Vahe Gregorian

Investigation reminds that Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill will always have to contend with past

For those who believe in second chances and atonement — and shouldn’t we all? — Tyreek Hill has furnished enough apparent affirmation these last few years as to nearly obscure the stigma of his past.

Even if you never forgot the Chiefs in 2016 drafted him just months after he pleaded guilty to assaulting his then-pregnant girlfriend in 2014, you could appreciate his rehabilitative, perhaps even redemptive, path of the young man who now has “Forgive Me” tattooed across his throat and has made the peace sign his trademark as he distances himself from about anybody or anything chasing him.

Along the way to becoming one of the most exhilarating players in the NFL, Hill has appeared to be on a constant trajectory to vindication. He has conveyed contrition, declaring in 2016 that he wanted to be a “better man and better citizen for this community and a better father to my son,” and fulfilled court-ordered mandates that included anger management sessions and a 52-week batterer’s intervention program.

So when his three-year deferred sentence ended last August, his conviction in Payne County, Okla., was expunged and county assistant DA for domestic violence Debra Vincent said she had no reason to doubt he was on the right trail.

“Who’s to say that this wasn’t life-changing in how he looked at that part of his life?” she said in a phone interview at the time.

But Vincent also cautioned that the work he’d done to date was no guarantee of what’s to come, because this sort of work in progress can only be measured over a lifetime, not a few years — just as concerned local domestic abuse experts warned when the Chiefs drafted Hill and trumpeted their vetting and urged us all to trust them.

Their message was that they knew better than the experts, who, in fact, understand how much more complicated this all is and what should never be forgotten: that even amid the fanfare and apparent all-clears, the never-ending issue with someone who commits domestic abuse isn’t just about trying to forgive what they’ve done and provide a second chance.

It’s the likelihood that they could do it again.

The fundamental problem with the Chiefs’ naïve, perhaps even arrogant, thinking resurfaced Friday: The Star reported that police and the Kansas Department of Children and Families are investigating an alleged battery at the Overland Park home Hill shares with his fiancée, Crystal Espinal, and their 3-year-old son.

The alleged victim is the boy, a source told The Star, the very child born to Espinal months after Hill pleaded guilty in 2015 to attacking her.

It’s crucial to stipulate that this matter is in its early stages, and no conclusions can or should be drawn from what’s publicly known at this stage. As of Saturday afternoon, there are no charges against Hill, no determination even that a crime was committed.

But the investigation that the Chiefs acknowledged involves Hill is enough to consider the implications:

If another incident of domestic violence committed by Hill is proven true, the only proper and decent way the Chiefs can reconcile it will be to jettison a star who is part of why they are seen as a Super Bowl contender.

Too bad and all if it gets to that point. But this would be a case of do the right thing or be complicit as an enabler, especially amid a dilemma of their own creating.

But let’s stay in the moment here. Even if Hill isn’t proven to have done anything wrong, this episode is a meaningful reminder that the asterisk of the potential for repeat abuse will forever be affixed to Hill.

Sad but true. Statistics show overwhelmingly that once someone has committed domestic assault, they are likely to again. This is something that numerous advocates against domestic abuse and others who work in the field have stressed in conversations I’ve had with them the last few years.

The capacity to do so might lie dormant, perhaps never to resurface. But it always lurks within, experts will tell you.

That part has become easy to forget as Hill emerged as a budding superstar whose first name fans at Arrowhead Stadium like to chant, and who soon could be the highest-paid receiver in the league.

Less cynically, though, it wasn’t just his play that put his past on the back burner.

Between his upbeat personality, community outreach efforts and the notion of the fresh start he got in August, Hill appeared more deserving of the benefit of the doubt with each day he moved forward.

Moreover, the young man who grew up with his grandparents in economically distressed rural Georgia certainly has understood and valued his fortune to have been given this chance by the Chiefs.

“I didn’t want to be, like, another lost piece,” he said in an interview with The Star last year. “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.”

Hill was referring to Jerry Hill, no relation, who was Tyreek Hill’s high school track coach and remains a mentor. After the arrest in 2014, Jerry Hill told Tyreek he had to “own it” and bluntly added, “Son, you might have to do some time for this.”

When Tyreek Hill instead received the deferred sentence, Jerry Hill told him, “This is your last shot. You’d better walk a straight line.”

In a visit by The Star to the receiver’s high school in Douglas, Ga., in August, Jerry Hill said he believed the arrest and legal issues had put his protégé “back on the straight and narrow” after perhaps coming to feel “above reproach” at Oklahoma State.

Meanwhile, roughly around the time Hill’s case was resolved, Espinal and their son quietly moved to Kansas City, and Hill and Espinal became engaged in September.

From the outside looking in, maybe there seemed something peculiar about that reunion. But the heart has its reasons, as the saying goes, which reason knows nothing of.

And who was to say that this wouldn’t be another step forward?

“It feels good,” Hill said a few weeks later. “Everything feels good. Everything is in order. I’m playing well, my family is great, my family is amazing. I have a great support system. Everything is going well for me.”

Later that month, after they went as a family to work at a food pantry, Hill was recognized with the NFL Players Association’s Community MVP weekly award.

As he gushed about the meaning of the award, he added, “It shows what God can do. He can take a young man and He can transform him.”

That’s a change everyone should want for Hill, especially as it pertains to his relationship with his son and fiancée, who is pregnant with twins, he recently told The Star’s Brooke Pryor.

For that matter, it’s a change we can still hope has sustained him as we await the results of an investigation that may vindicate him even while it looms as potentially career-threatening.

The world is a better place, of course, if he has stayed trouble-free and can embody the power of second chances and potential for atonement.

No matter what, though, that prospect will always remain a one-day-at-a time contingency for Hill, who can maybe outrun anything except a past that always will be trying to shadow him.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.