IT IS LATE APRIL
2008, AND TORRENTIAL rains have kept the Wisconsin Badgers inside their domed
practice facility for their final spring practice, but the diminutive running
back with the eye-popping thighs and the glimmering smile is undeterred. P.J.
Hill is stretching each noncontact practice play to the limit. When he knocks
off a 10-yard gain, the 5' 11" Hill doesn't stop chugging until he's
traveled the entire field. Another five-yard rip, and there he goes sprinting
the remainder of the open turf. He loops back to the huddle, then unreels a
proper 78-yard sweep, untouched to the far end zone.
With all that
youthful energy, it almost seems as if Hill has never been here before—which,
in fact, he hasn't. For two springs in a row he has been shelved with injuries.
Now that he's finally healthy in April, he's not about to waste a precious
moment resting. And to think, Hill probably wouldn't be here at all if not for
Dolphins running back Ricky Williams. But that part comes later in the
IF APRIL '08 WAS A
HIGH POINT FOR P.J. HILL, then the spring of '02 was his alltime low. Hill
doesn't remember the date, but he remembers the alarm clock shattering the
silence of his bedroom in the East Elmhurst, Queens, neighborhood of New York
City at 5 a.m. He was a 15-year-old freshman, and he'd been up past 3 a.m.
doing homework, so a second alarm was necessary. Pamela Moss, Hill's
stepmother, was threatening to use a bucket of water when Hill finally shook
off the z's and made his way to the computer printer to retrieve the fruits of
a night's labor: the fourth and final draft of a 10-page history paper.
P.J. knew the
stakes. If his teacher didn't sign off on this draft, he would have to go to
summer school. And if faced with summer school, he would quit Poly Prep, the
private Brooklyn school he spent up to five hours commuting to and from every
day. And if he quit Poly Prep, it would be back to public school, probably at
August Martin High with its 43.9% graduation rate and the gangs that his family
had tried so hard to keep him away from. And then college ball would be in
jeopardy. As Hill emerged from a dreary seven-floor brick apartment building
overlooking the Van Wyck Expressway and under the booming air traffic of
LaGuardia Airport, Poly Prep seemed very far away.
From the age of
four, when P.J.'s parental custody was determined in a New York courtroom, he
was raised in the gritty East Elmhurst and Corona neighborhoods of Queens by
his father, Parrish Sr. For the most part, Parrish made do by working two
low-income jobs, counseling at a group home for adolescents and delivering
parts for a junkyard. He had to be creative when it came to babysitters, which
is how seven-year-old P.J. found himself a linesman for an amateur football
team called Never Fear Competition. Parrish had friends on NFC, and he trusted
they could keep an eye on P.J. if the kid was holding a big orange yard marker.
That worked fine until Steve Holloway, NFC's organizer, looked over one day and
realized that P.J. was gone. "This big running back, we called him
Boogaloo, had just tore off a long run, just bulling people over," Holloway
recalls. "And there was P.J. running with Boogaloo all the way down the
sideline." When P.J. finally calmed down, he told everybody, "I want to
be just like Boogaloo."
From then on
Parrish devoted his free time to P.J.'s football instruction. Anything, he
figured, to keep his son from the drugs and violence of Northern Boulevard.
Afternoons, he would pop an adult helmet onto P.J.'s dome and walk the kid to
Flushing Meadows Park, across from Shea Stadium, where he would do his best to
mold his son after the greats: Earl Campbell, Barry Sanders...Boogaloo.
BY THE TIME P.J.
hit eighth grade, he had made a name for himself on the Pop Warner fields, and
Dino Mangiero, the varsity football coach at Poly Prep, offered to watch the
boy play. Observing from the sideline that day, Parrish knew Mangiero held the
keys to P.J.'s future. A Poly Prep brochure was like a glimpse of heaven: The
clock tower, the white pillars, the ponds.... Poly Prep had a nationally ranked
football team, top-notch coaches (Mangiero would go on to Indiana) and a
history of academic excellence. So, when his son didn't play along, Parrish was
Late in that game
P.J. burst into the open field, only a teeny cornerback standing between him
and the end zone—between P.J. Hill and Poly Prep. But instead of juking him,
P.J. went in for the kill, just as Boogaloo would have. The defender hit the
ground, reached out a pipe cleaner arm in desperation and P.J. came tumbling
down. Had Mangiero stuck around, he would have seen Parrish run onto the field,
grab the kid's face mask and dress him down. But he was already gone. "I
only watched him play about 15 minutes," Mangiero remembers. "It was
obvious, he was a man among boys." Hill had learned his lesson, and he was
still going to Poly Prep.
WHICH IS EXACTLY
WHERE P.J. FOUND himself heading on that early morning in the spring of '02.
Freshman year hadn't gone according to plan, and he would have almost two hours
of commuting to take it all in. On a 15-minute walk to the number 7 train he
could reflect on a season spent toiling on the jayvee because Mangiero didn't
play freshmen. If he missed the express, he had an hour on the local to think
about the coming season. Paul Anderson, whose parents drove him 15 minutes to
Poly Prep, would be starting ahead of him. From Times Square, P.J. would have
40 minutes on the Q and R trains to think about the buddies he left in Queens
every day, the same ones who ragged on his khaki pants and blazer. And when he
hit the last stop on the R, at 95th Street, he would have another 15-minute
walk to decide how he was going to break the news to his coach and then to his
dad. "I was young, and I was stressed," Hill says now. "I
eventually passed that [history] paper, but that experience drove me to the
edge." In his head, P.J. Hill was done with Poly Prep.
Hill was not ready
to be done with football, however, and in June he attended a camp in upstate
New York run by then Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler. Among the
instructors was Fiedler's teammate Ricky Williams, as well as Poly Prep's Craig
Jacoby, who had just been named Mangiero's successor. Hill had already
delivered the news to Jacoby at this point, but the coach was relentless. He
pulled Williams aside and explained that the boy was thinking about quitting
private school. He pointed to Hill and implored, "Just talk to the