By CHUCK CANNON/Special to KPLC-TV
FORT POLK -- When Je'Ron Hamm was just a baby in Sulzbach, Germany, his dad said he got an indication sports would be a big part of his child's life — albeit not the sport he expected.
"We had a bunch of balloons on the floor and he would grab them and dribble them like a basketball," said Ronald Hamm, who retired as a first sergeant at Fort Polk in 2003 after a 20-year Army career. "I thought for sure he would be a basketball player."
And why not — both the elder Hamm and his spouse, Sonya, were high school basketball stars and all-round athletes. It was only natural their son would follow in their footsteps. But a chance meeting occurred as the youngster entered his junior year of high school — a football coach got his attention.
"I had always thought I'd play basketball," Je'Ron said. "I went out for football when I was at Leesville Junior High School, but it was only because my friends were playing and I wanted to hang with them."
But as he moved into high school, Leesville High School football coach Terrence Williams cornered the 6-foot tall wide receiver and told him he should take football seriously.
"Coach Williams told me I was too tall and too big not to be a good football player," Je'Ron said. " I started working at it and went to summer camps with friends like (former LHS and current LSU Tiger) Michael Ford and got better and wound up having an excellent senior year."
Je'Ron earned first team all-district, first team all-Vernon Parish and first team all-central Louisiana honors as a senior after setting the sin gle-season school record for receiving yards (750) and receiving touchdowns (8). He helped lead LHS to back-to-back district championships.
Je'Ron received a football scholarship to the University of Louisiana at Monroe. That might have been the end of the story as ULM is a school that had fallen on hard times since its move to big time college football in the 1990s. But this past summer, Je'Ron said he and his teammates committed themselves to be the best they could be.
"I gained about 15 pounds of muscle and dropped my time in the 40 (yard dash)," he said. "And then, the first game of the year, we played Arkansas."
The Razorbacks, a member of the powerful Southeastern Conference and ranked No. 8 in the nation, were expected to run roughshod over Sunbelt Conference also-ran ULM. But someone forgot to tell the Warhawks they were supposed to lose. With Hamm as one of the catalysts with six receptions for 92 yards, ULM pulled off the upset of the year, tackling Arkansas 34-31 in overtime.
"They beat us bad my true freshman year (31-7)," Je'Ron said. "We put in a lot of work. The only difference in them and us was their big name and the stickers on the sides of our helmets.
"It was a great feeling to see our fans travel up there (Little Rock) and to be able to give them a win. When we got back at about 2 a.m., there were about 1,000 students and fans at our stadium to welcome us home."
The victory laid the groundwork to a successful 2012 season that saw ULM finish 8-4 with a first-ever invitation to a bowl game — the Independence Bowl Dec. 28 in Shreveport.
Je'Ron said being a military dependent instilled in him a sense of discipline.
"It taught me to have a strategy and finish what I started," he said. "I never thought about quitting."
Je'Ron's mom and dad said they are both proud — and amazed — to see their son shine on the gridiron.
"It's amazing to see him play, not just on the football field, but also on television in front of millions of people and hear the announcer talk about how talented your son is," Ronald Hamm said. "It's nerve-wracking, watching him play against guys that are huge and hit hard. But we pray for God to cover him and all the players."
Je'Ron's mom, Sonya Hamm, said she's proud of how her son has developed into a man.
"My favorite saying is, 'You play until you win and quitting is not an option,'" she said. "I am in awe, amazed, it's surreal. I'm trying to embrace the moment."
As for a football career post-college, Je'Ron still has one game left this season and his senior year. But based on the numbers the proto-typical wide receiver posted this season — 58 catches, 862 yards, 6 touchdowns and selection as second-team all-Sun Belt Conference — it's a good bet professional teams will be watching him closely.
"I had not thought much about the pros, but when we played Arkansas, and I was able to get open against SEC-caliber players and run over them, I began to think I might have a shot in the pros," he said.
Dad sounded surer.
"I definitely think he'll be in the NFL," Ronald Hamm said. "He has the poise, mindset and physical ability to be successful."
And mom said she even hears from people she doesn't know that her son is destined for the NFL.
"It's (NFL career) not something I thought would happen, but I was in Atlanta last week, talking to a man I had not met before," she said. "He knew Je'Ron was my son and played at ULM and told me, 'I think we'll be seeing your son play on Sunday afternoons one day.'"
Which is a long way from bouncing a balloon on the floor of military quarters in Sulzbach, Germany.