Carolina Panthers

West Charlotte grads on parallel paths in NFL

Panthers assistant coach Steve Wilks, left, is a West Charlotte High grad. He will be coaching against another former West Charlotte quarterback, Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, on Monday night.
Panthers assistant coach Steve Wilks, left, is a West Charlotte High grad. He will be coaching against another former West Charlotte quarterback, Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, on Monday night. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Panthers secondary coach Steve Wilks received a text this week from Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. The two grew up five houses apart in the Hidden Valley neighborhood in northeast Charlotte.

Hamilton wasn’t texting to catch up with Wilks or talk shop. He needed tickets for the Panthers-Colts game Monday night in Charlotte.

The former West Charlotte High quarterbacks will meet Monday at Bank of America Stadium, about a 12-minute drive from their old neighborhood. They plan to visit before the game, but then it will be back to business for two men chasing their dreams of becoming NFL head coaches.

“I knew Pep, from early on, that he was going to be a good football coach. The guy’s very smart,” Wilks said Friday. “He had that knack when he was at West Charlotte (as) quarterback. You could see that talent level within.”

Wilks, 46, is five years older than Hamilton, who idolized Wilks as a young football player. The two played the same position, for the same coaches, in the Police Athletic League and at J.T. Williams Middle School.

When Hamilton was in middle school, his father Al Hamilton – a longtime Charlotte police officer – let him ride the bus with West Charlotte’s football team to practice one day. Hamilton recalls sitting with Wilks on the bus as one of the highlights of his childhood.

“I was also able to carry Steve’s helmet, and I actually put his helmet on on the activity bus and wore it for the entire time to the football practice,” Hamilton said in a phone interview this week.

Wilks says Hamilton was the better athlete who was a gifted passer, as well as a basketball player. Wilks was more of a running quarterback at West Charlotte and was good enough to play defensive back at Appalachian State from 1987-91.

Hamilton was a quarterback at Howard and planned to go into banking after graduating. At the end of his internship at Bank of America in the summer of 1996, his boss rewarded him by taking him to the Panthers’ first preseason game against Chicago in their new stadium, then known as Ericsson Stadium.

Bank of America offered Hamilton a $50,000-a-year position in its management training program after he graduated in the spring of 1997. He also had an offer to coach quarterbacks at Howard.

With his dad advising him to take the corporate job, Hamilton asked Bank of America to push back his start date until the following January after football season was over.

“They’re still waiting for me to start,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton, 41, stayed at Howard five seasons before jumping to the NFL. He’s worked for five organizations, serving as the Colts’ coordinator since 2013.

Wilks, a college coach for 11 years, and Hamilton worked together for two years in Chicago for former Bears coach Lovie Smith before Wilks left for the Chargers and Hamilton went to Stanford.

With children about the same age, their families are close. “Our wives probably talk more than we do,” Wilks said.

Wilks and Hamilton hung out at the Pro Bowl in 2013 when Carolina and Indianapolis coached the game, and their families get together at Myrtle Beach during the summer.

Both are expected to be in the mix for head coaching jobs in the next year or two.

“I think it’s just a matter of time for him. I think he has that ability in him,” Wilks said of Hamilton. “Very smart guy, great leadership skills and very innovative when it comes to offense. I definitely see that within him.”

With the Colts’ 3-4 record and rumblings about coach Chuck Pagano’s future, it’s not surprising Hamilton didn’t want to look too far ahead.

“The nature of this profession is you just hope to keep the job that you have for as long as you can,” he said.

Wilks has been a head coach previously, going 5-6 at Savannah State in 1999.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera gave Wilks the title of “assistant head coach” this past winter, and Wilks ran two training camp practices in August when Rivera left to attend his brother’s funeral.

“Steve’s a very bright young man with some aspirations, and deservedly so,” Rivera said. “I think he’s been a big part of the success we’ve had. I think he and (defensive coordinator) Sean (McDermott) work very well together and I think he’s done a great job with our defensive backs.

“And I feel very comfortable if I’ve ever had to step out. When I’ve had other things come up and he’s taken over, he’s done a very nice job for us.”

Wilks said he’s focused on his work with the Panthers’ defensive backs, who Monday will face a Colts receiving corps that Wilks called one of the best Carolina will face.

But first there was the matter of helping Hamilton out with his tickets.

Both Hamilton and Wilks believe they’ve been a source of inspiration for residents of Hidden Valley, a predominantly African-American community that has been plagued by gang violence.

Hamilton said there have been so many negatives surrounding Hidden Valley in recent years that the positives sometimes get overlooked.

“A lot of people vicariously live through us. And we accept that,” added Wilks. “Where we come from and the things that we’ve done, we hold it proud. Hidden Valley means a lot to us, as well as to West Charlotte.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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