TUSCALOOSA — Shelton Hamilton Jr. knew his little brother would be playing on Saturdays long before Shaun Dion Hamilton first strapped on an Alabama helmet.
Watching Julio Jones in the 2008 Under Armour All-America Game, Shelton Jr. turned to Shaun Dion and said, “This could be you.”
At that time, the current Alabama linebacker had just missed his eighth-grade season because of a torn labrum. However, Shelton Jr. knew better than to doubt his little brother.
“A lot of people forgot about him,” Shelton Jr. said. “He didn’t get a chance to play, and I just told him on his road to recovery, ‘If you put in the work, you’ll get there one day.’”
As an older brother, Shelton Jr. calls himself the Guinea pig of the family, a lead blocker of sorts for his younger brother. When Shelton Jr. received a scholarship to play football at Morehouse College, he immediately turned to his brother with a challenge.
“I told him, ‘I made it to a Division II school, so there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to make it to a Division I school,’” Shelton Jr. said. “I never really had to push him. For him and I, it was always like a challenge. I always told him, ‘Hey, you need to be better than me.’ That’s always been my thing with Dion. I always wanted him to be better than I was.”
Those challenges shaped Shaun Dion. They are what molded him into a star recruit on the field and a high school valedictorian off of it. Each step of the way big brother was there to remind him of his potential.
“I always knew he had a lot of potential,” Shelton Jr. said. “He’s a hard worker and he’s smart, instinctive and just from watching him play, he was always a tough kid.”
Shaun Dion’s fourth-grade teacher snickered when the youngster announced to the class that he was going to play in the SEC one day. Attending the prestigious Forrest Avenue Academic Magnet school in Montgomery, Shaun Dion grew up with kids whose dreams were to attend Ivy League schools and become doctors and businessmen, not 6-foot-0, 232-pound inside linebackers.
Education comes first in the Hamilton household. Shaun Dion’s mother, Diane, made sure of that.
The Hamilton boys both attended magnet schools until high school, where they switched to main-stream public schools so they could play football. Even then, books always came before ball.
“Having two young men, I knew that I wanted them to be involved in a lot of different organizations,” Diane said. “I wanted them to experience different cultures and different things. Sports is OK, and football is OK, but one day it’s going to end.”
It was a household rule that to play sports the Hamilton boys had to earn a B or above on their report card. That was never a problem.
Shelton Jr. went on to graduate as valediction at Jefferson Davis High School, which meant it was Shaun Dion’s turn to take the achievement one step further.
After receiving several offers Division I offers to play football, Shaun Dion became determined to graduate early to join a program as an early enrollee, something that had never been done before at Carver High School.
“He was a very self-motivated student,” said Monisha Dillard, Shaun Dion’s 10th grade English teacher and guidance counselor in high school. “I always called him a perfectionist because even when he would have things, he’d want to sit and talk to me and figure what he would need to do to make it better.”
Not only did Shaun Dion go on to become the first person to graduate early from Carver High, he also followed in Shelton Jr.’s footsteps as valedictorian, finishing high school with a 3.8 grade point average.
“It was huge,” Shaun Dion said. “After my brother earned valedictorian his senior year, it was alway a goal I set that I wanted to achieve.”
A 2009 Sports Illustrated cover featuring Tim Tebow still hangs on the wall of Shaun Dion’s room back home in Montgomery. The former Florida quarterback has always been one of his idols, not just because of his success on the football field, but also for his faith off of it.
“Shaun goes to church every Sunday,” his father, Shelton Sr., said. “He’ll play in a game late night Saturday night and still make it to church.”
Shaun Dion didn’t need a poster of his other role model. Shelton Jr. made sure to be a visible influence in his brother’s life.
“I wanted to set a good environment for him and be a great example for him,” Shelton Jr. said. “That when he grew up, he’d always be at the right place at the right time.”
More often than not, Shaun Dion was in the right spot for all the right reasons.
Four months after enrolling at Alabama in 2014, he was honored with the Jimmy Hitchcock Memorial Award, which is given annually to an athlete in Montgomery County who "displayed the most outstanding qualities of Christian Leadership in that sport."
"It's real humbling," Shaun Dion told The Montgomery Advertiser at the time. "I give all the honor and glory to God. My two hard-working parents, they trained me up in a way where I will not depart from that. Ever since I was a young kid, they've always stayed on me about Christian values, church, respect, honesty.”
When Shaun Dion hears “Let’s go Big-time” yelled from the stands, it can only mean one thing — pops is at the stadium.
Shelton Sr. gave his son the nickname during his sophomore season of high school during a game against Colquitt County (Ga.) High School in 2011. Days before his 16th birthday, Shaun Dion shined, registering 15 tackles against the Georgia powerhouse.
“I told one of my friends, ‘If he keeps playing like this, he’s going to go big-time,’” Shelton Sr. said. “The name just stuck. People from Montgomery know, Big-time is Shaun Dion Hamilton.”
Pretty soon the nation would learn his name, too.
Shaun Dion finished his sophomore season with 123 tackles. The following spring he received his first Division I scholarship from Miami. Shelton Sr. was ready for his son to commit on the spot, but Shelton Jr. advised his brother to wait.
Pretty soon an offer from Tennessee arrived, then Florida State, then Auburn. After every offer, Shelton Jr. preached patience.
Shaun Dion grew up rooting for Auburn despite being in a house full of Alabama fans. However, the four-star commit had his eyes on an offer from the Crimson Tide.
“That was the one school he felt like in order to be the best, you have to get an offer from Alabama,” Shelton Jr. said. “Whether he chose to go there or not, I feel like he wanted to get that offer. I knew that he was good enough to play there, it was just about getting a chance.”
The opportunity finally came, as Shaun Dion received his Alabama offer in February of 2013. He committed two months later before joining the Tide as an early enrollee in January of 2014.
Passing it on
Shelton Jr. said he still talks with Shaun Dion almost every night, reminding him never to be settled with his success.
Through seven games this season, Shaun Dion is second on the team in tackles with 40. He is also tied for second on the team with 7.5 tackles for a loss to go with two sacks.
“I still feel like there’s a lot of stuff he has to do in college,” Shelton Jr. said. “I know the goals that we set out, he hasn’t done half the things we put forth as goals. ... I feel like now it’s kind of a surprise to people what he’s doing. When he’s no longer a surprise to people, then he’s done what he’s supposed to do.”
Last season, Shaun Dion started in the Tide’s base defense but was substituted out when the team moved to nickel. This year, the junior has moved into the nickel package, taking the spot of departed linebacker Reggie Ragland.
Shaun Dion said he learned a lot playing alongside Ragland last season and refers to the current Bills linebacker as a big brother. In his third season with the team, Shaun Dion has stepped into a leadership role of his own, especially to fellow Carver High alum, Mack Wilson. Shaun Dion was in the auditorium when the five-star recruit committed to Alabama in February and has been in the freshman’s ear ever since.
“I tell him that even though he’s not playing much as a freshman, it’s important that you come in each day, get better and respect the process,” Shaun Dion said. “One day, he’s going to be where I am right now.”