Seven months ago, as his teammates were busy buckling their chin straps for spring practice, Demetrius “Shawn” Hill found himself more than a thousand miles away in a small Illinois town trying to make up his mind.
The senior defensive end wasn’t thinking about Tom Allen’s new 4-2-5 system. He wasn’t replaying his fumble recovery in USF’s season finale against UCF, his 25 tackles or his pair of sacks on Western Carolina quarterback Troy Mitchell and Maryland’s C.J. Brown.
Instead, Hill had spent time pondering whether football was really for him.
He had disappeared from the team after some personal and family problems he prefers not to disclose caused him to second-guess the sport.
But then, he wanted back. He longed to feel that brotherhood again.
“I just missed my brothers, just being close to the team,” Hill said. “That’s the closest brotherhood that I really have.”
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Hill grew up in the small town of Kankakee, about 60 miles south of Chicago, as a middle child with two sisters and their mother.
In high school, Hill was a two-sport athlete, playing football and basketball, and helped lead Kankakee High to a seven-win season as a senior. He had the size, the drive and the athleticism of a Division I player, but academic trouble caused many big schools to shy away.
Following graduation in 2011, Hill enrolled at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas and quickly climbed up the ladder.
During his sophomore campaign, Hill had 61 tackles — 16.5 for a loss — and six sacks. He was ranked the 14th-best defensive-end recruit in the nation by ESPN. And with his grades up, he attracted offers from several major programs including Baylor, California and Texas Tech.
But when USF defensive line coach and Chicago native Eric Mathies offered him a chance, Hill couldn’t pass it up.
“I felt like it was the best fit,” Hill told the Kankakee Daily Journal in July 2014. “They needed help at defensive end, and I was looking for someplace outside of Illinois. I wanted to keep expanding and try someplace new.”
Hill was excited for the new challenge, enrolling early at USF to get a jump-start on classes. On the field, he succeeded, too. In 11 games, he racked up five tackles for loss and even broke up a pass by Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel.
Still, something wasn’t right. A long way from home, Hill wasn’t happy. He missed his family.
As a child, Hill never had the benefit of a male figure in his household. His mother had been the family’s breadwinner, working at a local Wendy’s restaurant for 28 years.
“She worked her tail off just trying to provide for us,” Hill said. “I never had brothers. … I was like the man of the house, trying to help keep everything upbeat for my sisters and looking out for them.”
It wasn’t until he stepped away from the program that he realized just how much it meant to him.
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Hill returned to USF later after spring to begin workouts with the Bulls during the summer. Coach Willie Taggart made him work to get back in his good graces.
“Nothing was going to be given to me,” Hill said. “I had to prove that I was ready for anything. I had to grind just to get back on the field. extra workouts, extra running. Whatever it was, I was willing to do it just to get back out there.”
Taggart admired Hill’s commitment to get back.
“Shawn wanted to get himself together,” Taggart said. “It wasn’t, ‘Hey, Shawn, I don’t like what you’re doing, you need to go away for a while and come back.’ It was more like Shawn wanted to get himself right and get his head right and be a great football player for us, and I was proud of him for that.
“He recognized his flaws and wanted to correct them. And not only wanting to correct them, but actually going out and getting it done.”
Back on the field, the 6-foot-3, 258-pound Hill has picked up right where he left off last season. His 3.5 tackles for loss are second on the team and his unit ranks second nationally in the category, heading into Saturday’s game at Maryland, with 11.
“You see the kid now, he’s a lot happier around here with everything he’s doing — in meetings, and just walking around and just coming and talking,” Taggart said. “He’s in a better place than he was before then. That always makes you excited as a coach.”
Hill is just happy to be back where he belongs.
“I just try to focus on being productive, try to take it day by day,” he said I’m just … thankful to be back out there and just playing football.
“I just love playing the game.”