Photos | Courtesy John Hamilton
The topic of last week’s column dealt with Hobbit Park. This is a fabled destination — officially known in Mobile as McLean Park — where generations of participants gathered on Sundays for 40 years to play volleyball.
The impact of these “neighborhood” games has been long-lasting. However, no one may have been affected more than John “J.D.” Hamilton. The Mobile native has gone on to earn a place with the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) tour.
If a movie director pitched a script with what actually happened, it would be thrown out as unrealistic. And yet, it truly did take place.
“When I first started playing volleyball, I had gone to the park to do some skateboarding in a nearby ditch,” Hamilton, who now lives in Florida, told Lagniappe in a telephone interview. “I was 18 and a senior in high school.
“I saw some guys playing volleyball, and they asked if I wanted to play. They were down a man.”
Hamilton agreed. He would never regret the decision that fateful day.
“I actually had a great time,” said Hamilton, who finished at St. Paul’s Episcopal School in 2012. “Then they asked me back the next Sunday.”
Among those he met was Leonard Allen. One of the founders of the Hobbit Park experience, Allen has continued to this day to play in beach volleyball tournaments up and down the Gulf Coast.
“Leonard was the most proficient player there,” Hamilton said. “He used to joke with me and said I wouldn’t be good.”
However, Allen took the youngster under his wing. They eventfully made it to Fort Walton Beach, Florida, for one of the famous Fudpucker’s tournaments.
“There must have been several hundred teams,” Hamilton said. “I was still a senior in high school. You play where you rank, and I was on Court 200, like two miles down the beach.”
Still, that was all it took.
“I was super hooked the moment I got there,” Hamilton said. “Being around so many people inspired me.”
Hamilton would later enroll at the University of South Alabama (USA).
“I played with Yting, a Spring Hill College student from China,” Hamilton said. “We played doubles and won our first tournament that USA had put on in 2013.
“Then I kept pushing and won my first $100 in a tournament in New Orleans in 2015. That was insane and I will never forget it. My partner that day was Luca Antoni, who I had first seen at Fudpucker’s.”
With most of the AVP events in which Hamilton participates, the matching of partners can change each week.
“I try to choose the right archetype for success,” he said. “I am 6-foot-1, but that is a little short in the volleyball world. I need a taller partner that allows me to play defense. It goes both ways, as a taller player is also looking for a defensive player like me.”
To help sharpen his skills, Hamilton has received coaching from Joey Kenner, the founder and head coach of Premier Beach Volleyball at the Coconut Beach Sand Sports Complex in Kenner, Louisiana.
“I would drive twice a week for five years to New Orleans,” Hamilton. “All the way through college to practice with Joey. I have been with him since the time I could barely pass a volleyball.”
Leap of faith
Hamilton’s career started to heat up in 2016. It was then that he began pursuing his goals on a professional tour.
“I joined the National Volleyball League, which is a feeder tour for the AVP,” he said. “When I qualified in 2016, I am pretty sure that I was the first one from Alabama to do that.
“That was insane. I did not drop a set. I had been chasing this dream for three or four years, so it was a big deal.”
At that point, he decided to go all in. The move paid off.
“I was still getting my civil engineering degree from USA,” said Hamilton, who also found time to serve as an assistant coach for the powerful sand volleyball team at Spring Hill College. “I managed to pay for all my rent, clothes and food with volleyball. Without the sport, I could not have gotten through college. It was my entire income.”
Hamilton made another big move the next year.
“I went to Southern California for the pro tour in 2017,” he said. “I couch-hopped or slept in my car that entire summer.”
Because he was moving from the National Volleyball League, he had to qualify all over for the AVP.
“There were 12 teams in the main draw,” he said. “I got to play in the last wave. It is like pro golf, where you have to qualify each week.
“It was an arduous process. I started with no points and was at the bottom of the qualifying rounds. But I went from being ranked at 15,000 up to 53rd place.”
Being one of the few competitors from the Southeast always was a topic of discussion.
“They would always ask how I got into volleyball, and I would tell them about Hobbit Park,” he said. “These guys in California were groomed by pros. I was playing in a grass park with friends.”
Hamilton eventually made it back to Mobile to finish his degree. While at USA, volleyball helped him to encounter a young lady from Saraland.
“I met my wife, Summer, when I was a sophomore,” Hamilton said. “We were in the Rec Center playing volleyball. We did not get along at first, but we hung out with the same bunch. I finally asked for a date and the rest is history.”
Hamilton got his degree in 2020. He accepted a job in St. Petersburg, Florida, to work as a project engineer for Power Design, a company that helps to build high-rise buildings.
“It was the perfect location for me,” Hamilton said. “California and St. Pete are the two capitals of beach volleyball.”
Hamilton has continued to hone his skills. He joined with Nate Davis on Nov. 6 to capture the 10th annual VETSports Open hosted by the Tampa Bay Beach Bums.
“It was my second time to win there,” Hamilton said. “You get your name on a plaque that is sunk into the sidewalk. It was a really good day.”
In 2021, he also won the Sunshine Series Stop #4 on Feb. 27 (with William Rodriquez) and the Big East Men’s Open on May 22 (with Jon Mesko) to go along with several runner-up finishes.
However, perhaps the biggest highlight of the year came in April during the Fudpucker 4 Player beach volleyball tournament in Fort Walton Beach.
“I was part of an incredible team,” Hamilton said. “There was Evan Cory, my longtime playing partner for six or seven years; Travis Mewhirter, a writer for Volleyball Magazine; and Cody Caldwell, who was an NCAA star.”
The group, sponsored by the Vollis Beach Volleyball training academy, opened play on a Saturday for seeding purposes. By Sunday, they got into the semifinals. Waiting for them was a behemoth.
“That team had Jeff Samuels, who is really special and has made several main draws; Sean Rosenthal, a two-time Olympian in London and Beijing; Ed Ratledge, an AVP champion; and David Lee, who won gold in 2008,” Hamilton said.
With almost 2,500 spectators hanging onto every point, the Vollis team found itself down 14-11 with a game being to 15. Only the serving team could score.
“The support was crazy,” Hamilton said. “You could feel the energy. We were stuck at a stalemate for 25 minutes. We eventually went up 15-14 and finally won the match. People were throwing things in the air.”
The Vollis team would advance to the final match, which it easily won 15-3.
The next step
“This year was a big adjustment,” Hamilton said. “Moving here and working full time, and now we have a toddler [named Maverick] in our lives.
“I took off to enjoy December. I will start back in January to work out two hours before work, one hour at lunch, and then practice after work. My goal is to finish in the top 10 at a real AVP event.”
And it all started on a Sunday afternoon at Hobbit Park.
“I wish I could put on paper how much those guys have influenced me,” Hamilton said. “They helped to mold me into a better man.
“I have chased volleyball because of my love of the game. Hobbit Park is a very special place. It was the best journey of my life before my son and my wife.”
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