Science Hill senior linebacker Luke Hampton suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the season, but it’s easy to think you still see him on field.
Hampton’s identical twin brother, Levi, is also a linebacker. And after Luke spent nearly 21â„2 hours in surgery on Sept. 9, Levi spent some 21â„2 hours that night wearing Luke’s No. 7 jersey while knifing through Morristown West’s blockers at Burke-Toney Stadium.
The Hamptons’ father, Jim, sent a momentarily confusing text to the hobbled Luke from Morristown during the game.
“It said ‘Luke already has eight tackles on the night,’” Luke said, “and then it said ‘Levi’s wearing Luke’s jersey.’”
Picturing his brother out there running around wearing his jersey was a stirring tribute.
“It was almost like a little overwhelming feeling,” Luke said. “You know, I kind of felt like crying.”
Levi did cry when he grasped the severity of Luke’s injury on Aug. 26 at Kermit Tipton Stadium.
“Whenever it first happened in that Elizabethton game, I was just tore up about it and I was praying that it wasn’t his ACL,” Levi said. “It turned out it was his ACL and his meniscus and just tore up his whole knee. So that was emotional. I got a few tears going whenever that happened.”
Levi was the last player to touch Luke on the ill-fated play. They barley touched each another in the air while attempting to block a punt and Luke had an awkward landing on his left leg.
“I was coming from the right side and Luke was coming from the left side,” Levi said. “We both jumped at the same time. On the film, it looks like I kind of nicked his shoulder — his upper body — whenever we were in the air and that kind of, like, twisted his body.
“I don’t know if that had anything to do with him landing on it wrong. It may have. It wasn’t anything with contact. He just landed wrong on it. It was weird.”
Luke says he’s at peace with the fluke injury, although it’s taken some tossing and turning to get there. He’d worked so hard, really since the age of nine, to arrive at the point where the 5-foot-10, 185-pounder was running 40 yards in 4.5 seconds.
What if he’d been playing on a soggy natural surface? What if he hadn’t been wearing brand-new cleats with long spikes? What if he and Levi hadn’t touched while going as they had for nearly 10 years — full bore?
But Luke says Science Hill Stacy Carter discussed something before the season that helped prepare him for a premature ending.
“Coach Carter talked about how football is just something you do, and that it should not define you,” Luke said. “And I started thinking about that and I realized I was putting football way too far up the totem pole on my list of things important in my life. So I started working on getting my priorities straight and I realized football shouldn’t be the number one thing in my life. It should be God first and foremost, my family and then everything comes after that.
“So I think in a way maybe God was preparing my heart for that moment. When it did happen — I mean it was tough just knowing you’d never be able to play football the rest of your high school career and I’d worked pretty hard up to that point — but I feel like God just really gave me a peace about it.”
The injury has given Luke a chance to reflect on 18 years with a mirror image. Luke and Levi began playing football two seasons for Tony Metcalf’s Cowboys when they were nine.
“Tony always said ‘You’ve got to have attitude to play this sport,’” Luke said, “and I really took that to heart.”
Little League Baseball coaches Gary Tinn and Frank Anderson helped highlight the value of hard work, and Junior Toppers Football founder Bart Lyon was a strong influence.
“Bart taught me a lot about respect and what it means to win,” Luke said. “He was definitely one of the best coaches I’ve ever had.”
Of course, Luke’s favorite season was probably playing for his father, Jim, Brian “Candy Man” Gibson and Jimmy Bowman when he was 12. Their Junior Toppers Red team won the championship thanks to an exciting win against the Junior Toppers Gold. Luke says the Gold team, coached by Science Hill running backs coach Gary “Shorty” Adams, included such players as O’Ryen Scott, Grant Janeway, Jamaal Stephens, Chad Pritchard and Kyron Bristol, and the competitive juices of “Candy Man and Shorty” intensified the rivalry.
“We had me and Levi, Will Adams was a big part of the team, Alex Lundberg, Jordan Olson, Pooh (Juan) Forney, Josh McLaughlin, Brett Hill and (Jahmar Adams) … I thought it was the Dream Team,” Luke said. “It was a good game, back and forth and back and forth. Now, that I remember, I had actually left the game in the third quarter because of my left knee. I had got tackled wrong and I sat out the second half and Levi took over at quarterback. …
“It was at Memorial Stadium. We were so excited playing at the big stadium; that was always a treat for us.”
Jim Hampton played defensive back in college at Liberty.
“He played safety in high school and corner in college,” Levi said. “He was a pretty good football player. … He claims he was faster than us. I don’t know if that’s a true story or not. Luke ran a 4.5 and I ran a 4.6.”
The twins have seen enough highlights to know dad was no slouch.
“I watched some of his Liberty film,” Luke said. “We go to visit every year at Liberty, and his fellow players from the past always talk about how big of a hitter he was and how many headaches they gave him, especially the receivers. I think hard hitting just kind of runs in the family.”
Luke and Levi each made interceptions in their first career starts. Luke returned his 75 yards for a game-tying touchdown midway through the third quarter of Science Hill’s season-opening 24-21 defeat of Soddy-Daisy at Memorial Stadium in 2009.
Actually, Luke made an interception in his final game. He read Elizabethton’s bubble screen/slant rout on the game’s first play from scrimmage and intercepted the slant pass to give Science Hill possession at the Elizabethton 28-yard line. Science Hill scored a TD two plays later.
“My first start as a sophomore I got that pick six, and it was nice,” Luke said. “People say luck’s not true, but I really feel like that was a lucky moment. … That interception (against Elizabethton) was really just good coaching and good preparation.
“We saw that on film. We had been practicing it all week, and Coach (Paul) Overbay would throw a fit when we’d chase the bubble and they threw a slant behind it. … I guess the bubble slant has always been Coach Overbay’s, kind of, little pet peeve. He just blows a gasket when he sees the bubble slant (work).”
Carter said Luke was likely destined for a productive season on offense and defense.
“He was arguably one of the best, if not the best, defensive player,” Carter said. “We were going to use him a bunch of different ways. When he got hurt against Elizabethton we tanked it for about a quarter. … He’s a phenomenal player and a phenomenal person.”
Carter won’t soon forget Levi’s performance while wearing Luke’s jersey.
“Levi had a great game that night,” Carter said. “His brother was having surgery at 2 p.m. that day. That was a tough night for him. So he wears his brother’s jersey. That was a neat thing.”
Luke is eight minutes older than Levi. That’s about the only difference. Science Hill defensive coordinator Ralph Nelson certainly suffers from double vision around them.
“It’s a joke between those two,” Nelson said. “If they’re standing right beside each other I still struggle to tell them apart. At least once a day I’ll call Luke ‘Levi’ and Levi ‘Luke.’”
Nelson’s not alone.
“I think Ralph just calls us ‘Hampton,’ but my grandparents can’t even tell us apart,” Luke said. “We switched places in school. We were homeschooled until the eighth grade, and we always thought growing up that it’d be the coolest thing to switch classes in a public school. And we started doing it and nobody realized it. …
“We’d do it, like, once a week. I remember one time we switched piano class and history class and I guess he forgot he had a test in his history class. So I went in there to his class, which I wasn’t in, and had to take a test for him. I think I failed it.”
The Hamptons did experience the stereotypical twins’ animosity at times while growing up. Everyone wants their own identity — competitive brothers perhaps more than most.
“When we were about four or five,” Luke said, “we got in a scuffle about something and I got really mad and said ‘You’re so ugly.’ And my aunt turned around and said, ‘Well, you look just like him.’ I think that was the day I realized how much alike we are. Pretty much whenever we’re dogging each other we’re dogging ourselves.
“Growing up, we always fought. We were so competitive with each other and … had to get the upper hand. I guess now that we’ve matured and grown up we realize how blessed we both are to have such a close relationship.”
Football was a license to roughhouse.
“Mom would never let us wrestle because we’d break something or hurt each other,” Luke said. “So football was the go-to sport. Instead of getting yelled at by mom, all the coaches loved us for hitting people.
“We were outside in the yard everyday playing wiffleball, football. We would do anything together. That’s my best memories in sports — not necessarily the glory and whatever comes with it, but just the true fellowship I’ve had with Levi.”
Being indistinguishable essentially translated into being inseparable.
“We did everything together,” Levi said. “We dressed alike. We’d go out and ride bikes together, skate. So for me, now, not playing football with him, I get kind of lonely out there just because I’m not used to it.”
There’s a chance either or both of the Hamptons will play in college. Carson-Newman has invited them to attend a game. Luke has also considered entering the military, and has quizzed Carter, a former Army officer, about the possibility.
If football is done, it’s been a great run.
“My best memories aren’t really on the football field; they’re in the backyard with Levi,” Luke said. “And there wasn’t really one or two plays (in football). I just liked knowing when I was playing on one side I always had a lot of confidence in Levi that whenever somebody ran over there that he’d make the tackle and get the job done. I had confidence he was right there with me.”
And in a sense, he still is.
“I just decided to wear Luke’s number to represent him,” Levi said. “Me and Luke, we’re really close. Twins — the pain that he feels, I feel as well.”