Vahe Gregorian

Without this mentor, Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill wonders if he might have been ‘another lost piece’

Making for a certain mystique about him, much of the origins of human blur Tyreek Hill remains as elusive as he is on a football field.

We know he grew up in rural southern Georgia with his “amazing” maternal grandparents after being born to athletic teenage parents, an adolescence he speaks of fondly but sparingly. And we know the grandparents, Virginia and Herman Hill, have been disinclined to be interviewed about him since the Chiefs drafted Hill in 2016.

But if you want to shade in some of how he became among the fastest and most electrifying players in the NFL, if you want to understand how he got here from there, you could learn a lot by asking him about Jerry Hill — to whom he is not related but is still forever tethered.

In the process, you also could be reminded about the profound and poignant impact one person who believes in another can mean at a pivotal time in life.

In this case, you could see it all encapsulated in a few snapshots at the Pro Bowl in January, when Jerry Hill was Tyreek’s special guest.

As the high school track coach of the Chiefs receiver sat with his wife, Staci, at the bar in the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Orlando, Fla., the protégé approached from behind and put his hands on the mentor’s shoulders.

Then he introduced Jerry Hill to his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, and said, “This is the guy I’ve been telling you about.”

Then he looked at Jerry Hill and told his girlfriend, “I just want you to know, this is why. This man right here. This man right here is why.”

Where it all began

This “why” stems from a fascinating convergence: one of the fastest men on the planet now, and a coach and science teacher at Coffee High who had worked in pest management until he was 35 and never coached sprints until Hill’s senior year in 2012.

That was when the shot put and discus coach became the head track coach after four others declined. He taught himself fundamentals by scouring YouTube and poring over old videos from the girls’ coach.

“The why” comes less from fundamental expertise than an emotional connection that coaxed Hill from innately fast to warp speed, most notably in running the 200-meter dash in 20.14 seconds. That was then the second-fastest 200 ever run by a U.S. prep athlete and would have been good for sixth in that year’s London Olympics.

That 200, Tyreek Hill said, “changed my life” — including opening up his sense of the world and helping launch him to the Junior Olympics in Barcelona, where he won bronze in the 200 and gold as a member of the U.S. 4x100 relay team.

Mostly, though, “the why” is about lowering his walls and trusting an authority figure to have his best interests in mind.

He was “clutch in my life,” Tyreek said, and “the father away from my parents” and “the greatest high school coach ever, man, like for real.”

Because he stayed with him and on him in the good and bad times to come, including telling him “you own it” after his arrest and subsequent guilty plea for domestic abuse that led to a three-year deferred sentence that just concluded with the conviction expunged from his court record.

Tyreek Hill, who now bears a tattoo on his throat that says “Forgive Me,” earned that resolution of his case by owning it: expressing remorse and carrying out all court-ordered mandates and, moreover, getting involved in community service and starting a foundation.

Jerry Hill is “the why” because he counseled Tyreek when he was a teen seeking direction and helped him believe in himself and realize he could — and should — venture out from his home in Pearson, a 3.4-square-mile town of just over 2,000 people about 220 miles southeast of Atlanta.

It’s a place with what might be called a gravitational hold. “Crabs in the barrel,” Tyreek Hill’s father, Derrick Shaw, told The Star in a 2016 interview, alluding to the notion of people there trying to pull back anyone who tries to climb out.

It’s a place that now bears a sign touting it as HOME OF TYREEK HILL #10 NFL KANSAS CITY CHIEFS.

sign.jpg
This highway sign lauding Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill greets visitors to Pearson, Georgia. Vahe Gregorian vgregorian@kcstar.com

It’s a place he might instead still be if not for a family decision to send him 15 miles north to high school in Douglas, and several influential coaches. None more so than Jerry Hill.

“ ‘I really need to listen to this guy and buy into what he’s trying to get me to do,’ ” Tyreek Hill remembers thinking. “Because I (had) all the assets, and I didn’t want to be, like, another lost piece … I didn’t want to be, like, another guy in my city who’s got everything in front of him and just let it all go. Especially with a coach like Coach Hill, man.”

‘He’s an anomaly’

Tyreek Hill’s father, Shaw, grew up in Pearson and played basketball at Life University after winning a state 300-meter hurdle championship and finishing fourth in the 100 during his senior year of high school.

His mother, Anesha, played basketball and was a track sprinter — “She was cold, for real,” as an athlete, Tyreek said. He likes to say his speed comes mostly from her.

That makes sense to Jerry Hill, who majored in biology and minored in chemistry at Valdosta State and figures that the only way to begin to account for Tyreek’s speed is “strictly genetics.”

hill2.jpg
Jerry Hill knows Tyreek Hill’s capabilities well. He says he breaks the laws of physics with his uncanny speed. Vahe Gregorian vgregorian@kcstar.com

But he believes this phenomenon comes from more than just being the child of two athletes.

“Knowing genetics like I do, and I teach it and I study it, the chances of this are so remote that it’s just an anomaly,” said Hill, who in April was named Coffee’s teacher of the year. “He’s an anomaly.”

How else to account for him being so swift despite stunningly little flexibility? Tyreek Hill acknowledges he can’t touch his toes … though he says yoga is getting him closer now.

“He’s like a rubber band who’s pulled so tight there’s no bend,” said Jerry Hill, who surmises that Tyreek has more fast-twitch fibers than 99.9 percent of the population, and that “it’s almost like his body doesn’t make the lactic acid because his muscles keep firing.”

How else to explain his speed despite such a nontraditional running form?

“I’d tell him ‘you’ve got to keep your elbows (in) close,’ but his lats were so thick he couldn’t keep them in,” he said. “He can’t run with the proper form, what some people (consider) the proper form.”

How else to reconcile that he typically accelerates out of a cut — and all the athleticism and body control that implies?

“What he does almost goes against physics,” he said. “He breaks the laws of physics.”

Even young Tyreek was a blur

The pure-speed part was apparent early. By about age 6, as told by Tyreek: One day he was playing on a dirt road with cousins about twice his age when wild dogs suddenly approached, and, whoosh, he was first back to the house.

After he dominated Pop Warner Youth Football, Jerry Hill remembers first seeing him as a Coffee freshman running roughshod in a scrimmage against the varsity defense he coached with several Division I defenders.

“Dear God, man, he just made us look stupid,” he said.

On a recent Saturday, then-Coffee offensive coordinator and current receivers coach Shannon Shook unearthed Hill’s junior year highlight reel and played it in the coaches’ office.

“This is what I call his coming-out party,” said Shook, proceeding through the video of ridiculous plays by Hill. “It’s unreal, the moves he has.”

A year later, Hill seemed to be everywhere on the field at once. That included going wild out of the wildcat formation and on occasion playing rush end on defense despite his size — still only about 5-foot-7 or 5-8, then about 150 pounds to his current 200-ish.

It was one thing for him to have that sort of impact then, another to make it look almost the same in the NFL.

But Hill, whose academic lapses kept him from being a major-college football recruit directly out of high school, still didn’t find the gear and the mindset that would make all this possible until the following spring.

“He had to get his physical gifts untapped,” Jerry Hill said.

Real potential, real talk

As a junior in the Class 5A state meet, the still-raw Hill finished second in the 100 with a fine 10.8 and didn’t place in the 200 after pulling a muscle.

Now he was getting a new coach. And likely without knowing how little Jerry Hill yet understood about coaching sprints, Tyreek initially was skeptical of him. They butted heads a few days.

Tyreek had had some coaches he considered jerks, after all, some he couldn’t tell if they were out for themselves or him. Now in his grill was Jerry Hill, who as a white man with a shaved head notes he might appear intimidating to a young African American.

While telling him he could be unbeatable, the new coach also insisted he’d have to put everything into it and stop wasting time with the wrong people. He was just as insistent that getting an education and doing right were what really mattered.

Tyreek began to consider that Jerry Hill might be sincere. Soon, he knew he could confide and wanted to listen.

“He talked real-life stuff. This was real,” Tyreek said “This was like my grandmother talking to me or my grandfather talking to me.”

After a few weeks, he began to trust him completely. Something started to change inside ... and in his performances.

“If you’re going to be my coach, once we get all that down, once we get that foundation down and stuff, we’re good,” Tyreek Hill said, later adding, “Once that player gets that trust in you, bruh, man, you can just do anything. Just like here with Coach (Andy) Reid.”

That said, some of the time Jerry Hill would have to make up stuff to motivate Tyreek on the track since he knew few could keep up with him. Mostly, though, he fed him faith accented in challenge. He did it on the way to meets, on the way home from meets, every time they talked in one form or another:

“If you don’t come out of the blocks … He’s got a great finish. … You’re better than this. You can run faster. You can be the best in the world.”

In the weeks to come, with Jerry Hill constantly going “yak-yak-yak” in his ear, Hill ran a 10.62 in the 100. Then he ran a 10.54, often staying after for extra sprints … and staying out of trouble.

“Coach Hill always told me, ‘You can’t do what your friends do. If you want to be great you’ve got to separate yourself,’ ” Tyreek said. “And that’s what I continued to do, like, each and every day after practice.”

At the state meet, Hill enjoyed the best sprint double in Georgia history by winning the 100 in 10.44, the 200 in a state-record 20.94. He also claimed the long jump, flinging himself 23 feet, 11 inches.

‘Here’s your shot’

Emerging as a once-in-a-generation sort of athlete earned Tyreek an invitation to run in the Golden South meet in Orlando, where he instantly received a ticket to Adidas’ national “Dream 100” in New York by tying the 2012 national-best 100 time of 10.19 in a preliminary.

But the highlight in Orlando was the 200 final near the end of the day … after Hill cramped in the 100 final and finished third in 10.41.

The coach opened up a jar of pickle juice and administered a swig or two, massaged out the hamstring. He both appealed to his disciple’s manhood and told him repeatedly, “You can’t be beat.”

Or as Tyreek remembers it, “ I need you, I need you. Let’s go, let’s go. Give me one more race.’ ”

Tyreek zoomed in at 20.14 and was swarmed by track aficionados and media. The moment of triumph, though, carried some trepidation.

“In some ways, I don’t know that he wanted to be put up on that pedestal,” Jerry Hill said. “He was still a kid.”

Instantly, major schools around the nation wanted him for track and football. But academic issues kept him from being eligible, so he was off to junior college in Garden City, Kan.

“‘You’re out of here; here’s your shot,’ ” Jerry Hill remembers telling him. “There’s no reason for you to come back here.’ And that’s what I tell him now. Come back, spend a day or two, see your folks and get out of here.”

Parting of ways

In some ways, the Golden South meet was the pinnacle of their relationship. At the Dream 100, Tyreek false-started twice and was disqualified, something he blames himself for and learned from.

“You’ve just got to calm down and don’t run the race before you actually run it,” Tyreek said.

Later that day, for reasons that Jerry Hill said he never has been explicitly told, he learned the family had fired him as Tyreek’s coach. Evidently, they sought someone with more traditional sprint coaching background.

But Tyreek never ran faster 100 or 200 times within legal wind assistance.

Don't have a KC Star subscription? Help support our sports coverage

If you already subscribe to The Star, thanks for your support. If not, our digital sports-only subscription is just $30 per year. It's your ticket to everything sports in Kansas City ... and beyond, and helps us produce sports coverage like this.

Jerry Hill always understood that there were better pure sprint coaches. But he was heartbroken, believing Tyreek needed him in more significant ways than that.

Parting at the airport in Atlanta, he told Tyreek, “‘Godspeed, my friend. If you ever need me, let me know.’ ”

Among other ways, among other people, he needed him about two-plus years later when Hill was arrested in Stillwater, Okla., and charged with domestic assault and battery of his then-pregnant girlfriend.

He again got some loving-but-blunt reality from Jerry Hill, who told him, “‘Son, you might have to do some time for this. But whatever happens, don’t quit.’ ”

When Tyreek received the deferred sentence, Jerry Hill knew he had gotten an important reprieve. But he also conveyed that “‘This is your last shot, you’d better walk a straight line.’ ”

“Thank God,” he added, “somebody took a chance on him.”

Without trying to address specifics he knows little about, Jerry Hill figures this:

“I think (the arrest and legal process) put him back on the straight and narrow,” he said, adding that Hill perhaps was feeling a sense of entitlement with stardom at Oklahoma State. “You get elevated onto the biggest pedestal, and you’re just a little above it. A little above anything. You’re above reproach … .

“And you couple that with emotions of relationships, when things go haywire and sideways, next thing you know you’re in the weeds so deep you can’t get out.”

At least not without some help, including from family and Jerry Hill.

“Every time I went through (trouble),” Tyreek said, “he was always right there.”

Coming full circle

In the back of the science classroom where Jerry Hill is using fertilizer to conduct an experiment on human impact on the environment, a poster-sized picture of Tyreek Hill and himself from the Pro Bowl is on display.

He initially planned to keep it at home. Then he decided it’s an important example for students to see, living testimony to what happens when a teenager with numerous odds against him accepts help and finds his or her way.

It’s not so much about a kid making it to the NFL, an incredible longshot for anyone. It’s about what it means when others can earn their trust and help guide and inspire, a dynamic Jerry Hill says he takes as much or more pride in establishing with science students as athletes.

“I mean, there are thousands of kids out there that need that push,” he said, “that need that belief that somebody believes in them.”

And one particularly in the public eye who will tell you the same.

The picture “shows where I’ve come from, where he comes from and just the progress that I’ve made over the years,” said Tyreek Hill, who was thrilled to know that photo is prominent in Jerry Hill’s classroom. “It’s a special moment. I need to get (a copy) into my house, for real.”

A special moment with a teacher and coach who saw all that was special in a young man who today stars for the Chiefs, and is perhaps the fastest man in the NFL.

“He knew I had all the assets and stuff, but he just had to get my mind game right so I could, like, take it to the next level,” Tyreek said. “He knew I had it. He just had to get me right and, like, get inside my head.”

Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

  Comments