West Alabama coach Brett Gilliland sent a congratulatory text message to Tyreek Hill after the Kansas City Chiefs’ 31-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV.
He didn’t expect a response. Surely, the wide receiver’s inbox was filled after he posted nine receptions for 105 yards, including a crucial 44-yard catch in the fourth quarter. But Hill messaged Gilliland back anyway, sharing a meaningful sentiment the coach still appreciates eight months later.
“He thanked me and our administration for the opportunity,” Gilliland said. “He realized that we gave him an opportunity that not many others would.”
It was Gilliland who welcomed Hill to West Alabama and allowed him the opportunity to extend his football career, despite his dismissal from Oklahoma State after he’d allegedly assaulted his former girlfriend on Dec. 11, 2014.
He was arrested and charged with felony domestic assault and battery by strangulation, eventually pleading guilty and receiving three years probation in a plea agreement.
He enrolled at West Alabama before the 2015 season and was selected by the Chiefs in the fifth round of the 2016 draft. He’s since bloomed into one of the NFL’s best players, an All-Pro wide receiver the Raiders hope to contain when they face their AFC West rivals Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
Hill also was investigated last year for battery after his son, then 3, sustained a broken arm, but he was not charged or suspended by the NFL amid insufficient evidence.
Several who know the 26-year-old vouch for his character and insist his missteps shouldn’t define him.
“That’s not the character that we knew that Tyreek had here. He did not show that here,” said Colin Lamb, assistant athletic director at Garden City Community College, the Kansas school where Hill played in 2012 and 2013.
“Here at Garden City, he did well. … He’s definitely one of the first ones that we mention when it comes to recruiting and say ‘Hey, look at what he did. He was able to do his thing here and move on.’ ”
Hill’s tantalizing talents were mostly ignored by Division I coaches. His hometown of Pearson, Georgia — population 2,079— isn’t exactly a recruiting hotbed. But he thrived at Coffee High School by blending his world-class speed with an unparalleled drive that his former coach, Ken Eldridge, proudly touts to this day.
“(Football) was something that he just worked at,” Eldridge said. “He never did talk about it. He would rather just go out there and compete.”
Hill in high school bench-pressed 315 pounds, squatted upward of 450 and was so fast and shifty that Eldridge was forced to develop creative ways to get him the ball. His game tape showcased unique skill, but his academic profile, Eldridge says, may have deterred Power Five programs.
Hill opted for junior college in Garden City, Kansas, population 26,546.
“You could see his maturity on the field,” said former Garden City coach Jeff Tatum, who recruited Hill. “You could tell the middle part of his freshman year that he could play Division I football.”
Hill played running back at Garden City and blossomed into the country’s No. 5 junior college prospect. He considered pursuing professional track and field, per Tatum — Hill ran 200 meters in 20.14 seconds — but committed to Oklahoma State, bypassing offers from Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and Southern California among others.
He studied criminal justice at Garden City and worked as a security guard at the school’s other athletic events.
“Community colleges exist for access and opportunity,” said Garden City president Ryan Ruda, the school’s athletic director when Hill was a student. “You … have an opportunity to kind of reset yourself a little bit. We have example after example. Tyreek is just one of those.”
Hill went on to Oklahoma State in 2014 and shined as an all-purpose player, totaling 1,811 yards rushing, receiving and returning punts and kicks en route to All-Big 12 honors. The Cowboys dismissed him the day after his arrest.
Count Lamb, Tatum, Eldridge and Ruda as those surprised by Hill’s arrest. The young man they knew was playful and kind. Not temperamental or violent.
Tatum said he talked to Hill on the phone the day he was dismissed from Oklahoma State, detecting genuine contrition and accountability
“He told me ‘Coach, I did it,’ and made no excuses,” Tatum recalled. “It wasn’t ‘Oh, it was her fault. It wasn’t my fault.’ It was ‘Coach, I made a mistake, and I’m going to learn from it.’ … He’s never made an excuse for it.”
He’d originally planned on concluding his collegiate career at Akron under coach Terry Bowden, who declined an interview request. But Bowden directed Hill to West Alabama, and Gilliland welcomed him after considerable deliberation and with plenty of trepidation.
“I’ve turned down a lot of (players) if we think they don’t fit our program and what we’re about,” Gilliland said, explaining that Akron’s coaches had completed a thorough evaluation of Hill.
“At the end of the day, we trusted him enough and thought he was remorseful. His biggest thing is he wanted to prove that he was not what he was being portrayed as.”
At West Alabama, Hill accounted for 1,453 all-purpose yards and eight touchdowns while abiding by the strict terms of his probation. Gilliland was a graduate assistant at Georgia Tech when All-Pro wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas played for the Yellow Jackets.
He said Hill, who runs a 4.2-second 40, was of their ilk.
The Chiefs did their due diligence before drafting Hill, taking him with the No. 165 overall pick. What he once did on Fridays and Saturdays as a running back are what he does now on Sundays as a wide receiver.
Hill signed his three-year $54 million contract extension last September and forms with quarterback Patrick Mahomes one of the league’s most formidable tandems. He’s also coaching wide receivers at a high school outside Kansas City, passing on some of the lessons he’s learned.
“I want to be able to mentor those guys and help lead those guys to the level they want to get to,” Hill told reporters this week. “Also, help mentor them to be better young men off the field. That’s what it’s all about. Yes, we love playing football, but it’s what you do outside of football that makes you who you are.”
Notable receivers drafted before Tyreek Hill in 2016
Corey Coleman, No. 15 overall: 61 receptions, 789 yards, five TDs
Laquon Treadwell, No. 23: 65 receptions, 701 yards, two TDs
Braxton Miller, No. 85: 34 receptions, 261 yards, two TDs
Leonte Carroo, No. 86: 12 receptions, 192 yards, two TDs
Chris Moore, No. 107: 47 receptions, 511 yards, four TDs
Malcolm Mitchell, No. 112: 34 receptions, 401 yards, four TDs
Ricardo Louis, No. 114: 45 receptions, 562 yards
Pharoh Cooper, No. 117: 50 receptions, 433 yards, one TD
Jordan Payton, No. 154: One reception, 3 yards
Trevor Davis, No. 163: 16 receptions, 205 yards, one TD
Tyreek Hill, No. 165: 300 receptions, 4,401 yards, 36 TDs