Tyreek Hill walked to the microphone for one of the biggest moments of his life. He was visibly scared, and uncomfortable, stumbling over his words as a dozen or so strangers with notebooks and TV cameras asked about his worst moment, the one for which he is now infamous.
This is Hill’s new reality now, and it’s one that he created with a horrifying burst of rage, hitting and strangling his then-pregnant girlfriend 18 months ago. Since then, he has been kicked off one college football team, accepted at another — over the protests of some students — and last week became the source of rage in Kansas City and nationally about domestic violence in the NFL and beyond.
Here, exactly one week after a terribly awkward and offensive teleconference in which he said he needed to choose his friends better, Hill wore a Chiefs jersey for the first time. The strangers asked 14 questions, all but one at least indirectly about the night a woman told police in an emergency room that Hill put both hands around her neck, banged her head against a wall, threw her down and picked her back up by her hair.
He is trying to be a kick returner in the NFL, but first he must prove to himself and others that he is not the monster from that Stillwater, Okla., police report.
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“No sir,” he said when asked if he was aware of the anger caused by his arrival in Kansas City. “I have no clue about it.”
Hill is trying to move on, and this will be the most difficult challenge of his life. Seven people close to Hill spoke for this column, and a common thread emerged: loyal support, concern, and denial.
This is much bigger than Hill. Most times, if a fifth-round pick doesn’t work out, the two sides shake hands and move on — a missed opportunity for the player, and a low-risk gamble that didn’t work for the team. This is different. This is more.
Hill — whether he knows it or not, and whether he likes it or not — is now a piece in a large machine. His success or failure, on the field and off, will be a reflection of many men with less to gain and more to lose than him.
The NFL’s handling of domestic violence has been mostly atrocious. This is the first year the league’s often-criticized rookie symposium is replaced with a new “rookie transition program.” For those who believe such things can make a real difference, Hill becomes a star test case.
More meaningfully, judgments on Chiefs general manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid will be made. Not definitive judgments, but still. This is part of the puzzle.
Reid has subtly and repeatedly mentioned that it was Dorsey and the scouting department who researched Hill’s background, but he’s also referenced his experience with Michael Vick after the dog-fighting scandal and his family’s work with domestic violence advocacy.
Dorsey has referenced his own daughter, talked vaguely of the Chiefs’ “due diligence” on Hill’s background, and asked for trust. It’s a big ask, particularly with the team staying mysterious about their research into a case that is closed and public.
The day before the Chiefs selected Hill, chairman Clark Hunt — who hasn’t spoken publicly since — bragged on the importance and strength of character on the team’s roster. There’s a lot more here at risk than a fifth-round draft pick.
That’s true for a lot of reasons. We are still less than four years removed from Jovan Belcher, then a Chiefs’ starting linebacker, murdering his girlfriend with nine gunshots and then killing himself in the team’s practice facility parking lot. Fair or not, the Chiefs are going to be judged differently.
A year ago, they signed Justin Cox, a defensive back from Mississippi State, who had been suspended from his college team after he was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, a charge later dismissed at the victim’s request. The Chiefs released him in July after he was arrested and charged with aggravated domestic violence, as well as burglary of a residence and trespassing.
There are differences between Cox’s case and Hill’s. Cox was an undrafted free agent, so the Chiefs had less invested, and the vetting process for draft picks is generally more intense. The Chiefs might also say that they were Cox’s first chance after his first arrest, where Hill already had to prove himself at West Alabama for a year after transferring from Oklahoma State.
Still, Cox’s case should be a personal reminder to the Chiefs that no man’s future can be predicted, particularly when his past includes domestic violence.
Saturday’s meeting with reporters was the first time Hill spoke in Kansas City, and in a Chiefs uniform. He had clearly been coached, which is a good thing for him and the team. This came through in his willingness to take ownership of what he did, a week after saying “I just try to choose my friends wisely.”
“I don’t blame nobody but myself,” he said Saturday. “It’s my fault, and it’s my mistake. Can’t nobody live my life but me, so I just have to deal with it.”
A few other bits of insight emerged if you knew where to look. The most obvious was the nervousness. A few minutes before Hill, third-round pick KeiVarae Russell spoke with confidence and insight. A few minutes later, second-round pick Chris Jones spoke with ease and humor. Both had starred at power five schools. This was nothing new to them.
But for Hill, this was completely foreign, and he had no way to fully prepare. At times, he stumbled over his words, or did not understand questions. This is brought up not to demean, but to provide context. He grew up in Douglas, Ga., spent two years at Garden City Community College, one at Oklahoma State, and then the last year at West Alabama.
He is not used to this attention, or scrutiny, not on the level that comes with the NFL.
“He’s a small-town Georgia kid,” says Jeff Tatum, who recruited Hill and coached him his first year at Garden City.
“Shy, timid,” says Manny Ortiz, who let Hill stay with him one summer in Garden City, Kan.
“Very, very quiet. Very shy,” says Jordan Ikner, who played with Hill at West Alabama.
Another interesting moment came when I asked Hill if he talks with anyone outside his court-appointed counselors about what he did.
“No sir,” he said.
Hill may mean that literally. Of the people who spoke for this column — some talked to the Chiefs before the draft, most did not — none said they ever asked about the arrest, or the violence that led to it.
Tatum said he “didn’t want to know” details. Ikner said he read about what happened, but even after growing close with Hill never asked about it and did not know of anyone else at West Alabama who did. Manny and his wife, Ginny, said they received a message from Hill that said “I didn’t do it,” and never asked about it again.
Dontavius Blair, Hill’s closest teammate at Garden City, said he still doesn’t think anything violent happened, even though Hill pleaded guilty to domestic abuse by strangulation. Hill is serving a three-year suspended sentence.
“I definitely don’t believe that at all,” Blair said. “That’s coming from man to man, brother to brother. I just don’t see it happening. Not from Tyreek Hill.”
In this way, Hill is entering this new reality in a precarious way. The outside world sees him mostly through the prism of his horrific act of violence, one he has admitted in court and publicly, but he maintains some friends and mentors who don’t believe he did anything wrong and never talk to him about it.
Particularly with so much invested by so many others with the Chiefs and the NFL, this is a lot to take on. Hill is now a symbol of a $13 billion industry’s treatment of domestic violence, whose performance and record going forward will reflect on a millionaire coach, a millionaire general manager, and so many others.
This is a volatile mix, and if they’re honest with themselves, the Chiefs know that no amount of research can predict how it will end.