The cold calculation of risk and reward at the highest level of American sports entertainment is in Tyreek Hill on a go-route against Marcus Peters. This is Chiefs training camp on another weekday morning here, so nothing is decided on any particular moment. But with Hill more than most, a man’s future will be determined by the collection of moments he creates.
The Chiefs bet a fifth-round draft pick and a slice of their credibility on Hill, a receiver and kick returner blessed with incredible speed, and a man who pleaded guilty to a heartbreaking beating of his then-pregnant girlfriend two years ago.
In some ways, everything Hill does with the Chiefs will be seen as a statement on the team’s gamble, and not just that he will stay out of trouble. That’s the minimum. For the Chiefs to win here, Hill also needs his talents to prove worth the hassle for an organization that purports to emphasize character but is also working on a 47-year Super Bowl drought.
And in this one moment, at least, and through the first week of training camp, the Chiefs have to feel good about their side of the bet. Hill out-sprinted Peters, got behind the Pro Bowl cornerback, and made what would’ve been a touchdown catch.
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“He fast as hell,” Peters said.
Hill was the star of the team’s OTA practices, too, and back then said it didn’t mean anything until the pads came on. Now that he’s showing out with the pads on, he’s saying mostly the same things.
“To me it still doesn’t mean nothing,” he said. “I’m just like everybody else. I gotta get better, each and every day. That’s my biggest thing.”
That’s exactly what the Chiefs want him to be thinking, and exactly what they’ve coached him to say in front of the cameras. Hill has publicly owned his crime, but is surrounded by people who don’t believe he did anything wrong, even after he pleaded guilty.
So the truth in how he perceives the incident in his private thoughts is impossible to know, but in the multi-billion dollar world of professional football the Chiefs only need him to follow what he’s said publicly.
And in that way — acknowledging that we are metaphorically only a few steps past the starting line in a marathon race — Hill is nailing his opportunity.
He asks questions. He listens more than he talks. He works. He’s coachable. He focuses more on what he needs to improve, rather than his strengths. He’s made some nice catches in traffic but talks more about his drops, and the work he needs to put in to correct the issue.
He drives an enormous, old, beat-up sedan and parks it amongst the luxury SUVs of his teammates, literally getting himself around in a symbol of humility.
“Sometimes I don’t finish plays,” he said. “As a receiver, we get lazy. If we don’t get the ball, we get lazy. So I gotta learn how to finish plays like professionals do.”
On some level, the Chiefs have to be more confident in Hill than they might otherwise be because of what this chance means to him. It was his own doing, and he must continue to work away from his disgusting act, but people who’ve lost opportunities tend to be more appreciative of the next one.
Hill had obvious Division I talent in high school, but academics forced him to junior college. Even some who love him, and believe in him, and trust him, aren’t sure what he’d do without football.
This is his life, in other words. This camp. The preseason games. The real games after that.
The attention will only grow. At the moment, Hill is working in relative anonymity. But his story will continue to be told, and the segment of Chiefs fans who were upset at their team selecting him will have to make a decision.
Some will, or perhaps have already, let their rooting interest cool. Some will root for the team, and not the player. Some will accept him, provided he stays out of trouble. Some won’t care as long as he plays well.
These moral choices come up more often than we’d like, and are inevitable once sports becomes business.
The Chiefs have made their bet. And we are far too early to say anything definitively either way, but right now, it looks like a good bet.