As Christian Hill walked out of the athletic dining facility within Sun Devil Stadium, he made sure to stop and thank everyone who was serving food that day.
“Thank you, sir. Have a good day,” Hill said to each employee on his way to the elevator.
Having good manners and being respectful is not so uncommon, but Christian Hill is not your average student-athlete. Not because he’s a mountain of a man standing 6 feet 6 and weighing more than 270 pounds, but because his journey to the Arizona State football team is something you’d be more likely to read in a Hollywood script.
Hill, 24 and originally from Staley High in Kansas City, spent five years on active duty in the Air Force before utilizing an early-separation program from the military for an opportunity to play college football.
“One day I woke up and I was just talking to my supervisor and said, ‘Hey, ‘I want to pursue my education, and if I have the opportunity play football somewhere, I want to do that, too,’” Hill recalled. “I always had the dream and vision that I’d be playing football one day.”
With the support of his leadership team at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, Hill began to plan the next stage of his life.
Before Hill began his journey to the Valley of the Sun, he first had to find a school that would take him.
“I called the coach up at Glendale Community College and told him some of my stats. I’m 6 feet 6, I run a 4.4, I weigh this much, I bench this much, I squat this much,” Hill said. “He didn’t really say he didn’t believe me, but I could tell through his voice he didn’t believe me.”
The Glendale Community College football team was holding tryouts three days after Hill made that phone call, so he had to move quickly. After making the 1,400-mile trip from his base near Seattle to Phoenix, he wasted no time tracking down Michael Bell, the head coach at Glendale.
Hill walked into the coach’s office and introduced himself and was pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
“How you doing, sir? I’m Christian Hill,” he said.
Upon seeing his size, Bell told Hill to go get a physical — a tryout was not required.
There was a catch, though. Hill’s only experience playing organized football was a brief stint on his junior-varsity team in high school — as a sophomore at Staley, he stood 5 feet 11.
His time with the Gauchos would be spent learning the game from square one. But Hill caught on quickly. After a stellar freshmen season and an injury-plagued sophomore year, he was ranked as the No. 11 junior-college prospect in the country by ESPN.
With this acclaim came attention from some big-name Division I schools. Hill soon had scholarship offers from the University of Arizona and Oregon, among others. The one school he had his heart set on, however, had yet to respond.
“My first offer was (Arizona), so I went down there to check it out, but my mind was already set here,” Hill said of Arizona State. “I always wanted to be a Sun Devil.”
Hill said he was interested in Arizona State because of its military-friendly background — especially the legacy left by Pat Tillman.
Tillman was a linebacker for the Sun Devils in the mid 1990s before being drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 1998. He eventually turned down a $3.6 million contract offer from the Cardinals to leave the NFL and become an Army Ranger.
Tillman was killed by friendly fire in 2004.
“He was a hero,” Hill said. “For somebody to give up on their dreams to go fulfill their commitment to service for someone else is a hero in my eyes and will always be a hero in my eyes.”
When Arizona State’s offer finally rolled in, Hill didn’t hesitate to commit. He enrolled in classes in January and began practicing with the football team in March.
Andrew Seumalo, a defensive graduate assistant at Arizona State, has taken notice of Hill’s work ethic.
“Christian’s been great,” Seumalo said. “He wants to get better and he wants to learn. He wants to become a better player, and that’s all you can ask for as a coach: to do everything you ask for with your best effort. And Christian has done that time and time again through spring ball.”
Although he is no longer serving on active duty, Hill remains a member of the Air Force reserves. His unit, which is located in Tucson, Ariz., has accommodated his hectic schedule.
Hill was excited to join his Arizona State teammates recently in cheering on runners and interacting with fans at the 12th annual Pat’s Run, which honors the service of Tillman and other military veterans.
Hill lined up with other football players and high-fived the runners as they crossed the finish line. Afterward, he obliged each request for a handshake or to have his picture taken with fans.
Doug Tammaro, director of media relations at ASU, appreciated the significance of Hill’s participation.
“He seems like a wonderful, wonderful person,” Tammaro said. “Seeing him out there today shaking hands with other military members was a really a pretty cool moment.”
Sun Devils defensive back Anthony Lawrence, a walk-on in his first year at Arizona State, went to basic training with Hill. Like Hill, he plans to continue serving his country in the Air Force Reserves.
“Me and Christian met at the beginning of our service, so we have a lot of history together,” Lawrence said. “It’s just natural for us to want to stay together and keep playing and keep serving together. He’s one of my best friends, so coming here was an easy transition.”
Hill’s own transition hasn’t always been so easy — he traveled a long road, literally and figuratively, to reach this point.
But he continues to appreciate every second of the journey.
“Nothing is given in this lifetime,” he said. “You know, we work hard for everything we want. From this moment, I’m going to work hard for the people who believe in me. ... I can’t stop and I can’t stop working hard.”