Rutgers’ Darius Hamilton clears up 2-year injury mystery: ‘Not all said and done’ when NFL Draft passes

As recently as last year, when he was with Rutgers teammate Leonte Carroo for his life-changing moment, Darius Hamilton dreamed of the time when his phone rang during the NFL Draft. Instead it will be a quiet, nerves-less weekend for Hamilton, who is at home recovering from double patella tendon surgery that shut down his draft training but renewed his hope … even if it means taking the undrafted route. “I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t a little disappointed with the situation that I’m in right now,” Hamilton said, “but I’ve been blessed enough to have an opportunity where it’s not all said and done for me. I can get healthy and still play football at a high level. I don’t care how I get there, as long as I get there.” Mystery hung over Hamilton’s final two knee-injury-plagued seasons at Rutgers, but the 2014 All-Big Ten defensive tackle got some answers in February and now he is sharing them for the first time with NJ Advance Media in advance of his comeback. Rutgers offensive coordinator Jerry Kill kept his play-calling ‘vanilla’ during the spring game, but here’s a checklist for him to accomplish before the Sept. 1 season-opener “I went to the NFLPA (Collegiate Bowl) and had a good week of practice,” Hamilton said. “I showed a lot of people things I wanted to, but we were doing rehab for my knee — nothing too crazy, just trying to maintain — and I wanted to know where I was at physically. We got images done. It came back that my patella was 70 percent torn.” That was just half the issue. Hamilton turned to Giants team physician Dr. Scott Rodeo, whose tenure began when Darius’ father Keith was one of the team’s stars, for help. “Obviously, the injury was a lot more serious than I thought initially,” Hamilton said. “I played the whole season with two 70 percent torn patellas.” The recovery timetable is 3-4 months, but Hamilton said that his physical therapist tells him he is “a long way ahead of the curve.” Once he gets Rodeo’s clearance, Hamilton plans to host a Pro Day-style workout for NFL scouts at Rutgers in mid-June. At a time when rosters are full after rookie mini-camps, the former five-star recruit could be a free-agent sleeper. “I’m excited to be 100 percent for the first time in a long time,” Hamilton said. “To have a doctor who has seen a lot of these same injuries do surgery on me and let me know that he thinks I’m going to be back playing at a high level was really exciting. “I think he was kind of amazed that I was able to do as much as I did with my knees like that, especially my last season with the amount of weight that I had gained.” Under first-year Rutgers coach Chris Ash and strength and conditioning coordinator Kenny Parker in 2016, Hamilton bulked up to 286 pounds — from the 240s — in the image of a prototypical Big Ten and NFL interior defensive lineman. “I think Coach Parker did a great job with helping me great ready to play,” Hamilton said. “I think he did the best he could with somebody who had two 70 percent torn patellas that we didn’t even know about. I’ll be grateful for everything he did for me coming into my senior year.” What happened Hamilton said he first partially tore his patella tendon when it would’ve been a season-ending injury as a senior at Don Bosco High School in 2011 and came to a crossroads after his breakout year at Rutgers. Both times he elected for a short-term fix over surgery. “It’s something I had grown accustomed to,” Hamilton said. “I played with it for so long and dealt with it for so long that pain as severe as it was just wasn’t a big deal to me. I learned how to manage it.” Except that the wear-and-tear ultimately warranted a medical “procedure” in the spring of 2015. Hamilton played just one game as a true senior and returned as a redshirt seniorwhose production dropped from 11.5 tackles for loss apiece in back-to-back seasons to 2.5 in 2016. “The surgery that I just had is the first time that I ever had surgery,” Hamilton said. “When I had the procedure done, it was like, ‘We’re going to bring some scar tissue down with this needle.’ I’ve always been the kind of the guy who as long as I can get back on this field to help out my teammates, that’s what I want to do.” Rutgers’ quarterback situation won’t exactly put the concerns of Scarlet Knights fans at ease heading into the 2017 season. It was a case where the only three-time captain in the history of college football’s oldest FBS program probably needed to be more selfish. “It was told to me that it was a 50-50 thing that doesn’t work for everybody, but if it heals the right way than you are going to be able to play this (2015) season. On the other hand, you can get surgery and you’ll have to redshirt the whole season, but it will be fixed,'” Hamilton recalled. “I chose the less serious of the two because I wanted to play. Unfortunately, it didn’t heal the way it was supposed to. Instead of redshirting and just having the surgery like I should’ve, I ended up not playing at all and then still not having the surgery.” Hamilton also dispelled a popular rumor that the injury stemmed from a freak play at a Rutgers offseason camp. “It was an over-the-time thing,” Hamilton said. “I never got hit with a tackling sled or anything like that. Instead of getting it fixed, I’ve been putting it off. I wish I knew then what I know now. I would’ve just got it fixed when I should’ve.” What’s next Hamilton chatted with scouts at Rutgers Pro Day as his ex-teammates ran through testing, and he went to the Jets and Giants local Pro Days without participating. He wants team to understand that this is a blessing in disguise. “We could be talking about another whole situation where I was fortunate enough to make it into a (training) camp and I get hurt and I get cut,” Hamilton said. “I was fortunate enough to get in there before that was to occur. I was surrounded by great people who did a great job. The scars look good. My knee feels good in general.” The difference between a partial and a complete tear? Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz lost nearly two full seasons to a complete tear. But the way Hamilton sees it is he will be healthier than he has been since high school but with five years of college football savvy added to his skills. The prize in high school football recruiting is the 5-star prospect, but many don’t become NFL Draft first-round picks “My biggest focus is on getting an opportunity, and the people who know me know that I won’t let that opportunity pass me by,” he said. “Once I can get in front of scouts and I can show them how good I’m able to move once I’m healthy, I think that will open up a whole other conversation.” Hamilton is lifting weights again but estimates that he is probably about one month away from resuming football-specific activities, including leg strengthening exercises. “It’s something I’ve missed out on,” Hamilton said. “Everything I did for a long period of time in college was modified lifting. I think as a player I’ve got an opportunity to do some great things once I get my lower body caught up with my upper body.” Both are going to have to catch up to his fierce determination. As the son of a 12-year NFL veteran and one of the nation’s top recruits, Hamilton hasn’t been an underdog too often. “I’m going to enjoy it,” he said. “I’ve always been somebody who has just enjoyed playing football. A lot of people will be looking at it as beat the odds, but there are a lot of people who don’t make it this far. I’m going to do whatever I can to make my dreams happen.” Ryan Dunleavy may be reached at rdunleavy@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @rydunleavy. Find NJ.com Rutgers Football on Facebook.