Alex Hill's one happy father
CHAMPAIGN — Alex Hill went to work.
A nervous wreck.
Here he was, a 17-year-old high school senior trying to balance school, his job, the college football recruiting process and a social life.
All the while keeping a secret from his mom.
Synthia Hill had just dropped her oldest child off at a Winn-Dixie supermarket in Slidell, La.
The single mother of three knew about the difficulties of teen pregnancy. She had Alex when she was 17.
Now her 17-year-old son was about to tell his mother she was about to become a grandmother. Much earlier than she anticipated.
Except Hill wasn’t around. He had just walked into Winn-Dixie to start his shift as a cashier.
“I wrote her a letter,” the Illinois center said more than four years later while sitting inside Memorial Stadium. “When I got out of the car, I left it on the seat. I went into work, and I was checking people out in the line, and I could still see her sitting in the car. I knew she was reading it. She came back in, walked around for a bit, bought something, looked at me and said, ‘We need to talk later.’ ”
Mother and son eventually talked. With Hill informing his mother he was about to become a father. Much earlier than he anticipated.
“She was disappointed, but at the same time, she supported me,” Hill said. “It was the hardest conversation I’ve ever had to have.”
Tony Durkin was sitting in study hall the morning of April 24.
The reserve Illinois offensive lineman remembered a conversation he had with Hill a few weeks earlier. About how Hill wanted to head home. To see his daughter, Jordyn.
She would turn 4 years old April 25. Yet Hill wasn’t planning on making the trip. Too expensive.
Durkin checked out Amtrak’s website.
Hill isn’t a fan of flying, so a 17-hour train ride from Champaign to Slidell, a suburb of New Orleans, is his preferred method of travel.
“I just figured I’d go on their website and see if we could pull something together,” Durkin said.
Fellow offensive lineman Ted Karras was also in the room with Durkin. When the two found out a train ticket cost roughly $250 for Hill to make the trip south, they started asking other offensive linemen and teammates for some money.
“At first we texted everyone, but then we tracked everyone down in person,” Karras said. “Everyone was more than willing to throw some money in. It was just getting everyone on the same page.”
Guys like running back Josh Ferguson, wide receiver Peter Bonahoom, linebacker Henry Dickinson and tight end Dallas Hinkhouse, among others, were ones who pitched in. All told, Karras estimated 10 to 15 Illinois players contributed for a trip Hill will likely never forget.
“We don’t do it to get an interview, that’s for sure, but it’s just how we are,” Karras said. “We are family. The offensive line is probably the one position in football where it is like a brotherhood because of our skills; that’s probably the only position we all can play. I feel like offensive lines have always been that way everywhere I’ve been. That’s how the whole team is here, but especially the O-line.”
Hill’s plans were to spend the last weekend in April not doing much in Champaign.
Get a lift in Friday morning. Avoid the crush of Illinois Marathon traffic, if at all possible. Watch a few movies. Skype with his daughter and wish her a happy birthday that way.
Then Hill’s phone rang. It was Durkin, inquiring about his plans for the rest of this particular Thursday.
He had a class at 2 p.m. That was about it.
Durkin didn’t mince words when informing Hill what his weekend would entail.
Pack your bags. You’re going home.
“I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Hill said. “I was speechless.”
After overcoming his initial disbelief and calling his mom to tell her the unexpected news, a moment of panic set in for Hill.
He had a weight-training session Friday.
“The only way to get out of a lift is if you make it up the day before you leave,” Hill said. “I didn’t really have the time to do that.”
No worries, Durkin assured his teammate. They had already approved the move with strength and conditioning coach Aaron Hillmann. So Hill hurried to Memorial Stadium, went through his workout Thursday, attended his afternoon class, packed and waited for his train to leave.
About 12 hours after the initial plan was hatched to get Hill home, the fifth-year senior was boarding a train at the Amtrak station in Champaign.
“It’s something I’ve never seen before,” quarterback Wes Lunt said. “It just shows what type of guys we have in our locker room.”
It didn’t matter to Hill that his train didn’t leave until 10:30 p.m. or that he wouldn’t arrive in Slidell until late Friday afternoon. He would get to see his daughter. On her birthday. In person.
“He got choked up a little bit after he thought I was messing with him,” Durkin said. “He was shocked. It was real good to see him happy like that.”
Arriving at Illinois
A little more than a month after Jordyn was born in 2010, Hill was bound for Champaign. Set to begin his college football career.
He committed to Illinois late in the recruiting process after switching from Duke, his original choice. The possibility of staying close to home and playing at Tulane weighed on Hill’s mind at the time, too. Having some relatives in Chicago helped ease Hill’s mind of leaving Louisiana, but he knew he would have his moments where he missed Jordyn.
“The educational opportunities here were so great,” Hill said. “At Tulane, the education is great, but the football team wasn’t that great. I felt if I could get both in the same deal that would be best.”
Hill’s first two seasons with the Illini — he redshirted the 2010 season — ended in bowl game wins. The same scenario hasn’t transpired the last two years, but Hill was able to experience a different kind of reward last month. He received his bachelor’s degree in communications, with his daughter present.
“Just to graduate from college is such an amazing experience,” Hill said, “and to graduate from this university is really a big deal for me.”
He plans on earning a second degree in sociology at next May’s commencement.
“I want Jordyn to follow her dreams,” Hill said. “The biggest thing about what my mom did for me was she never held me back from what I wanted to do. That was one of the main things of coming here is to go to the NFL or get a great degree so I can make more money at my job. Anything she wants in life, I want to be able to provide for her.”
Hill knows the feeling of growing up without a male figure in his life. His dad wasn’t in the picture.
“I talk to him from time to time, but my mom is like the world to me,” Hill said. “She was the one who raised me. I try to do as much as I can now not to be like my dad. I want to do everything my dad didn’t do, which is hard being that I’m away at college. I can’t spend that time with Jordyn, but I just hope that the result of me coming here is what pays off in the end.”
Hill is on civil terms with Jordyn’s mother, who lives in Louisiana.
“Her mom has full custody (of Jordyn),” Hill said. “We’re working parents. We communicate as much as possible. Her mom has been nice throughout it all. We have our disagreements from time to time, but it’s never been to the point where she won’t let me see her. My mom gets her most weekends, so I can Skype with her then.”
Hill has much on his plate, too, outside of football, school and trying to raise his daughter the best way he can, even when he’s not there. He’s getting married.
The 22-year-old Hill is engaged to Mariah Smith, a thrower on the Illinois track and field team who just finished her junior season. The couple is planning a wedding for next summer.
“I just say yes and sit back and watch what happens,” Hill said with a laugh.
The couple met at since-demolished Forbes Hall on the UI campus. Thanks to a pair of pajama pants Hill was wearing at the time.
“They had deer on them, and for some reason she made a comment about, ‘Oh, those look like you’re from Louisiana,’ ” Hill said. “I go, ‘Oh, I am from Louisiana. It’s funny you say that.’ It was fate from there.”
Especially because Smith didn’t back away from the fact Hill already had a child.
“The funniest thing about it is I dated a girl before Mariah, and I didn’t tell that girl about my daughter yet,” Hill said. “Mariah tells her, ‘Hey, did you know that he has a baby?’ She saw me walking her in her stroller one time on campus. When we started talking, it was one of the first things brought up. It actually made my life easier because she already knew that and accepted me as a father. She’s embraced the role of becoming a stepmother.”
And so has Jordyn, according to Hill.
“Every time I talk to Jordyn,” Hill said, “she asks, ‘Where’s Mariah?’ ”
Back to Jordyn’s birthday. The 4-year-old had a mermaid-themed pool party this year.
Hill’s train was a few hours late arriving to New Orleans, getting in about 5:30 p.m. April 25.
When it did, Hill made a beeline to go see his daughter. With a small basketball hoop he bought as a present. One he could actually give his daughter instead of seeing someone else hand her the gift. And get to spend 48 hours with her before he left Louisiana on Sunday evening to make the trip back to Champaign.
“As soon as I got home to Slidell, I went and picked her up,” Hill said. “It was great because her mom didn’t tell her I was coming, so it was a big surprise. Just her face when she opened the door was priceless. She gave me the biggest hug and said, ‘Hey, Daddy!’ She smiled and gave me a kiss and told me she loved me. It melted my heart.”
Having his teammates cobble together enough money to send Hill home touched Tim Beckman.
So much that the Illinois coach relayed the story via direct messages on social media to some of the top recruits Illinois is pursuing.
“We were undefeated, played in a national championship (at Ohio State), and that team never would have done that,” Beckman said. “I almost teared up, to be honest with you. That’s about life. It’s not a ‘W’ on the football field, but it’s a ‘W’ in life because our players have enough respect and admiration for one of their players to help him do something that you know he wants to do but hasn’t been able to do it.”
The world knows
Hill isn’t a big social media user.
But he took to his Twitter account the morning of April 25 to express his thanks for what his teammates did.
“I wish the world knew how great my teammates are,” he wrote. “This wouldn’t be possible without them.”
Jordyn has only seen her dad play in one game at Illinois so far. She understands, however, when the TV is on back home in Louisiana and she sees Illinois on the screen that her father is out there.
“Every time I go home, she says, ‘Daddy, I saw you play football on TV,’ ” Hill said with a smile. “She’s just getting introduced to sports. But she loves watching football.”
Hill started all 12 games last season for Illinois, and the coaching staff likes his versatility in playing either center or both guard spots. He had his down moments at times last season, which included penalties that wiped away touchdowns in consecutive weeks against Michigan State and Penn State. Both times after the games, though, he accepted full responsibility for the penalties. It’s a quality his teammates have admired during his career so far and one that was magnified during winter workouts and spring practices.
“He’s the leader of this year’s O-line,” Karras said. “He’s the captain of our room. He’s the guy who talks. He’s the senior leader. He’s really stepped into that role.”
“He’s a good dude,” Durkin said. “He’s never down. Doing what we do every day, it’s easy to have a bad day and wake up and go, ‘Man, why am I doing this?’ Alex really brings out a lot of energy in people and makes you want to do good for everyone.”
The world can now have a fraction of appreciation for what Hill’s teammates gave him. It’s a gesture Hill will remember fondly each time his daughter’s birthday rolls around.
“I wish words could express how I feel about them, even before this,” Hill said. “As
an offensive line, we always talked about how much we cared for each other and how much of a brotherhood we are. There’s not enough words to describe how thankful I am.”
Hill: College athletes need ‘something extra to help out’
Alex Hill lived through Hurricane Katrina.
Saw his home in Slidell, La., get destroyed in 2005. The Illinois center knows the feeling of receiving help.
“Hurricanes to us is like snow for most people in Illinois,” Hill said. “They happen. There’s nothing you can do about it, but nothing had ever been that bad, especially in my lifetime.”
Maybe in Hill’s lifetime he might see Division I football players receive extra compensation aside from their scholarships. Having a 4-year-old daughter who lives 17 hours away makes Hill a proponent of college athletes getting paid.
“The hardest part about it is I need a job,” Hill said. “I need something that’s an extra source of income. I have a child to take care of. When I tell people that I was actually looking into the possibility of me getting a job, nobody cared. I don’t think we necessarily need to get paid much, but maybe a stipend on top of our scholarship. Just something extra to help out. We are kids, so we make some financial mistakes, but if there was just a way where we didn’t have to wait another month for some more money, that’d be nice. It gets hard at times. You really have nothing to fall back on.”