FORT CARSON, Colo. — Being cut by the New Orleans Saints hit Jonathan Hamm like a punch to the gut.
Now, he is the one delivering those body blows inside the boxing ring.
Who knew the pass rusher would be even more adept at socking opponents than sacking quarterbacks?
Well, Drew Brees for one — at least in a roundabout way.
As a devastated Hamm trudged out of the Saints' door that day in 2007, the Pro Bowl QB stopped him in the hallway and told the impressionable defensive end that he would rise to the top one day.
Hamm has done it as a fighter after his football career was KO'd.
Following a stint with the Saints that was cut short by injuries, along with stopovers with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, two indoor teams, and a role in a critically acclaimed film in which he starred as a — surprise, surprise — football player, Hamm ventured into the world of boxing. He has proven to be a quick study of the sweet science.
This week, the super heavyweight is attempting to put himself back on the path to land a spot at the 2012 London Olympics through a requalification process. The first step is working his way past a loaded bracket at the U.S. boxing national championships, with the finals set for Saturday.
That he is even in this position still bewilders Hamm because it was at a friend's behest he even took up boxing.
"Every time I step into the ring, I'm still scared to death," said the 28-year-old Hamm, who won his bout Thursday to move into the semifinal round. "But after a win, that's the best feeling in the whole world. It's better than getting a sack in the NFL, better than anything I've ever had in my life."
The newcomer has been winning quite a bit lately, even capturing the national title in 2011.
Hamm was the favorite at the Olympic trials last summer, only to get upset by another up-and-comer.
Given his late start in boxing, Hamm figured that might be his best shot at the Olympics.
But the winner at the trials, Lenroy Thompson, had to finish in the top six at world championships to retain his position on the team. Otherwise, it went back up for grabs.
"I was rooting against him," said Hamm, who is 6-foot-7 and weighs 250 pounds — down 45 from his football playing days. "I wanted that opportunity. I wanted another chance."
He received it when Thompson didn't meet the criteria at worlds. Just like that, the Olympic spot at his weight was open again.
Then, on the cusp of the championships starting, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced the suspension of Thompson for failing to meet the requirements of disclosing his whereabouts so he could be found for out-of-competition drug testing. Thompson, one of the biggest challengers in the division, is out for one year.
If Hamm were to take nationals, and then produce a high finish at a qualifier in Brazil this May, he could represent the weight class.
That is something he is trying to put out of his mind for now, even if he has the Olympic rings drawn on his tape in green magic marker before he slides on his gloves.
"Gives me some confidence," Hamm explained. "No way I thought I'd be here."
It's been an adventurous route to the ring for Hamm.
He played football at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College before landing at Southern Illinois. He then played a final season at Clark Atlanta University, where he had three sacks and two blocked kicks for the Panthers.
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