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Williams doesn't even remember the conversation, but Hill says it was a "blessing" to be able to speak with a pro, someone who had already reached his payday. Laid out in front of him—his dad, the NFC guys—he understood his responsibility and decided to return to Poly Prep. "I see a lot of people who are looking at me and my future, and they helped put me here," he says. "I did it for them."
Two months later Hill was back at Poly Prep. He got his first start in Week 3 and ran for 164 yards and two touchdowns. In his second start he had four touchdowns. In Week 7 he had 269 rushing yards and, according to Jacoby, showed "flashes of greatness." In his junior and senior seasons he rushed for 2,941 yards and 37 TDs. He was a two-time all-city selection and an '04 New York City player of the year finalist. But Parrish's favorite accolade was the nickname his son earned from a high school broadcaster: the ballerina with thunder thighs. P.J. Hill was Barry Sanders and Boogaloo combined.
Syracuse, Indiana and Vanderbilt were interested, but it was Badgers offensive coordinator Brian White who sold Hill on Wisconsin, introducing him to East Coast guys like defensive end Matt Shaughnessy and fullback Chris Pressley, who now shares an apartment with Hill. "When P.J. started practicing, I could see [his background] in his style," says Pressley. "He's from the hood. And I saw that in his play."
Those early practices had Wisconsin coaches buzzing, too, and in August, White left the first of two voice mails with Jacoby back at Poly Prep. "Your boy is kicking ass, and I'll work him into the rotation. I'll definitely get him some playing time!" A day later White called back, his voice changed: "Yesterday I was the bearer of good news. Today I feel like an a———. Your boy broke his [leg]."
While Hill was redshirting his freshman season with a fractured bone above his left ankle, things got worse. On Jan. 20, 2006, Coach White took a job at Syracuse. (Bret Bielema, whom P.J. barely knew, would be the new Wisconsin head coach.) Six days later Hill and three other Badgers were arrested following a dorm altercation. Hill was charged with disorderly conduct and temporarily suspended from the team.
Almost 1,000 miles from home, Madison was suddenly feeling a lot like Poly Prep that first year. Hill went back to Queens that spring seriously considering leaving Wisconsin, perhaps following White to Syracuse. But this time P.J. didn't need Ricky Williams to tell him what to do. He would tough it out.
Again, things came together in Year 2. In the off-season, starting back Brian Calhoun opted to go pro, and his backup, Booker Stanley, was kicked off the team following two felony arrests. Enter a rejuvenated Hill, who would rush for 1,569 yards, seventh most ever by a freshman. The Badgers finished the season 12-1, and Hill was Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
By '07 he was on a roll, with almost 1,100 yards and 15 touchdowns, when, in Week 9 against Indiana, he was kicked in the metal plate that had repaired his broken leg. He had just five carries over the next three games, which led to questions about his toughness, questions he would address in the Outback Bowl against No. 16 Tennessee. In that game Hill started on the bench and was, in his words, "pretty annoyed about it." He entered on the third series and amassed 132 yards on 16 touches, including a 50-yard run late in the game. "He proved right there, anyone who wants his job will have to come take it from him," says Parrish. "Come and get him."
Oh, they will. Bielema hasn't named Hill the Badgers' starting tailback yet, and while it's safe to assume he'll win the spot, UW has three talented backs—Zach Brown, Lance Smith-Williams and John Clay—waiting in the wings. Asked if he'd consider taking his game to the pros after three seasons in Madison, Hill smiles. "I've worked very hard, and I've been doing this a long time. I really do see the light, and I still have all these people pushing me. But my foot's not in the door yet." He pauses, then says, "Well, maybe it's halfway in." In other words, given a spectacular junior season, P.J. Hill just might have to ask himself again, "What would Ricky Williams do?"