The sound of pads popping filled the hot, humid air. Coaches barked at players who made mistakes. Those on a water break cracked jokes and laughed. Kickers and punters sent the ball flying through the air.
One coach stood at midfield, silently observing all of it happening around him.
Five states and two sports later, SIU’s Nick Hill — who has spent almost his entire life on a football field, playing and coaching — now stands on the sideline as the youngest Missouri Valley Football Conference head coach as he takes on his first season. While its unclear what the future holds for the program, Saluki fans are optimistic Hill can turn it around.
Early life and playing on the hardwood
Growing up in Du Quoin, a town of fewer than 6,000 people about 30 minutes north of Carbondale, Hill learned to love sports from a young age.
“The first word he ever said was ‘ball,’” Hill’s father, Charles, said of his 31-year-old son. “We knew in grade school that he had a knack for sports.”
Charles, known only as Cha to those around him, said Hill’s first love was basketball. His father made him play football in high school “just to experience it,” he said.
Hill’s brother A.J. — who works as the head football coach at DuQuoin High School — said his sibling always had a ball of some kind in his hands growing up, and could usually be found shooting free throws.
“It didn’t matter if it was 10 degrees outside,” A.J. said. “He was set on playing basketball and that’s what he worked at.”
Charles said his son wasn’t that good at football until his sophomore year, but his work ethic is what set him apart from the rest.
During his senior year, Hill earned All-State honors in football and basketball. That same year, he led the Indians to the Illinois High School Association 3A state championship game, losing by a touchdown to Elmhurst.
Hill then chose to hang up the cleats and focus solely on the court, deciding to play basketball at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.
As a freshman Hilltopper, he averaged 1.7 points and one rebound per game, appearing in 23 of WKU’s 28 contests before breaking his hand.
Returning to football and southern Illinois
With the time off to recover, another fire started to rekindle inside for Hill.
Charles said his son began to miss the gridiron and would often go to WKU football practices just to watch.
“He realized he had more of a passion for the game of football than he thought,” A.J. said.
Hill then transferred to SIU and joined — and redshirted — the football team for the 2004 season under then-head coach Jerry Kill. He played in four games as a sophomore the following season.
“Coach Kill saw something in him and told him he always had a spot on the team,” A.J. said about his brother’s transfer.
On Saturday, Kill watched as Hill hugged his players under colorful fireworks at Saluki Stadium following his first win as SIU’s head coach.
During his third season at SIU in 2006, Hill finally got the chance to start. He started every game the next two seasons, tearing SIU record books apart in the process.
As a senior, Hill led the Gateway Conference in passing yards per game (226.8) and total offense (252.3).
“Nick was a great quarterback and a great leader,” Kill, who works as an associate athletic director at Kansas State University, said of his former player. “He was one of the main reasons I got to where I’m at.”
Hill set single season records in 2007 in passing yards (3,175), completion percentage (71.5) and passing touchdowns (28).
He also finished sixth in the voting for the Walter Payton Award, the Football Championship Subdivision’s version of the Heisman Trophy.
Fighting for a professional career
After graduating from SIU in 2008, Hill went undrafted, but received interest from four NFL teams.
He decided to sign with the Chicago Bears because he felt it was his best chance of making a professional team.
But Hill ended up getting cut prior to training camp and joined the Rio Grande Valley Dorados of af2, Arena Football’s minor league, in Hidalgo, Texas.
He only made $200 a week with a $50 winning bonus, but he didn’t do it for the money.
“I substitute taught during the day and practiced in the evening,” Hill said. “It was definitely for the love of the game.”
After that season in Texas, Hill came back home for an autumn that would alter the entire course of his life.
During a routine workout at the Recreation Center, through the help of some mutual friends, he met then-SIU volleyball player Alicia Johnson; the woman he would wind up marrying.
After Alicia’s graduation in 2010, she left southern Illinois to join Hill — who she was dating at the time — in Florida. He was set to begin his first full season as the starter of the Arena Football League’s Orlando Predators.
Hill enjoyed life on and off the field his second year in Orlando, as he led the AFL in total offense with 107 combined passing and rushing touchdowns. In addition to the on-the-field success, he also proposed to Alicia, and the two married Jan. 7, 2012.
Not even two weeks later, Hill’s AFL success paid off with a contract offer with the Green Bay Packers. He didn’t appear in a game and went back to Florida arena football, joining the Tampa Bay Storm, the team he signed with prior to the Packers opportunity.
He appeared in five games before breaking his ankle, an injury he thought would put a stop to his football career.
“I was trying to figure out what I was gonna do,” Hill said during a recent interview.
He decided to give it one last go, playing six games with the San Antonio Talons after their quarterback got injured. They were the last six games of Hill’s five-year playing career.
Football was — and still is — fun for Hill to play, but he said he utilized his professional career to grow as a person.
“Professional football to me was just gaining experiences,” Hill said. “The biggest thing for me is the relationships I’ve built.”
His previous connections in the Sunshine State helped establish the pipeline that brought 17 Floridians to the current SIU football roster.
From a player to a coach and a husband to a father
With his nearby family in mind, Hill returned home to coach the Carbondale Community High School football team in 2013, leading the Terriers to the Illinois High School Association playoffs.
The next season he made the jump to SIU’s coaching staff, where he started as the quarterbacks coach.
Hill continued to rise, becoming offensive coordinator for the 2015 season, where he installed a high-powered offense that averaged nearly 500 yards per game, the second-most in Missouri Valley Conference history.
And in January after the firing of then-head coach Dale Lennon, Hill was named SIU football’s newest head coach — something his father never dreamed of happening.
“He’s just hit the ground running,” Charles said. “He’s one of the youngest coaches in Division I football but he’s jumped in there like a veteran.”
The promotion was the first of two life-changing events for Hill at the time, as he and Alicia were also expecting a child.
More than a month later — Feb. 23 — Skylar Jo Hill was born.
“When people congratulated me, I didn’t know if they meant the baby or Nick’s job,” Alicia said. “To see how excited he was, it was like a whole new look to him that I’ve never seen before.”
Hill said his wife and daughter are the most important aspects of his life.
“When I get home and I see her smile at me, I realize everything is going to be alright,” Hill said of his daughter. “If I ever feel like I can’t be a good dad or a good husband, I’ll quit this job. I’d go work a nine to five and be a better dad.”
Alicia said Hill is the most caring father a child could have.
“Skylar lights up when she sees him,” Alicia said. “He can be all business when it comes to football, but he can be a big softie with her.”
A second child isn’t on the way yet, because their dog, Polly, is basically their second daughter, Alicia said.
“Nick’s as soft with her as he is our human daughter,” she said with a laugh.
Hill learned his family values by emulating those provided by his own mother and father. Charles said he talks with Hill nearly every day, calling his family “one of the closest [ones] there is.”
The new parents hope to start traditions with their daughter and attend church regularly, another practice instilled by Hill’s upbringing. He was raised to be religious, Alicia said, and enjoys writing notes about what he hears in the weekly services.
To get southern Illinois churches involved, Hill even pushed to have them host the football squad for team dinners.
Regardless of the tumultuous route he’s taken, Hill said he doesn’t have any regrets about the way his life has turned out so far.
“If I know that I’ve prepared as hard as I can then I’m always fine with the outcome,” he said.
Staff writer Jacob Gaertner can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JGaertnerDE.
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