CLEVELAND — Sunday evenings gathered around the table with good food and better conversation are what new Browns cornerback Troy Hill reminisces about first when discussing his childhood and early life in Youngstown.
"That's where all my family was at, so it was real family-oriented. We had dinners every Sunday and things like that where the whole family [would] come over, so I had a great time,” Hill said.
Hill’s mother, Sandra Jennings, said those family dinners are something that have been going on since she was a kid herself, and she and her sister continue the tradition. Keeping the family together has always been important for them.
“We have the grandkids, the great-grand nieces and nephews, all that,” Jennings said. “It’s just something that we do. It’s a tradition.”
Family has, to this day, remained a positive influence for Hill, but for a teenage boy finding his way in the world, family influence wasn’t always enough to keep him on the straight and narrow.
“There's not really too much going on out there sometimes, so you can get caught up in the wrong thing at times, too, so that's where things started getting bad,” Hill said.
Hill’s freshman year at Chaney High School, a defining year for most students, was one that would forever change his life.
"I failed my freshman year. I played football my freshman year, and after football season was over, it was like I had no reason to go to school anymore in my eyes—and all my friends, they'd be at home anyway. So I'd leave school or just not even go to school,” Hill said.
Hill, the youngest son in a family of three boys and two girls, began drifting towards a rocky path while those closest to him did their best to keep him grounded.
But Jennings was working long hours and multiple jobs to support the family—and outside influences started finding their way towards Hill.
“I was really going to end up dropping out of school, and then things started getting heated in the community where there was a lot of fighting and shooting was picking up and things like that,” Hill said.
Jennings was worried about the direction her son was headed.
“He was just out there, I’m calling him, seeing where he’s at, I didn’t know what he was doing—I just couldn’t let the streets take him,” Jennings said. “Youngstown is a place where you’re either locked up or dead, and I wasn’t letting my son do that.”
That’s when Jennings made a tough decision.
Hill’s family had previously tried to send him out to California for what he thought was a visit with family—but Hill had other plans, missing his plane on purpose to avoid leaving. Their second attempt to get Hill to California wasn’t for a visit—it was for a new beginning that Hill describes as his “turning point.”
“My brother Jimmy, he came out, he came and got him—it was a one-way ticket—which I'm glad he did because right after he left, a year after he left, those same boys he was hanging with are doing time in jail right now,” Jennings said.
Hill’s uncle, Jim Gilmer, rescued his nephew in the nick of time.
“He had a couple of friends that got involved in shooting up there (in) Youngstown State. And he happened not to be with them, but he could have been with that crowd, and those young men are still in prison. Those were a couple of his best friends,” Gilmer said. “That made me feel like, ‘You know what? Thank God that we took the path that we did because he would have been in prison, too.’”
Back on track
Hill went to Oxnard, California, to live with Gilmer, but was resistant to the move at first.
“The first couple months I was up there, I remember calling my mom like, 'Man, this ain't for me,' because for me, I was just trying to go out there to graduate,” Hill said. “I actually wanted to come back home.”
Hill said he remembers his mom’s no-nonsense reaction.
“I said that was a one-way ticket. You want to come home, start walking, because you ain't coming back here,” Jennings recalled. “I said, 'You want to take this stuff to California? I'm not coming to visit you in jail. I said, 'You want to get locked up?
“I had to do that type of thing with him until he started straightening up.”
And straightening up is exactly what Hill did.
A new student and football player at St. Bonaventure High School, a private Catholic school in California, Hill was thrown into a very strict schedule, keeping him consistently busy.
“They had me working out early in the morning, like 6 in the morning. I'm like 'I'm not used to this, you're driving me early this morning, I'm still asleep. I’ve got crust in my eyes,” Hill laughed. "That's where I was like, 'Oh, man, I'm kind of forced to do this now in a way.' It got better as time went on because I always had love for football and I always knew I was good at it, but I just didn't have the right direction.”
That direction came on the football field, and at a private school with plenty of resources. Being the new kid in a new place also helped keep Hill focused on the gridiron, fueling him to turn that love of football into a new life goal.
“I didn't know nobody in California at the time either, so it was like this is all I've got to do right now, this is all I can do type of thing,” Hill said. “I'm doing good. I'm having success. And once the letters started coming in after that season, I think I got my first offer at the end of that season, and once I got that offer, it was like, ‘Alright I can really do this.’”
Hill went on to become a three-star recruit out of St. Bonaventure High School, and after being granted a waiver by the NCAA, would play at Oregon, earning second-team Pac-12 all-conference honors and finding his way to the NFL in 2015. Hill was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Bengals, waived and claimed by the Patriots before being picked up by the Rams, where he’s spent the last five seasons—playing near his second hometown in California.
Hill’s uncle and his livelihood also helped shape him. Gilmer is the president of Cyrus Urban Interchurch Sustainability Network, a charitable organization in Oxnard, California. He has worked for 40 years with matters such as gang prevention, working with homeless shelters and creating community resource centers—even trying to help back at home in Youngstown.
Gilmer’s work helped inspire Hill to his path as both someone the youth can look up to and as someone who actively works to bring change to communities in need.
“He went to Oregon, wanted to be a sports agent, make a lot of money doing that kind of stuff,” Gilmer said. "That following spring, when he was a sophomore, I went up there to the spring game, and we were rolling around town in the rental car in Eugene, Oregon. And he said, ‘Unc, I've got something to tell you.’ I said, 'What's up?' You know, we're stopping at the McDonald's or something to get some lunch. He said 'Well, I'm going to change my major.' I said, 'Oh, well, what do you want to do?’ and he said ‘Well, I think I want to be like you. I want to help kids. I'm going to help youth.’ And I stopped... I almost went into tears.”
Home is where the heart is
On March 22, Hill signed with the Browns as a free agent, returning home to Northeast Ohio. But even being away for all these years, Hill has never forgotten his roots and has big plans to help make his hometown a better land.
“When I was living in Ohio, I didn't really know what the SAT was or what I needed to do to get to college. I was just kind of going through the motions in a way. And then once I got back to California, and I went to a private school, and I'd seen how much help they had, and they was giving and everything that was going on, it was kind of like: this is what’s missing and this is why a lot of kids out where I'm at become products of their environments,” Hill said.
Seeing the need for a good education with solid resources and tools—and now back in his hometown—Hill wants to open a charter school in Youngstown to make sure the local kids don’t end up on the wrong path he nearly took.
“I think it's time for me to build a school and put a football team together and do it like that, and try to get these kids exposure and things like that and educate them too,” Hill said. “I'm representing the whole community. So it's a lot more that's coming along with this. It's deeper than just football for me. And that's why I'm so focused. I'm much more focused than I ever was. That's why I feel like it's time.”
Hill already knows the message he’ll give to the future students at his school.
“Believe in yourself first, because if you don't believe in yourself, how do you expect anybody else to believe in you? That would be the first thing. And always put God first; stay prayed up,” Hill said.
The son who had been sent away to make something of himself is now returning home and making his mother proud.
“I'm glad that he's paying it forward,” Jennings said. “I'm glad he's going to be doing that for the young people.”
Seeing his community in need was one of the reasons Hill decided to sign with the Browns—a way to not only join a team inching towards their first Super Bowl appearance, but to rejoin his family in his hometown—getting back to those family dinners that he’s been missing.
Jennings said she’ll have Hill’s favorite meal waiting for him when he gets home: fried chicken, crab salad and chocolate turtle cake—unless he’s on his football diet, in which case Jennings laughed and said, “I do some low calorie foods also.”
Dawg Pound bound
Hill plans to make a big impact on the field, too.
“I hope to bring an impact and a highlight reel at the same time. Excitement and just coming in there, being a hard worker, come out there and prove to the world that I'm a dawg,” Hill said.
Hill said Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods told him he was excited to see his impact and wanted to put him in the slot—a role that was new to him but that he excelled in last season with the Rams.
“I'm excited to really get to work and get to understanding the defense,” Hill said. “I know they got some dogs up front, and that's going to help us out. We're going to be able to work hand-in-hand as we lock stuff down in the back end and they get a chance to pass rush and vice-versa. So we're going to make each other's job easier.”
While Hill is excited to be donning orange and brown this season, his family might have him beat on the thrill of it all.
“I'm a Cleveland Browns fan anyway, but I was supporting him when he was a Rams fan,” Jennings said. “This time it's a whole different excitement because he's playing for the Browns.”
Hill’s uncle shared similar excitement, especially about breaking out his old gear (and freshening up the wardrobe) now that Hill is in Cleveland.
“I grew up going to the old stadium, you know, with Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly and all that stuff. So, you know, I still have my Browns gear,” Gilmer said. “I’ve got to get some upgraded Browns gear I guess now because my stuff is old school.”
And of course, Hill couldn’t part without addressing Browns fans looking forward to this upcoming season—offering a simple but exciting message for the Dawg Pound:
“Turn up, let’s go! Let’s go!” Hill shouted. “That’s the message right there!”
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.