On a frigid December night inside Arrowhead Stadium, rookie Tyreek Hill’s first name reverberated through a crowd of 75,000, the chant escalating as the Chiefs sought momentum against the Oakland Raiders.
Ty-reek! Ty-reek! Ty-reek!
In a nationally televised game, Hill responded with his signature play — a 78-yard punt return in which he cut left, darted back right and blistered an open seam into the end zone.
“I just appreciate the fans showing me love,” Hill would say.
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And yet the admiration for No. 10 — a man clocked at reaching an NFL-best 22.7 mph on a play this season — has been uneasy since the Chiefs drafted him in April. Along with the mentions of his name comes the disclaimer of his past — a guilty plea to assaulting his pregnant girlfriend while attending Oklahoma State University in December 2014.
On some occasions, TV announcers have appeared to feel obligated to include that fact after praising his play. And observers across the country — often fans from other teams — still comment on social media with insults and unwavering ridicule about Hill, who was cut from the OSU football roster the day after his arrest.
Hill’s abuse of his girlfriend has been extensively covered and criticized, including by The Star immediately after the Chiefs drafted him. But today in Kansas City, as the touchdowns multiply and Hill’s highlights dominate postgame coverage, the conversation among some fans has shifted toward his production on the field.
“You are what this team has needed for so long!” one fan wrote on Hill’s Instagram this month. “Go get us that ring!!!”
But many domestic violence experts who spoke with The Star aren’t ready to turn that page. Not yet.
“I think the story shouldn’t change until he takes responsibility and demonstrates respect in a meaningful and authentic way,” said Cindy Southworth, executive vice president at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “It’s on his timeframe and he can actually change the discourse.
“If we make mistakes and do bad things, and take responsibility and are held accountable, people remember us as the whole person we are.”
While the facts of Hill’s case remain unaltered, his profile on the football field has increased drastically.
Hill tied a Chiefs rookie record with 12 touchdowns, earned an upcoming trip to the Pro Bowl and received unanimous All-Pro status. The mesh of the two — his past and present — have precipitated national coverage this past week as the Chiefs prepare for an AFC Divisional playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
But exactly how long will the two be conjoined? How long should they be conjoined?
“I can’t answer that, but what I can tell you is that for victims and survivors, by no fault of their own, that status is sometimes attached to them for the rest of their lives,” said Scott Mason, the director of marketing for Rose Brooks, a domestic violence shelter in Kansas City. “With that perspective, if that means someone needs to have the title of ‘abuser’ for the rest of their life, I’m not so sure it’s inappropriate to label them as such.”
The Chiefs drafted Hill in the fifth round in April, about eight months after he pleaded guilty to domestic assault and battery by strangulation of his pregnant girlfriend in August 2015.
The victim, who started dating Hill in June 2014, told Stillwater police at the time that Hill punched her in the face, put her in a headlock, choked her and struck her in the stomach several times, according to a probable cause statement detailing the charges against Hill. At the time of the assault, the victim was eight weeks pregnant with Hill’s child.
She changed the setting on her Twitter account to private this week. She didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment from The Star. Her father also did not respond to calls for comment.
Hill received a deferred sentence and three years’ probation and was ordered to complete anger-management classes and a year-long batterer’s intervention program. According to the prosecutor, Hill’s victim was consulted about and agreed with the terms of the guilty plea.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid has said, “I’m probably more proud of him for what he’s doing off the field as on the field,” adding that Hill has not caused any trouble since his arrival in Kansas City.
But is that enough for Chiefs fans and others in the community?
“I do believe in recovery, and I do believe that there is a time that we can say, ‘OK, we’ll let it go,’” said Joan Schultz, the executive director for the Willow Domestic Violence Center in Lawrence who considers herself an avid Chiefs fan. “But I do think part of that recovery is to talk publicly about what this has meant to him personally and what it means to the victim. If we just hear he’s recovered without him demonstrating it publicly, and we just say, ‘OK, that’s enough, we’ll see you on the football field,’ then we’ve told those victims they don’t matter and that he’s the one who matters more.”
In September, Hill’s victim filed a paternity suit in Payne County, Okla. According to the record, though, “both parties openly acknowledge paternity.”
She also requested to maintain custody of the child, a boy who turned one in July.
“Respondent (Hill) has not ever seen the minor child,” according to the documents filed four months ago. “Any visitation with the minor child by Respondent should be supervised until such time as he can establish a relationship with the child and his domestic violence probation is complete.”
Hill’s probation continues until August 2018.
While the Chiefs declined to make Hill available to reporters Friday, he said in November that: “I’m real dedicated, I’m going to stick to it so I can be a better man … a better father for my son.”
In December, the state of Oklahoma filed a petition seeking him to pay medical expenses for the child. Court documents show Hill’s income at nearly $17,000 a month. He’s been ordered to pay $1,275 in monthly child support and the state is requesting an additional $106 a month for medical expenses in lieu of insurance.
Hill has faced questions since his arrival. After being drafted, he was asked what he has done to improve himself, and he replied, “I just try to choose my friends wisely. I’m not trying to point any fingers at anybody, but I’ve just got to be better at choosing my friends and who I hang around, stuff like that.” It was not clear if Hill was referring to his victim, though some took it that way.
Advocates point to such comments and say that’s not the way to show growth.
“My to do list for him to begin with: Stop making snide comments about the victim,” said Southworth, of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
A couple of weeks later, Hill said Chiefs fans “have every right to be mad. But guess what? I (plan) to come back and be a better man and be a better citizen.”
The conflict has stuck with Chiefs fans ever since, demonstrated by their tone across social media while the spotlight on Hill grows.
As he strutted into the end zone against Oakland, a wave of Chiefs fans inside the stadium celebrated the touchdown. Another wave littered social media with insults, opting for history over recency.
“I want the Chiefs to win just because I’ve always had a soft spot for them, but I’m very, very uncomfortable rooting for Tyreek Hill,” one wrote on Twitter after the play.
“Sad you can’t look past something in the past that he is trying to make up for…” another fan posted on Hill’s Instagram page.
Mason encounters similar inconsistency at his shelter, with volunteers expressing their uneasiness.
Kansas City sports radio station KCSP (610 AM) started a GoFundMe account that raised more than $15,000 for Rose Brooks in May. Even though the GoFundMe reached its goal and expired eight months ago, Mason said a few of his shelter’s donors continue to write Hill’s name in the comments section as they send money.
“That’s how some Chiefs fans will reconcile,” Mason said.
In a home game against the Titans in December, the Chiefs named local domestic violence agencies as the beneficiary of their 50/50 raffle, raising nearly $30,000.
“We have had some conversations with the Chiefs administration, and they have expressed concern and asked how they can be supportive,” said Janee’ Hanzlick, the president/CEO of SafeHome in Johnson County. “We’re grateful that they want to have that ongoing conversation with us.”
Fans across Kansas City can now buy Hill T-shirts — which the player helped design and is giving a portion of the proceeds to a local charity, the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired — and jerseys bearing the rookie’s number. Some appear willing to be a part of what many have deemed Hill’s chance to turn his life around.
As one KC Chiefs fan wrote more than a week ago on Hill’s Instagram:
“I have to admit I wasn’t sure what kind of person and player my favorite team was drafting this past offseason,” the fan said. “But now I have to say you are a great example of what a man and a person can do with a second chance. … Good luck man and keep making the most out of the opportunity you have.”