The chip on KJ Hamler’s shoulder is whispering sweet nothings in his ear again. Think you’re good enough for Russell Stinking Wilson? Talk is cheap, little man. Prove it.
That’s what LaTonya Gooding took away from UCHealth Training Center as she streamed her son’s news conference. It’s also the part she loved the most. If the you-know-what and vinegar is back, she reasoned, then the knee and the hip are back, too.
“I could tell on his expressions, from the way he’s talking, that he’s a lot better,” Gooding, Hamler’s mom, told The Post by phone Wednesday from Michigan.
“I can tell from over the phone how he’s feeling. When things are right, or if something’s wrong, I know.”
Moms usually do. When Hamler told scribes he had Tyler Lockett on the brain and his late grandmother Ethel in his heart, her ears perked up. When he dunked on the critics, the ones who say Wilson is taking a step down by going from DK Metcalf and Lockett in Seattle to Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy in Dove Valley, she laughed.
“I think we’re the best (receiving) corps in the league. Hands down,” said Hamler, who appeared in only three games last fall after ripping up his ACL — and, he revealed Wednesday, his hip — during a Week 3 rout of the Jets.
“Other people can say whatever they want, but that’s just my opinion. We’re going to do anything, everything, to work our (behinds) off, get back on that field. And show everybody what we can do.”
Hamler’s teased us. His body’s teased us. Broncos Country can still picture the kid with the 4.3 wheels in that preseason tilt at Minnesota last August, taking that 80-yard rainbow from Drew Lock to paydirt and leaving defensive backs eating his dust.
Hamler is confident that was an appetizer, not the apex. That he can be that guy for Big Russ, too, even after two surgeries. The dude who blows past defenders up the seam. The dude who turns broken plays into back-breakers whenever Wilson goes into scramble mode.
Hamler sees so much of himself in Lockett — smallish, speed-first targets — that he’s even reached out to the Pro-Bowl wideout, picking his brain on all things Russ.
“Just be in (Wilson’s) ear,” Hamler said Lockett told him. “Always ask him questions. Just basically being a sponge and absorbing stuff.
“Because Russ wants stuff very specific — ‘I want it at this spot, at this time, this area.’ So just picking his brain.
“I kind of see myself playing that type of Lockett role this year, so I’m just trying to be a sponge and just listen to him.”
From a rehab standpoint, this isn’t Hamler’s first rodeo, having torn his ACL while at IMG Academy back in August 2016.
“(The hip) was kind of a double whammy, really,” Hamler said. “That was probably the hardest part … I was in a dark spot for a while, going through that.”
The darkest point came in early January, at the end of another lost regular season. Mom could tell, even from 1,300 miles away, that something was wrong. The half-full, sunny, cocksure personality she’d known for years spoke over the phone with a hushed, cloudy quiet.
So she flew out to Denver on a Wednesday to visit and see about getting his head right.
“And then my mom passed on a Friday,” Gooding recalled.
Hamler’s grandma, Ethel Gooding, kicked the crud out of Parkinson’s disease and other ailments for years. She passed away four months ago at the age of 83.
Ethel wasn’t just a warrior. She wasn’t just KJ’s last surviving grandparent. She wasn’t just his baby-sitter whenever Mom was away at work.
She was his rock.
“(And) my best friend,” Hamler said. “In those days (when) I didn’t want to show up for therapy, I always thought about her. She’s doing therapy, so I’ve got to go do it. She wouldn’t give up.”
That chip? Ethel. That vinegar? Ethel. That drive? Ethel.
“He came home a week later and we talked,” LaTonya recalled. “I said, ‘Look, she would want this. She was the only grandparent who got to see you make to the NFL. She got to see this. She would want you to persist.’”
So he does. Every day. For Russ. For Broncos Country. For the haters. For the whispers. For the chip on the shoulder that won’t shut the heck up.
Most of all, for Ethel. Always.
“I won’t say that I’m out of that dark place,” Hamler said. “But I’m getting better, I can tell you that.”
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