Will Hill was grieving with his family when the phone rang. It wasn’t a number he recognized and this wasn’t really the time to answer, but something told him it was important to pick up the call. He pressed the green answer button through a cracked screen.
It was the entire Hamilton Tiger-Cats defence. Gathered for a team meeting, they’d dialled up their new teammate and put him on speaker, collectively expressing their support for Hill and his family as they buried two loved ones. Hill put them on speaker, too, and the emotion flowed on both ends of the line.
“My family and I were shocked to be a part of that, ” Hill said. “You hear teams preach family all the time, but this one, they actually treated me like family.”
Hill was back in his hometown of East Orange, N.J., to mourn the death of two cousins, 19-year-old Dy-Shawn Simpkins and Kee-ayre Griffin, 29, who were shot to death shortly after midnight on June 9.
Police responded to reports of a shooting on the street and found Simpkins unresponsive in a vehicle, according to media reports. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Griffin died in hospital. The investigation is continuing.
Griffin and Hill were just two years apart in age, attended the same elementary school, middle school and high school. While Hill went to Florida for college, where he won a national championship in 2009, Griffin went to Temple, then had a tryout with the Eagles. Simpkins was on a break from Norfolk State University where he was on a football scholarship; Hill helped train him as he worked to get there.
It hasn’t been an easy road for Hill, either. Growing up in East Orange at a time when crime was rampant – there were 22 murders in a town of about 70,000 in 2003 – Hill says he was surrounded by violence. He lost a number of friends, and another cousin was killed while they were in high school.
“It was tough, rough environment, ” Hill said. “Anything can happen there and you have to look over your shoulder.”
Hill used football to get out. A star at St. Peter’s Preparatory School, he went on to Florida then, after a stint in the Arena League, signed as a free agent with NFL’s Giants in 2012. Over the next four seasons he played 50 games, including 32 starts, with New York and Baltimore. But he was also suspended four times: twice for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, twice for violating its substance-abuse policy. The last suspension led to his release by the Ravens.
The performance-enhancing drug in question was Adderall, a stimulant which NFL all-star defensive back Richard Sherman once claimed was used by “half the league.” Hill also tested positive twice for marijuana, which is banned by the NFL despite the fact that its recreational and medicinal use has been legalized by eight states. Canada is on track legalize marijuana by 2018, and the CFL does not test for it as part of their drug policy.
“Even though it is legal in many places in America right now, it’s still frowned upon for some reason in the NFL, ” Hill said.
That said, he can’t or won’t explain why he made the decision to use a recreational drug that cost him more than $400,000 in lost wages and millions of dollars of potential earnings. “I ain’t got an answer for you, ” Hill said. “People wouldn’t understand it, anyway, because they haven’t had the experiences I’ve had.”
There have also been some legal troubles, mostly stemming from issues surrounding child support payments for the eight children he has with seven different women. Hill acknowledges that football and immaturity kept him from playing the kind of role in his kids’ lives that he should have.
“It’s difficult but everyone has the same goal, and that’s to make sure our kids grow up healthy and with a good future, ” he said.
Now 27, Hill spent more than a year away from football, trying to reconnect with his children and recalibrate his life. When he decided to resume his playing career, the CFL offered not only the best opportunity – he still has a 10-game NFL suspension on the books – but also the best fit.
“Even though a lot of people would like to play in the NFL, some people chose the CFL because it fits their family background, ” Hill said. “For me, I get to get in a full day’s work in football and full day’s work as a family guy. Even though the NFL harps family, you rarely get to see your family.”
Hill had a strong training camp for the Ticats and was playing with the first unit on defence after just a few days. But then came the call that his family members had been killed. He needed to go home and, given his experiences in the NFL, he was uncertain how the team would react. The message he got from head coach Kent Austin and defensive co-ordinator Jeff Reinebold: be with your family, they come first.
It was Reinebold who organized the team call to Hill, something that’s become a tradition among defensive players when a teammate is away dealing with a personal issue, whether it’s the death in the family or the birth of a child.
“It shows how much they believe in me and it also shows how supportive this organization is. Everybody is not like that, ” Hill said. “In the NFL it would be, ‘Sorry that happened, you need to be here tomorrow.'”
Hill will start on Sunday against the Toronto Argonauts, and his football life looks very much in order. A rangy 6-foot-1, 228-pounds, he is settling into the hybrid strong-side linebacker side where he will have responsibilities in coverage as well as a role in stuffing the run.
Off the field, things are coming together. Joining him here are his current partner and his youngest child, Will Hill IV; they spent this week looking at local rental units. He’s also making arrangements for some of his other children to visit this summer.
“I don’t dwell on the past, regret the decisions I’ve made. I’m focused more on my family now than ever, less focused on myself.”
This season, Hill will wear a red rubber bracelet embossed with his cousins’ names, and his post big-play celebration will feature a prominent arm flex, something Simpkins was known for. His new beginning takes an even greater meaning in the wake of tragedy.
“Time goes by, you get older, maybe a little wiser, you have different experiences, see things differently, ” he said. “Nothing to do now but play for them.”