Indiana coach dedicated to stopping youth violence is killed in shooting

A man who had dedicated his life to steering children out of the path of violence was gunned down Wednesday night while riding in a vehicle in Greenwood, Indiana.

Officers responded to the shooting near Interstate 65 and County Line Road and found a man with gunshot wounds in the passenger seat of a white van around 6:30 p.m. CT. He died at the scene, according to Indiana State Police.

The man was identified as Richard Donnell Hamilton, 43, according to the Johnson County Coroner’s Office.

But to hundreds of families in Indianapolis, the man was known as Coach Nell.

A coach, mentor, father and friend

Hamilton was the founder of the Indy Steelers youth football team in Indianapolis, which he started with a simple motto: Mute the echoes of gun violence so children can learn a better way.

Hamilton was born and raised in Butler-Tarkington, the near north side neighborhood where the Indy Steelers play. He earned an athletic scholarship from Western Kentucky University, where he was later kicked off the team and lost the scholarship for having guns in his car. He spent 18 months in prison.

The coach previously told IndyStar he believed his past broadened his ability to reach Indianapolis youth also undergoing hardships like death in the family, gun violence and being surrounded by substance abuse.

‘I been through what you’ve been through,’ he explained. ‘Your struggle is familiar to me.’

Starting in 2005, he served as coach, mentor, father, big brother, uncle and teacher to the hundreds of children who came through his program.

Lacey Nix, whose sons played for the Steelers, said Hamilton’s example reverberated among his players.

‘The way in which he turned his life around has literally been a road map for so many of these kids,’ she said. ‘So when the kids are in trouble or peril, he can speak to them because he’s been there before.’

Families whose children played in the Steelers said it’s hard to overstate Hamilton’s impact on their lives on and off the field. When a player’s house burned down, the team and their families banded together to make sure the children had everything they needed. Nix also said Hamilton and his wife hosted a food drive every Thanksgiving and gave away turkeys to people along 38th Street.

‘When you come into the Steelers and Coach Nell’s world, you become part of something bigger,’ Nix said. ‘You’re not just part of a football program, it’s a family.’

The Indy Steelers were the focus of a 20-minute documentary released by IndyStar in March 2021 after the newspaper’s journalists spent more than two years with the players and families of the football team.

Hamilton and the Steelers received news this week that their field will undergo much-needed improvements through a Lilly Endowment grant — a goal of the coach’s for over a decade. The coach in a post on Facebook praised the news, saying it will be great for the community.

Nix said that goal for the players to have better playing conditions won’t stop now.

‘I’m just confident that in the end of this, you will see the Steelers take the field again. You’ll see his dream of having that field at Tarkington Park come true,’ Nix said. ‘All the things he worked for, for so long, will happen.’

What’s known, and not, about the shooting

The van Hamilton was riding in was targeted by occupants of another vehicle as they exited I-65 northbound to County Line Road, according to state police. It is unknown at this time how many shots were fired or the exact motive of the crime, police said.  

Investigators believe the shooter was in a silver passenger car. Detectives are asking anyone with dash cameras who were in the area of I-65 and County Line Road from 6:20 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. to review their recordings and contact police.

In an update Thursday, police said they are continuing to speak with witnesses who have come forward and  examining evidence at the crime scene.

The Indiana State Police can be reached at 317-899-8577. Anybody with information about the shooting also can anonymously report information to Crime Stoppers at 317-262-8477. 

Public safety reporter Jake Allen contributed to this article.

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