was attending college while living on couches and in cars and even, for a brief stretch, on a sailboat. His wife, Summer, bless her heart, green-lighted the whole thing.

Who was she to stop her man from chasing his dreams, however crazy those dreams might have seemed? She had seen JD at some of his worst, and his pursuit of a wild beach volleyball dream was noble in a way. Here was a man who picked her up on their first date in a Land Rover he was restoring at the time. Hamilton had strapped the hood down with ratchet straps, and off they went.

“It’s so funny looking back on it,” Hamilton said, laughing. “What were you thinking?”

A few years later, in October of 2015, Hamilton dropped down on one knee in Fort Walton Beach and asked Summer to marry him. We talk a lot about angels, Hamilton and me. It’s my belief that the world is full of them, certain people dropped into our lives for specific purposes at the exact time we need them. Summer, I frequently tell JD, is his own personal angel, just as Dennis and his grandparents had been before her.

So no, she wasn’t going to make JD come back from California before he was finished attempting to do something that, for a kid born into poverty and a broken household in Mobile, Alabama, was virtually impossible to do.

JD and Summer Hamilton

“It’s so crazy how many people have helped along the way, especially with volleyball, because you’re so poor,” Hamilton said. “What other sport are you ranked 40th as a team and sleeping on couches and in the same car? I feel like in beach volleyball, if you’re paying to stay in hotels and you can’t afford it, you’ve done the whole thing wrong. Granted, if you can afford it and want to stay in a hotel, that’s different. If you’re having to pay for a hotel everywhere you go, you’ve done the whole thing wrong. You haven’t made the connections you’re supposed to make. You’re supposed to have friends in every state in beach volleyball.”

He has friends, all right. There are few who are as open with their resources — house, car, couch, garage, whatever — as Hamilton is. When he graduated from South Alabama in 2020, becoming one of the only members of his family to earn a college degree, and landed a job as an engineer in St. Petersburg, Fla., making an admirable salary, living in a three-bed, two-bath house with a big yard and a playground, rare was the evening that it was just Hamilton, Summer, and their son, Maverick, staying there. He opened his door to anyone passing through, often for weeks at a time. In return, Hamilton has enough social capital to have a place to stay virtually anywhere in the country, from Aspen to Tampa.

And yet, in spite of it all, in spite of emerging from the depths of his childhood, in spite of getting a degree and starting a beautiful family, in spite of growing into a wonderful father and doting husband, in spite of the big house in Florida, with the white fence and two dogs who lick you at the door, in spite of the job and the resources, Hamilton still, delusional as this may sound, felt like a failure.

He hadn’t yet qualified for the AVP Tour.

“The weight that JD carried, he sent me a message when he was 30 — ‘ I’m 30 and I haven’t accomplished anything yet.’ He just carried that weight,” Keener said. “But I told him this thing’s going to happen.

“His whole life has been an uphill battle from his dad getting murdered to his mom being a heroin addict. I told him 2023 has been a challenging year but you thrive in chaos. You’ve always thrived when things aren’t perfect.”

JD Hamilton and Joey Keener celebrate a point at Fuds/Sarah Demuth photo

“In the end, it’s about not quitting”

It was in a makeshift deer stand that JD Hamilton made his pitch.

“One Tour Series,” he told me in a hushed voice this past winter as we waited for a deer that would never come. “I just want one Tour Series.”

In the moment, I wasn’t sure. We had tried to continue playing a tournament every year or so, but, frankly, we just weren’t very good. We hadn’t won a match in the two qualifiers we’d played, and we played poorly in the 2016 Laguna Open and most practices we had in California that year. The only tournament we’d won was in Missouri in the dead of winter with limited competition. But I was entering a new phase in beach. My wife, Delaney, was pregnant. Who knew what I’d want from the sport after having a kid? By the end of the hunting trip, we’d agreed to run a Tour Series and a Volleyball World Futures event at some point.

Virginia Beach became that Tour Series.

I knew, as did most who have been in Hamilton’s life throughout his push for the AVP, that Virginia would be his best shot at qualifying. Though we had never played well together, I had also never been much of a player, more of a raw athlete playing beach volleyball than I was a beach volleyball player being athletic. Our skill sets, though, are the perfect complement: A right-handed left-side defender with exceptional ball control and a left-handed right side blocker with exceptional hands and a knack for options. We broke pool with little issue, and won our first round of playoffs easily, 21-14, 21-14.

The next day, we’d meet Ian Satterfield and Jake Urrutia in the final round, the round that had eluded Hamilton in four times trying. Evan Cory, one of Hamilton’s best friends and the partner with whom he played for several years before Cory switched to defense, texted me: “Go get that main draw!”

Chase Frishman, a defender whom Hamilton has admired for years, texted Hamilton a picture of a clock. The caption read, simply, “It’s time.”

We stole the first set, down three points for the majority of the set until, suddenly, somehow, we flipped it. Hamilton hit an ace down Satterfield’s line to give us the advantage, and we snuck another on the following point, winning, 23-21. There was no stealing the second, as we lost convincingly, terribly, 13-21. The pit in my stomach was deep and dark and awful. It was as nervous as I’ve been for a set as I can recall in my entire career.

Both sets we had gone down 5-1. To do so again in the third would be devastating. We didn’t. We did just the opposite, jumping on them: 4-1, then 7-3, 10-5. Neither of us remembers how it ended. The film froze. All I really remember is the final ball dropping, and JD putting his hands to his face, the surreal moment alas becoming real.

“It was nine, 10 years of delayed gratification,” he said. “I really wanted all of those years to become a professional beach volleyball player. When it finally happened I was like ‘Oh my goodness.’ I know I’m crazy but I’m not that crazy, right?”

To most, he does seem crazy. Here is a man who paid for much of his college tuition by winning cash tournaments on the weekend in Alabama. He’s lived in cars and on couches and in boats with pots and pans collecting rainwater. He quit a great job with a great salary to buy a trailer and move to New Orleans to train and coach beach volleyball, all with a wife, son, and two dogs.

All of that sounds crazy. To many, it is.

But crazy also allowed JD Hamilton to feel what few get to feel: The ultimate satisfaction of a dream chased, and a dream caught. He is the proverbial dog chasing the car, only he caught the car and took it for a drive.

“After he won in Virginia, he cried and the weight was just off of him,” Keener said. “This dude has bled it for how many years?”

“It’s been a pretty long time. I’ve been trying now eight years,” Hamilton said. “It was very difficult. It’s nice to say I did it. I don’t have to have that feeling of what if. I did it. That’s my favorite part of it all. There towards the end, the last year, it’s been do I really want to keep doing this? Mostly, it became about not quitting. I don’t want to just quit. That’s what feels good to me. I did it. It’s great. I feel happy. But in the end, it’s about not quitting. It was more about not quitting than it was the original goal.”

Travis Mewhirter and JD Hamilton celebrate qualifying in Virginia Beach/Travis Mewhirter photo

“We gotta be different”

JD Hamilton is sitting on Tri Bourne’s couch, cracking a Lake Hour seltzer. Trying to settle the nerves before we hit record for our podcast.

“It’s super surreal to me to be on a podcast with Tri Bourne,” he says. “Being in Alabama, you only watch the game. It’s like being as disconnected to the game as we are to the NBA. For me and for a lot of the people on the Gulf Coast, that celebrity image is bigger in our heads than it actually is.”

Bourne gets a good chuckle out of this. He has seen the game all over the world, from Switzerland to China to South Africa and Australia, yet he has never considered the impact he is making on the small but mighty beach communities across the country. He gets a good chuckle, too, when he asks Hamilton about his training, and Hamilton responds by telling him that he gets out with Summer, Sarah Senft, the head coach at Spring Hill College, and Aiden and Nico Carroll, a pair of young players in the area. He’ll put pool noodles through the net to simulate a blocker, and put a chair in the high line. If he hits the noodle or the chair, he has to run sprints.

And that’s kind of it. The secret sauce. That’s how JD Hamilton became an AVP professional in the year 2023.

Bourne’s in disbelief.

“It’s so cool the sport can provide that,” he said. “Just the drive to get one more. Just from a life perspective.”

It’s freeing for Hamilton, how he got here. Who he is, his journey, the way he trains — there are no expectations when he comes out to Hermosa Beach, seeded 14th and matched up with Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander, a pair of Olympians and one of the top teams in the country.

“How often do you get to play beach volleyball and know that there’s no expectations?” he aks. “I love playing in my hometown. I love playing. But when you play locally you’re kind of in a lose-lose. If you win, you’re supposed to win. If you lose, you hear about it. For this tournament, my approach is I can just leave it out there. I’m just going to go out, ball out, there’s no stress, I’m playing with one of my best friends. I’m so excited. That’s my approach. I’m so grateful to be here. Gonna make me tear up. I’m super thankful. That’s my approach to it all. Even if I’m stressed in the moment, I’m always going to remember how unique this moment is.

“I’ll compare it to a little league game. You always wanted to win, because losing sucks, but you always — having fun is your main goal when you’re a little kid. That’s what Hermosa is going to be like for me.”

We have fun until we don’t. We’re competitive in the first set, losing 18-21. We are not in the second, whacked 10-21. Hamilton is embarrassed.

Humiliated. Again.

“Bro,” he says that night, “I’ve never had someone do to me what Taylor Crabb just did to me.”

Crabb dug 10 balls and limited Hamilton to 3-for-19 hitting, the worst percentage in the tournament. Per usual, however, it is from humiliation that Hamilton ascends. Per usual, it was the words of Joey Keener, as well as our own coach for the weekend, Mark Burik, that lifted Hamilton.

“I’d tell him ‘Guess what JD? 6-footers don’t make it,’ ” Keener said. “He’d grit his teeth and say ‘What do we do?’

‘We gotta be different.’ ”

The next day, we get different. Dave Palm and Rafu Rodriguez serve JD roughly 90 percent of the balls, yet I finish with 31 attacks to JD’s 19. Two evenings before, Burik had installed a makeshift offense, tweaking JD’s passing on deep float serves to put me in a position to attack on two from the other pin. It works, as we win 22-20, 21-19.

“JD if there was ever any question whether you belonged or could do it at the highest level in America, no more question about that,” Burik tells us after. “Now we ride.”

We ride some more in the following round. Same thing: Over and over and over again, Chase Frishman and Bill Kolinske serve JD. Over and over and over again, he passes up option balls. Over and over and over, there is no answer. I hit 36 to JD’s 21, and we win, 21-18, 21-19.

“What y’all did, you can’t get much more different than that,” Keener said. “He’s optioning spiked balls. Not a free ball. A spiked ball. That’s not easy. Those angles aren’t easy. He’s just throwing it up like whatever. Y’all were must watch.”

The magic runs out against Chase Budinger and Miles Evans. I still option plenty, but the efficiency is gone. I hit my worst percentage in the tournament, a paltry .290. We are outclassed, plain and simple, 14-21, 17-21. Neither of us are upset. We’re exhausted and thrilled. JD didn’t simply make a main draw and leave as most of us do on our first attempt, with two losses and our tails between our legs. He makes it and makes an impact, winning two matches, and finishing seventh, ahead of a cadre of notable professionals who have been doing this for years.

“A dream finish in the best beach town in the world,” Burik said. “How many millions of people would give anything to be on the stage we’re on and playing great?”

We celebrate with pizza and poke, JD’s son playing with mine, my wife chatting with his. A circle complete. People weren’t wrong when they said we were a good story, the writer and the redneck. They just had no idea how deep that story ran.

“I think about who I was when I was fangirling Ty Tramblie, and I would be so happy to meet myself,” Hamilton said. “I just want to continue doing that with my life. The want for more after that is fading. The feeling to look up to myself again when I’m done with this journey, I’m trying to figure out what that is.”

JD Hamilton and Travis Mewhirter celebrate Hermosa Beach with their families/Delaney Mewhirter photo

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