By Angel Verdejo
Killeen Daily Herald
COPPERAS COVE - Friday night's coin toss was another reminder for Brandon Hamilton and his Copperas Cove teammates that Rafael George is no longer with them.
Hamilton already has a reminder every time he puts on his uniform or any time he carries the football and an announcer says, "On the carry, No. 81."
That was George's number. The wide receiver would have been at Bulldawg Stadium on Friday for Cove's home opener - a 59-9 blowout over the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon, a select team of high schools from Monterrey, Mexico.
George died July 17 after receiving a gunshot wound to the head. His family members were present Friday and served as honorary captains.
"It's emotional every game that I play and every time I step on the field. I'm constantly thinking about him," Hamilton said. "It's just given me a little more drive to do what I do."
Hamilton, who first changed to No. 81 during Cove's opener against Southlake Carroll after his original jersey was too small, did just that in honoring his friend. The senior running back scored three second-quarter touchdowns in just over five minutes, turning a close 7-6 Cove lead into a runaway.
He finished with four on the day, with quarterback Orlando Thomas scoring twice on the ground (he added a record 100-yard interception return) and fellow back Vondareaz King adding one himself.
"We just outhustled them," Hamilton said. "Orlando did his job, the line did its job and I did my job. Then we'd get off the field and the defense would keep them scoring."
Nuevo Leon, which lost to Cove 49-6 a year ago, never stopped coming at Cove (2-1). The Tigres (1-2) even drove to the Dawg 1-yard line on the final play of the game, but time expired before they could run another play.
The Cove defense, however, didn't break, only allowing a first-quarter score and third-quarter field goal. On the lone touchdown, the Dawgs blocked the extra point.
It was the second block - Cove's Darius McClinton blocked UANL's first punt try midway through the first quarter. Thomas ran twice on the short field, scoring from a yard out to put Cove up 7-0.
"Those two things kind of got the momentum swinging on our side," Cove head coach Jack Welch said of the blocked kicks. "Then our offense started clicking and when our offense starting clicking, our defense wasn't breaking. We wanted to make them work for it up and down the field, and that was really the difference in the ballgame."
The Tigres answered on their next possession, but the Dawgs went to work.
On Cove's next offensive play, Hamilton went 44 yards, moving the offense from its 36 to the Tigres 20 in mere seconds. Thomas ran down to the 4 and two plays later, Hamilton scored to put Cove up 14-6 with 9:48 left in the first half.
Cove forced a punt but Thomas set the Dawgs up in UANL territory with a 38-yard return. Two plays later, it was Hamilton again, running in his second 4-yard touchdown.
The Tigres' next drive ended when Demarkos White intercepted a Victor Cruz pass. Cove finished with three interceptions, including Thomas' which broke the school record originally set in 2002 by Anthony McDowell against Odessa Permian (93 yards).
Thomas threw for 102 yards and added 61 yards on the ground.
Following White's interception, Cove needed five plays to score. Hamilton ran right for the 16-yard touchdown. He finished with 99 yards on 11 carries.
"I feel like that setback in my life is something I can hold on to, to let me know not to quit," Hamilton said. "You still have something to fight for. You got a second family to make proud.
"And since he can't do it, it just gives me extra drive to."