March 25, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
– Strange as this may seem to some, a memorial service well done can be incredibly good for a soul, and so it was Friday at a gathering to “celebrate” Drew Hill’s life.
We should all once before we go have the joy of hearing others talk about us as if we’re dead. Actually, Hill probably heard everything said in the club level of Bobby Dodd Stadium. The bet is he laughed and cried like some of us did.
The only down side beyond the reality that Hill had to die for this to happen was that much of it was out of order. Perhaps that was fitting. When the former Georgia Tech wide receiver died last week after suffering two strokes at the tender age of 54, that was out of order.
A life in review might be taken as a quilt as the fabrics that blend to make it can be so varied from among friends young and old, to family, from teammate to coach.
The speakers and tales were sublime.
Tech chaplain Derrick Moore – briefly a teammate of Hill’s in the early 1990s under Atlanta Falcons coach Jerry Glanville (present Friday) – set direction.
As pointed out, the order was wrong (through the fault of no person nor thing but providence, which has been known to affect much), and so this will be as well.
Kent Hill played at Tech at the same time as Drew. The much, much larger Hill hailed from Americus, Ga., while the micro version, Drew, cut teeth in Newnan.
Both eventually were drafted in 1979 by the Los Angeles Rams, and oddly enough later played together in Houston with the NFL’s Oilers.
They were along the way, and well after the pros and to the very moment you read this friends of a rare sort. It feels right to start with the big Hill, a very, very astute man as you will later read that Eddie Lee Ivery pointed out Friday.
“Thirty six years ago, about 100 yards from here, I met Drew Hill,” Kent said to a group of up to 200 former teammates, family members, coaches, Tech officials and fans. “It was the first time I met someone named Hill who wasn’t related, and he was the smallest.”
These were small-town boys, dissimilar in some ways, but not all.
“He wasn’t related to me when I met him,” Kent Hill continued, “but he was . . . “
Here, the big man had no choice but to take a break.
Not too long did the big Hill go on thereafter, but in his crisp time at the mic, he told a story that stuck.
After the Hills were drafted in `79, they teamed up with another Rams draft pick, one Derwin Tucker. A defensive back from the University of Illinois by way of a hometown of Greenville, N.C., the initial connection between Tucker and the Hills was not clear and research time was limited Friday.
As it was, they loaded up their new cars. “I had a new Cadillac El Dorado,” Kent said, “and Drew had a Datsun 280Z.” They headed west, to L.A., new lives about to begin. There were a couple others in the group, and the outfit had little money; they had not yet signed contracts.
The big Hill had bought a radar detector before the journey, and the group was sailing toward the Pacific when . . . “I think we were in Mississippi, and back then they had the bubbles (sirens) on top. He was sitting there, and he just waved us over one-by-one.”
In hotel rooms, the big Hill sometimes found himself on the floor at night. Drew volunteered to give up his spot in the bed, where he’d been wrestling Tucker for space . . . grown men for whom a kid’s game was about to offer opportunity.
Many others spoke Friday, including Tech great Lucius Sanford, and they invoked work ethic in a shy young man who was cat-quick yet fearless on the field, and completely confident and at home in his skin.
Ivery, responsible in a way for Drew Hill’s move to wide receiver, was indescribably hypnotic, careening back and forth with energy barely on bridle.
Last Fall, Hill explained before serving as an honorary captain for Tech’s game against Middle Tennessee State that when he arrived on The Flats as a running back, the presence of Ivery and other “cats” like David Sims (also present Friday) prompted his move to receiver even though Tech didn’t pass much.
Ivery, perhaps the greatest running back in Tech history, was evangelical.
He said, “[Hill’s] celebrating the life he’s living right now. There’s no mortgage there.” He also spoke frequently of his own grandmother and others thanking God for “grace and mercy” many times without him knowing what it meant.
Then, he set about thanking the Lord for grace and mercy. As a recovering alcoholic and addict, he’s come to know. Ivery said that Drew Hill was put on earth in a pint sized-package (5-feet-9, 165 pounds) to prove that it’s not the size that matters, but what’s, “in here!”
Pounding his chest, Ivery continued, detailing three roommates he had at Tech.
He spoke first of the big Hill as, “one of the most studious Georgia Tech students.”
“When I was with Kent Hill, I learned to study. I was on the Dean’s list,” Ivery said. “And then, when I roomed with [Don] Bessilieu, I went on probation. Don said, `You can have fun in college. When Saturday comes, we’re ready to play.’ “
Laughter was highly appreciated at that moment.
Finally, rooming with Drew Hill, taught Ivery, “That I didn’t have to be a people pleaser,” he said. “Just be who I am. Be nice to people, and God’s got your back.”
Hill’s Tech head coach, Pepper Rodgers, was there. He spoke of the Yellow Jackets beating Notre Dame without throwing a pass, “because Gary Lanier (present) was our quarterback,” and Drew Hill doing his part in many ways. That included a long run on a reverse.
The first black coach at Tech, Bill McCullough, spoke of Rodgers telling him not to over-do it with Drew Hill. “He said remember he’s a jackrabbit,” said McCullough, the former strength coach. “And you can’t turn a jackrabbit into an elephant.”
After the formal list of speakers, several impromptu elocutors took turns.
Williams Andrews, the former Thomasville High/Auburn/Falcons star running back explained that while he didn’t attend Tech, “because Eddie Lee was there,” he did now well Ivery and the Hills.
“They always used to call me, `Country,’ ” Andrews said. “And I’m as country as a porch swing, but what are these guys . . . from Newnan, Americus and Thomson, Ga., doing calling me, `Country?’ “
Once, while in the NFL with the Falcons, Andrews said he applauded from the sidelines when Drew Hill made a breath-taking move – while playing for the Rams. “I thought he was the coolest dude there was,” he said.
A month ago, Andrews – who has had a long list of personal problems over the years — was hospitalized with congestive heart failure, and “on the door of leaving.”
He opined that Drew Hill’s work is done here, but yet he’s going to finish it even though he does not know that work.
A much younger brother spoke of idolizing Drew Hill.
Hill’s daughter said a few thank-yous.
A cousin told of how he’d fend off some kids who would try to make fun of Drew, but if they were too big, he tell his cousin, “to suck it up.”
If you’ve been around a while, and heard tell, you may know that Drew Hill was a fantastic basketball player. He used to dominate pickup games on campus.
His father acknowledged as much, and after telling wonderful tales of the son born to him when he was still much a boy himself, Lewis Hill explained that he was himself an ardent football fan. “[Drew] loved basketball, but he played football to make me happy,” Dad said. “And he did. I’ll miss him.”
There’s no doing justice to stories like this, but as they unfold they can do right by all fortunate enough to be present.
Nerve endings that have come to feel numb in middle age tingle again, the value of relationships is re-inforced, the beautiful connection of human interaction is amplified, the good passes through a filter that tends to weed out the bad.
Hill’s younger brother, Kimball, said that what his family long lacked in material possession they over-compensated for with love.
It filled the room Friday, and it spilled over beyond family lines.
Glanville coached the Hills in Houston, achieving remarkable offensive success with Warren Moon throwing it and Drew Hill, Ernest Givens, Curtis Duncan and Haywood Jeffries catching it.
Upon moving to Atlanta, Glanville brought Drew along for two more seasons. Friday, he said, “This guy was not normal . . . when he passed away in Piedmont Hospital, the first thing he heard was, `Welcome home.’ “
Moore, the chaplain, said to Drew Hill in closing, “We will locker again.”
Derwin Tucker, a defensive back years ago, an Atlanta resident now, and a Drew Hill friend for decades, went on that great road trip west many years ago.
He looks forward to a road trip still to come. There will be no police.
“Very seldom do you meet genuine people . . . I love you,” Tucker said as he turned to a large portrait of Drew Hill at the head of the room. “I’ll see you again. The Three Amigos will fly again, with wings.”
Wow. I hope I did some measure of respect to this. firstname.lastname@example.org.