Shelly Hammonds said the goal was to win the Big Ten. He was right, just only a year later.
Hammonds has one of the more distinguishable, if sometimes overlooked, Penn State careers in recent decades. He was a standout high school running back in South Carolina, choosing to play for the Nittany Lions over close-to-home programs such as the Gamecocks and Clemson Tigers.
At Penn State, he switched between defense and offense, setting the freshman record for running yards in a game against Boston College while also playing cornerback. Actually, that was the biggest adjustment for Hammonds, who said learning how to play corner after starring as a safety in high school took time while routinely going against the other team’s best receiver.
Playing both sides is incredibly difficult, with few players across all of college football doing so. Excelling in an area where so few do actually came naturally for Hammonds, as he explains it, since he “pretty much never came off the field in high school.” Hammonds, though, played all three phases of the game for Penn State, also returning kicks.
That leads us to that Big Ten premonition.
Coming into Penn State’s first season in the conference in 1993, Hammonds was the team’s leading returning rusher, though with a backfield that included future Heisman Trophy finalist Ki-Jana Carter, Hammonds focused mainly on his time as a cornerback and kick returner. He learned Penn State would start competing in the Big Ten after committing to the program, though if anything, the switch further strengthened his decision.
“We had high expectations for that season (1993), and we were super-hyped about being in the Big Ten and having an opportunity to further the Penn State brand to a conference,” Hammonds said. “Having an opportunity to play in the same conference as powerhouses like Ohio State and Michigan was going to help us expand the brand and put us into more households than we were before.
He added: “We understood it was going to be a challenge, and we truly expected it to be tough. I’ll be honest with you: Our expectation was to win the Big Ten that year. It didn’t happen, but that was our expectation.
Hammonds helped Penn State get going against the Gophers in Penn State’s season opener, returning four kickoffs for 148 yards, an average of 37 yards per return, as John Black ’62 noted in The Football Letter, recounting Penn State’s 38-20 victory at Beaver Stadium in early September.
Fans were surprised if they were expecting the old-school Big Ten style of play. The teams combined for more than 100 pass attempts, with Bobby Engram setting a school record with four receiving touchdowns.
Hammonds lined up against Engram in practice, noting that Engram’s quickness, route running, and ability to make tough catches made him so difficult to defend.
“Certain guys had that knack for making big plays — Bobby was that guy,” Hammonds said. “Obviously, his film bears that out. With his highlight films, he had the knack for making the big play.”
Penn State finished the season 10-2 — losing only to the Buckeyes and Wolverines — and capped the season with a dominant 31-13 victory over No. 6 Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl. Penn State entered the bowl ranked No. 13 and moved up to No. 8 to end the year.
The Nittany Lions finished 1992 with a 7-5 mark, with Hammonds saying that was one reason why there was such a strong emphasis to finish the ’93 campaign strong, which they did. Penn State won its final five games in ’93, setting the stage for one of the program’s most memorable seasons ever the following year.
“We ended on a high note by beating a really good Tennessee team, and that catapulted the team for the following season,” Hammonds said. “That’s the thing I remembered. We made up our mind the 1993 season wasn’t going to be a copycat of the 1992 season, where we went into a tailspin and never recovered.
Hammonds now lives in South Florida and works for the FBI. He typically tries to get back to campus at least once a year for a game, though his schedule is busy. In addition to his job, he has children who are active in sports.
He’s had a chance to meet James Franklin, saying he loves what Franklin is doing with the team.
“I respect what he’s done with the program, and what he’s done with recruiting. It’s been a tough road to travel, but he’s done a phenomenal job.”
There’s an additional connection for Hammonds with the program, with Wally Richardson overseeing the Football Letterman’s Club. Richardson is also a South Carolina native, and Hammonds helped host him during the recruiting process when Richardson visited campus.
Hammonds usually stays with Richardson when he comes into town, and those types of connections are meaningful, now and also back then.
Hammonds said folks back home might’ve been surprised he chose to attend Penn State, though he felt it was a natural fit. He noted Penn State’s academics and the team’s academic advisor just as much when talking about his decision to come here and play for Joe Paterno, with Paterno and other officials emphasizing life after football.
“Sometimes people get so invested in football, they forget it’s only a small part of your life,” Hammonds said. “You are so much more than that. For everybody, the game is going to end eventually. You have your whole life after that, and that’s the part that Joe preached. It’s what are you going to do after that, that’s going to matter.
There was a real sense he’d be taken care of, which was important to him and especially for his mom. Add that to Penn State’s ability to play for national titles, and that helped bring Hammonds away from the “hot bed” of South Carolina and Clemson, as he described.
“South Carolina and Clemson were huge,” Hammonds said. “It was probably a shock to a lot of people that I committed to Penn State, but coming here felt like the right place for me.”