(Eds: Adds details, quotes.) By PAT GRAHAM AP Sports Writer Being cut by the New Orleans Saints hit Jonathan Hamm like a punch to the gut.
Now, he's 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 one day rise to the top.
Hamm has at that - as a fighter after his football career was KO'd.
Following a stint with the Saints 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 where he starred as a - surprise, surprise - football player, Hamm ventured into the world of boxing. He's 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's even in this position still bewilders Hamm since 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,'' the 28-year-old Hamm said. ''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 his best shot at an 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's 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 as Thompson didn't meet the criteria at worlds. Like that, the Olympic spot at his weight spot was open again.
And 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's something he's 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.
Although undrafted, he signed with the Saints, figuring that was his best NFL opportunity. But he tore a quadriceps muscle and spent most of the time on injured reserve.
Then, he was released.
As he was leaving, he ran into Brees, whom he had developed a rapport with during his time in New Orleans. The star gave Hamm a quick pep talk.
''He saw something in me and said, `You're going to rise to the top again,''' Hamm recalled.
A budding boxing career was waiting. Just not yet.
Hamm still wanted to play football, spending time with the Alouettes, the New York Dragons of the Arena Football League and finally with another indoor team, the San Angelo Stampede Express, where he finished the `09 season with double-digit sacks.
In his thinking, that should've been enough for another NFL tryout.
So he dabbled in acting and landed a juicy role in the film, ''Big Fan.'' The movie centered on a middle-aged parking-garage worker from Staten Island, N.Y., and his passion for the New York Giants.
One night, he spots his idol, linebacker Quantrell Bishop, who's played by Hamm, at a gas station and follows the star to a club, where the fan ends up getting beaten up by Hamm's character.
The blows of a soon-to-be boxer.
Hamm had a friend who told him about All-American Heavyweights, a California-based program billed as ''building champions for a new era of boxing.''
He showed up and they were instantly impressed with his size and athleticism.
Only, they weren't quite sure he could cut it and were about to send him packing.
That's when his trainer, Jamal Abdullah, stepped in, pleading for two more weeks to turn Hamm into a boxer.
''I knew I could turn him around,'' Abdullah said. ''He's a good boxer. He could be better and once he gets the feel for the ring, he will be better.''
Still, the former pass rusher is well on his way to becoming a polished puncher.
''I've been through so much in my lifetime,'' Hamm said. ''It's going to make a great movie one day.''
Who would play the starring role?
''Me,'' he said, laughing.
Follow AP Sports Writer Pat Graham on Twitter: http://twitter.com/pgraham34