An Up-Hill Climb

Oct. 14, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Long, long before Demaryius Thomas exploded the notion that a wide receiver from Georgia Tech’s run-heavy offense could not make it in the NFL, Drew Hill played that role in a smaller package.

About one-third of a century before Thomas was drafted in the first round by the Broncos in April, Hill played wide receiver at Tech and led the Yellow Jackets his junior season — with seven receptions.

That’s right, seven. Tech attempted just 64 passes in 1977, eight fewer than the Jackets have tried this season in six games.

So when Hill returns to Tech Saturday to serve as an honorary captain for the Jackets’ game against Middle Tennessee State, he will bear witness to something more like what he was part of in college than when he was catching 634 passes in a 14-year NFL career.

At Tech, the 5-foot-9, 168-pound Hill didn’t have much choice.

“I came to Georgia Tech as a running back in the wishbone with [coach] Pepper Rodgers,” Hill said. “I knew with all the good running backs we had, I couldn’t get much playing time behind Eddie Lee Ivery and those cats. I couldn’t beat them out.”

So he became a wide receiver. Hill’s similarities to Thomas sort of end there.

Unlike Thomas, a 6-3, 229-pound wide out recruited to a pro-style offense by one head coach only to transition to a run-oriented attack, Hill traveled the other path.

Although Ivery rushed for 1,562 yards when he and Hill were seniors in ’78, the Jackets also passed more frequently with freshman quarterback Mike Kelly. He passed for 1,479 yards, or 1,297 more than team leader Gary Lanier had in `77.

Tech attempted 234 passes in `78 or 170 more than the prior season. Hill caught a team-high 36 for 708 yards (an impressive 19.7-yard average) and four touchdowns.

He was branded as a kickoff return man, though, and with good reason.

Hill still Tech’s record holder for career kickoff returns (94), career kickoff yardage (2,357), most touchdown returns in a season (two, in `78), average kickoff return in a season (30.0 yards in ’78) and for a career (25.4).

That got him to the NFL, where he received a rude rookie awakening after being drafted in the 12th and final round by the Los Angeles Rams in ’79.

“I remember [former Falcons cornerback] Roland Lawrence . . . I threw low at him once, and he said, `Drew, don’t be throwing at my knees; I got a bad wheel,’ ” Hill recalled. “Soon, I ran an out and Vince Ferragamo throws it behind me and Roland knocked me about 10 yards out.”

Used chiefly as a kickoff return man, he started 22 games for L.A. from ’79-’84 (excluding the ’83 season wiped out by a back injury). Although he caught a modest 60 passes in five seasons, Hill averaged a sterling 22.5 yards per reception.

A move to the Houston Oilers worked out fabulously.

“When I got traded, I was going from a playoff-type team to a team that was 3-13,” Hill said. “I said the only good thing is . . . they got a great quarterback. We got over there and he was a great guy and a great quarterback. I really enjoyed myself over there.”

With future Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon slinging it, and Hill and fellow wideouts like Ernest Givens, Haywood Jeffires and Curtis Duncan catching it, the Oilers put up huge passing numbers in the run-and-shoot offense.

In seven seasons with Houston, Hill caught 480 passes for 7,477 yards and 47 touchdowns, an average of 15.5 yards per catch. He went over 1,000 receiving yards four times in seven seasons.

He caught 94 more passes for 1.007 more yards in the ’92 and ’93 seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, and still lives in the area.

If you give him time, Hill can tell stories about being knocked silly by former safety Ronnie Lott: “He was just vicious. He’s not in the [Pro Football] Hall of Fame for his coverage skills.”

Hill, who entered the Tech Hall of Fame in 1998, punched his ticket to the NFL with kickoff return skills.

Once there, he bucked reputation and stuck around quite a while as a heck of a receiver. You don’t catch 634 passes for 9,931 yards and 60 touchdowns in the NFL by luck. Hill left the NFL with 13,332 combined yards and 61 touchdowns in 14 seasons.

Give him a hand Saturday before the game.

“I think it’s great that the Institute is recognizing some of the older players who played at Tech and had some success in the pros,” Hill said. “I’m the kind of guy who usually likes to watch the game on TV. I’m looked forward to this.”

Send a note to stingdaily@gmail.com if you have any recollections of Drew Hill, or comments of any kind.

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