South Carolina State has a storied history in football, including a growing and glowing legacy in professional football’s biggest game – The Super Bowl – which airs this Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on CBS.
When former S.C. State defensive back and kick returner Antonio Hamilton takes the field with his Kansas City Chiefs teammates at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium to battle the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV (55), it will mark the 19th time a Bulldog has played in the “big” game, and the second consecutive season an S.C. State player will have had an opportunity to earn pro football’s highest honor, a Super Bowl ring. One SC State player appeared in four Super Bowls, while four other Bulldogs played in two each.
Last season, Holly Hill’s Alex Brown, who also played in the defensive secondary for the Bulldogs (2015-18), earned a ring as a reserve cornerback for Kansas City when the Chiefs came from behind to defeat San Francisco 31-20 in Super Bowl LIV (54). Brown is still a member of the Chiefs, however, he sustained a preseason injury and did not play the past season.
Both Brown and Hamilton reached the NFL as undrafted free agents. Their journey to the Super Bowl took similar circuitous routes to pro football’s biggest stage. Hamilton, in his first year with the Chiefs, was signed originally by the Oakland Raiders (2016), then acquired via waivers by the New York Giants before landing in Kansas City as a member of the defending World Champions in April 2020.
Brown, who is in his second season with the Chiefs, was signed originally by the San Francisco 49ers, then acquired via waivers by Philadelphia, and later via waivers by the New York Jets before being signed to the Kansas City practice squad in September 2019 before being elevated to the active roster shortly before Super Bowl LIV.
Hamilton, who followed an older brother (Jakar Hamilton, who played at Dallas a couple of years) to S.C. State, did not get to participate in person in the week-long buildup to the Super Bowl -- questions from national and global media and tons of festivities -- due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he noted his experiences have been just as impactful.
“Preparing to play in the Super Bowl has been truly a great experience,” the Johnston native said by phone earlier this week. “We didn’t get a chance to go down and meet all the media and enjoy the usual festivities because everything has been done virtually due to COVID.
“But it’s real cool, a joy in fact, to be arriving at this moment in my career,” he said. “It has always been a dream of mine’s to play in a Super Bowl. I never knew how the timeline would develop but I was always looking for the opportunity for the stars to align. I actually took a pay cut to play for this franchise (Kansas City) because I believed it would be my chance to make history.
“And I’m so thankful that I have reached this moment and I’m happy for the support I have received from S.C. State, friends and, especially, my family, which surprised me by coming to the AFC Championship game for my birthday (Jan. 24). My wife, my two kids and my mother will also be down for the Super Bowl.”
S.C. State Coach Buddy Pough recalls Hamilton’s journey as a Bulldog.
“Antonio, around here, was known as Jakar’s little brother,” Pough recalls. “He had transferred in and was trying to find his way. His second year, he started to play a little, and by the middle of his third season, he was one of the best players on the team.
“He was not on an athletic scholarship but was an exceptional student in the classroom and eventually earned academic aid with an almost 4.0 GPA,” Pough said. “We eventually put him on an athletic scholarship, and that was during a time when we had so many scouts coming to our practices to evaluate Javon Hargrave and Darius Leonard (two Bulldogs having great NFL careers) and they noticed Antonio. One team (Oakland Raiders) gave him a chance and he’s made some great strides since then.”
Hamilton’s appearance in Sunday’s Super Bowl comes some 47 years after the first S.C. State player participated in the coveted game. Wide receiver John Gilliam, a Greenwood native, played in Super Bowl VIII in 1974 with Minnesota in becoming the first Bulldog to play in the big game. The Vikings lost 24-7 to Miami, which was playing in its third consecutive world championship, a rare feat.
Gilliam and his team returned to the big game the following year but lost Super Bowl IX 16-6 to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who counted among its defensive stars another Bulldog, Donnie Shell, who would go on to play in, and win, four Super Bowls with the Steelers.
“It’s every NFL player’s dream to play in the Super Bowl,” Gilliam said by phone. “And coming from a small HBCU like South Carolina State is quite remarkable. In fact, it does not get much better unless you win.
“Lots of great players play their whole career and never get a chance to play on football’s biggest stage. The Super Bowl is where dreams come true. Growing up in Greenwood and during my time at S.C. State, I would watch NFL games, the playoffs, the Super Bowl and dream about getting there one day, Gilliam said.
“First you have to make it to the NFL and I got that chance when New Orleans drafted me (second round) in 1967. I was later traded to St. Louis, then to Minnesota where I got a chance to play in my first postseason game and eventually the Super Bowl, which is the pinnacle of pro football.
“We lost on both my trips to the Super Bowl, but the experience was still memorable because I was playing for the guys back home, for S.C. State, opening doors and paving the way for others who realized that dreams do come true. I wanted them to be proud of me.
“We just played those teams (Miami and Pittsburgh) on the wrong day,” Gilliam jokingly said. “We played them on Sunday. If we had played them on Monday, we would have won.” Perhaps.
Shell, a Whitmire native, remains the top “Dawg” as it relates to the number of appearances in a Super Bowl with four, all with Pittsburgh. Joining Gilliam with two appearances each are Charlie Brown (XVII, XVIII), both with Washington; William Judson (XVII, XIX), both with Miami; and Chartric Darby (XXXVII, XL), with Tampa Bay and Seattle.
Brown and Barney Chavous, who appeared in Super Bowl XII with the Denver Broncos, echoed Gilliam’s recount of his Super Bowl experience.
“Playing in Super Bowl XVII (17) in the Rose Bowl in front of 103,000 fans, and catching the game-clinching touchdown that sealed our (Washington) 27-17 win over Miami, was just exhilarating, one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had,” Brown said. “As an NFL player, you work really hard to succeed and the goal is to one day get that ring. I was also thrilled at the opportunity to play against two of my former S.C. State teammates – William Judson and Thomas Tutson (not on active roster) of the Miami Dolphins.”
“Playing in the Super Bowl is the epitome of your NFL career,” said Chavous, who attended his first Super Bowl (VIII) as a Denver Bronco rookie after being named the AFC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.
“I remember seeing John Gilliam, a former S.C. State wide receiver, who was playing with Minnesota against Miami. I also met NFL great Buck Buchanan, who shook my hand, congratulated me on being named Rookie of the Year and told me ‘you will be in this game one day.’”
Buchanan was right as Chavous and his Bronco teammates would meet the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XII in the Superdome in 1978. They lost 27-10 to the Cowboys but he joined a chorus of NFL players to play on pro football’s biggest stage. Chavous later earned two Super Bowl rings as a member of the Broncos’ coaching staff.
Harry Carson, one of four Bulldogs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, earned the coveted ring in Super Bowl XXI when the N.Y. Giants defeated Denver 39-20 at Pasadena in 1987.
“The Super Bowl is pro football’s ultimate stage,” Carson said. “Some people are not aware all you go through in football. After being a part of a winning tradition at S.C. State, I endured some lean years with the Giants. I imagined myself playing in the Super Bowl, because that’s what all players are shooting for. But to finally get there and win, it’s hard to explain that feeling.”
Today, Hamilton’s hometown of Johnston, his family, as well as his former S.C. State teammates, Bulldog coaches and alumni will be rooting for the former Bulldog to get a Super Bowl ring and shine in the big game.
And with current Bulldog alums Darius Leonard (Indianapolis), Javon Hargrave (Philadelphia), Joe Thomas Jr. (Dallas), Temarrick Hemingway (Washington) and Alex Taylor (Cleveland) making their mark in the NFL, the Bulldog participants in Super Bowls should continue to grow and glow.
Bill Hamilton retired as sports information director at S.C. State after nearly four decades in the post. He is a member of the MEAC Hall of Fame and the recipient of numerous other honors for his service to the university and journalism. He reports on S.C. State as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.