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April 11, 2012

Don't believe the hype

Editor's note: This article appears in the latest print edition of Blue White Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.

By Nate Bauer

nbauer@bluewhiteonline.com

Jordan Hill capped his first Blue-White Game as a Nittany Lion in 2009 the way he still does today, at a family tailgate. Though he was held without a statistic in the annual spring scrimmage, his spirits were high. A family-oriented kid, through and through, Hill was with his parents, Sue and Larry, his younger sisters, Janelle and Joslyn, and his high school sweetheart, Cristen, as well as some of her family, all gathered in a parking lot outside Holuba Hall.

Then, without warning, Larry, a hulking man of more than 6-feet, 300 pounds, collapsed into his son's arms.

"My dad was sitting there talking to my girlfriend's uncle and he fell," Jordan said. "I was right behind him and I caught him. I'm like, 'Man, look at you falling!' I was laughing about it, but I looked at him and he was actually having a stroke."

Sitting with one of her friends nearby, Cristen watched in shock as Larry lost his balance and fell.

"Nobody really knew what was going on, and before I knew it, Jordan was there picking him up and sitting him in a chair. It all just happened so fast," she said. "It was so crazy, but all I remember was that Jordan was right there, picking him up and sitting him in the chair and making sure he was OK."

He wasn't.

A diabetic, Larry had suffered a stroke that would force him out of work and has kept him largely confined to his home in Steelton, Pa., ever since.

Sue, a secretary for the superintendent at Steelton-Highspire High School, has been the family's sole income earner, and times are tight.

Jordan doesn't dance around that fact. As a freshman, while his Penn State teammates were picking up electronic gadgets for themselves with a $420 Best Buy gift card courtesy of the Capital One Bowl, Hill was buying gifts for his sisters after a Christmas without many presents.

So he works. He pushes himself at Penn State to be the best in the classroom and on the practice field, dreaming of a future in the National Football League and the financial security it could bring his family. He worries about his dad, his lifelong motivator. He worries about his mom, his emotional rock and the family's stabilizing force. And he worries about his young sisters, whom he has always protected.

"He already had that motivation, but I see it even 10 times more," said Cristen, a third-year nursing student at Penn State Hershey. "I think it definitely went from him wanting to do all this to him having to do all this. It's like, to him, it's not an option anymore.

"This is what he has to do. Not like, 'This would be great if I could do it.' It's, 'This is what I'm going to do.' "

***

Hill is the next star on Penn State's defensive line.

Like Jared Odrick and Devon Still before him, he is a tenacious defensive tackle in Larry Johnson's assembly line of first-round draft picks. While Still earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors from both the conference coaches and media last season, Hill played second fiddle, racking up 57 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, while earning honorable mention All-Big Ten nods in the process. Still was the star, but he said some of the hype that came his way should have gone to Hill.

"I know a lot of people say that his success this past year was based a lot on me. Although I would love to take the credit - because he had a fantastic season - that's not true," Still said. "I'm predicting a better season [for him] than I had. I give credit where credit is due, and I know the type of person that Jordan is and I know how hard he's working right now in the off-season."

Hill is aware of what is happening. He's seen the success of Odrick and Still firsthand, and he's on the same path to the NFL. His interview for this story was at least his third or fourth since December, and he's going to have to do many more before next April's draft. It's just the beginning of the payoff, the long prelude to the moment he's anticipating when Roger Goodell announces his name as one of the first 15 selections in the first round.

In December, the NFL Draft Advisory Board said he would be a third- or fourth-round pick if he left after his junior season. He was told he could possibly be selected in the second round, but there were no guarantees.

"That's pretty good for a junior," Hill said. "I wasn't disrespected, but I knew I was better than third round. I just wanted to come back and try to prove to anybody that doubted me that I'm not that guy."

He gets that attitude, in part, from his hometown.

Harrisburg just doesn't produce a lot of quality football players. Steelton, a small, urban community just south of the city along the Susquehanna River, produces even fewer.

The last NFL player to suit up for the Rollers? Troy Drayton, a Penn State All-American whose final season with the Nittany Lions was 1992, a year after Hill was born.

According to census data, the per capita income in the Steelton-Highspire school district is less than $18,000 per year. Hill's graduating class consisted of only 86 kids, and the school was 493rd out of 497 Pennsylvania districts in the Pittsburgh Business Times' rankings, which were based on standardized test scores.

As seniors in high school, Jordan and Cristen participated in an honors civics class with 20 other kids. Early in the year, the teacher separated the students into groups - those with two parents, those with one and those with none - as a social experiment aimed at shaping the curriculum for the rest of the semester.

The students in the two-parent group were Cristen, Jordan, one of Jordan's cousins and a neighbor. That was it.

The support structure, or lack thereof, manifests itself constantly. Even though the school won back-to-back PIAA Class A championships his junior and senior seasons, some of its most athletically gifted athletes failed to leave.

"I wasn't even the best athlete or player on my team," Hill said. "I could name two or three other guys who could have gone somewhere, but they didn't and they're still at home. That's a type of motivation for me, too.

"We had so many talents… but nobody goes anywhere. I'm trying to not be one of those guys who is just back at home."

Larry and Sue made sure a better future would be in store for their son.

The relationships are complicated, but Sue was the nurturer, Larry the disciplinarian. Cristen calls Jordan a momma's boy. Sue confirms. Both pushed him to be better through different styles, on the playing surfaces, in the classroom and at home.

"Larry was very tough on Jordan growing up, but I think it was just the father-son thing," Sue said.

Battles would ensue between the two hard-headed sides, usually for silly reasons, and sometimes they would lead to long silences. The two laugh about it now, but they got into heated, prolonged arguments at times.

The standard was impossible to meet, but Larry wanted more than the streets for his son.

As a sophomore, Hill's football season ended on a Friday with a loss in the state playoffs, while the basketball season commenced against rival Central Dauphin the next Monday. Trailing for most of the game, Hill remembered his team's epic comeback - including his 17-point fourth quarter - and more important, a victory.

"I was like, 'Did you see that comeback, Dad?' He said, 'Yeah, but how about the first half when you had zero points? You stunk! You were bad! You've gotta play consistently! You've gotta do it through the whole game.'

"He would point out the negatives with every positive. He gave me my credit, no doubt, but he was always my biggest critic, and I'm happy that he was."

Hill's relationship with his father has shaped much of what he has accomplished so far. It has evolved since the stroke and inspires him as he moves forward.

And yet, few teammates or coaches are even aware of Larry's medical hardships, save for Johnson, who has achieved a mentor status in Hill's life, along with a few of his roommates.

"I'm not going to ask people to feel sorry for me," he said. "It's not needed."

Hill calls home every day, usually in the afternoon just to check in on his father, who spends most of his time around the house. If Jordan doesn't call, they'll think something is wrong, and his parents will call him.

As the men of the family, the two don't talk about it directly. They're too strong for that, and the girls rely on them.

But Jordan has worries. He worries about his father, a man he never needed to be concerned about before, and his mother, the one who does everything for the family, and his sisters - one finishing her freshman year at IUP and another a sophomore in high school. They need him.

"That's been a thing for me," he said. "I think, 'I gotta do this for my family now, too.' I still have my mom working at the school. He's at home, doing stuff around the house. He helps out, but he can't do much."

And his sisters? A few years from now, they'll both be in college.

He says he doesn't think about the money because he doesn't know how much he could potentially earn. Last year, former Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley signed a four-year contract worth $10 million with a $5.7 million guaranteed signing bonus after being selected 13th overall by the Detroit Lions.

With a signature, Hill could change the fortunes of his entire family. And while he says money isn't his motivation, he understands its possibilities.

Said Cristen, "His motivation to work harder at school and football, and honestly, to get to the NFL, is to make sure that his mom and his dad are set, and so that he doesn't have to worry about his dad not working, or so that Ms. Sue doesn't have to bust her butt to cover stuff financially."

Until that late-April evening next year, the hype is going to continue to grow around Hill. He says it won't change him, and you'll believe him, because his fiercely protective instincts for his family, girlfriend, teammates and coaches won't let it. They would never let him get an inflated opinion of himself, and he's too focused on his goals to notice the attention, anyway.

"Hype isn't anything that you have to think about. You don't have to live up to what somebody else is saying you have to be," he said. "You have to know where you want to be, and that's what you want to go do.

"You hear people telling you what you want to do. I hear people say, 'He should be a top guy.' Well, I want to be the best guy. You know? I want to go above that."


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