By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
Wearing the number of a fallen teammate, No. 81 Brandon Hamilton carries a lot of weight on his shoulders.
Thankfully, they're pretty broad shoulders.
"It's just a little extra drive within my heart to keep pursuing my dreams and help my teammates go on," Hamilton said. "I get a lot of support, we all support each other, and we just use the incident to motivate us and strive toward our personal goals."
Consider one of those goals accomplished.
Hamilton ran for 138 yards and four touchdowns and Orlando Thomas turned a broken play into a 65-yard touchdown run as the Bulldawgs locked up the District 12-5A championship with a 36-12 victory over an undermanned Harker Heights in the season finale Thursday at Leo Buckley Stadium.
"It speaks volume for the dedication and the demeanor that we had, because to be honest, I didn't know what to really expect this year out of this team," said Bulldawgs coach Jack Welch. "We had some good skill people coming back, but we were very unproven."
After breezing through the district slate unscathed for its first outright district title since 2005, and only trailing in one 12-5A contest (Temple) all season, consider Cove (9-1, 7-0 12-5A) a proven commodity.
"It meant a lot because it hadn't been done in a long time, and us seniors, we know this is our last year and it was just something in our hearts that we really wanted to make happen," Hamilton said. "We've been working so hard for so long with each other, ... so it's just something we all wanted to accomplish so we could have that memory forever."
Thomas turned a mistake into a memory to solidify Cove's eighth straight win over the Knights. Mishandling the opening snap of the Bulldawgs second possession of the second half, the University of Texas-committed athlete gathered himself and turned the corner and simply outran everybody down the visiting sideline for a 65-yard score with 1:08 left in the third quarter. A two-point pass to kicker Eli Kuhns made it 29-6.
"The ball dropped out of my hands and I was like, 'Oh crap' and I told Brandon to just take off running and he just led me into the end zone," said Thomas, who finished with 109 rushing yards and 49 yards passing.
But it was Hamilton that paced the Bulldawg offense to an even 300 rushing yards, proving himself practically unstoppable anywhere inside Heights' 10-yard line with first-half touchdown runs of 9, 6 and 2 yards for a 21-6 lead at halftime.
"To me, he's a Jim Brown," Welch said, comparing Hamilton to the Cleveland Browns NFL Hall of Famer. "He ran with his shoulders down, his knees pumping like pistons, and he was so big, you didn't realize how fast he was until you ran beside him."
Heights coach Mike Mullins added: "He's so tough, a strong runner and determined - a super athlete."
Harker Heights (5-5, 3-4) was without its starting backfield of quarterback C.J. Rodriguez (knee) and tailback Marvin Jackson (ankle), turning the ball over to diminutive 5-foot-5 senior Greg Haynes, who danced his way to a game-high 177 rushing yards on 22 carries.
Despite the losses, the Knights still managed 301 rushing yards on 52 carries.
"I can't be more proud of the guys that stepped in for the guys that we hurt," Mullins said. "I couldn't be more proud of the way we fought this week, after coming off a tough loss (to A&M Consolidated last week), ... but once we once crossed the white lines, I thought we played really well."
But while the loss Thursday meant an even earlier offseason, the Knights may have found a rising star in sophomore tailback Marcus Anderson II, who carried the load with 24 carries for 112 yards and both Knights touchdowns (2, 7).
"He's so strong to be as young as he is and we've got to get him stronger and I think he'll be a real force for us," Mullins said of Anderson.