We mustn’t forget Tyreek Hill’s troubling entry into NFL’s elite corridors

Kansas star pleaded guilty to domestic assault against his pregnant girlfriend in 2014

The sight of Tyreek Hill ghosting with supreme speed and grace through American football defences designed to hurt him is one of the most thrilling sights in sport. But it’s impossible to watch the Kansas star without recalling his troubling entry into the elite corridors of the NFL.

The Chiefs will bring a roster of 53 players along with the huge support team to Sunday’s Superbowl, as will their opponents, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Such a large cast of stars means a complex architecture of human stories and histories.

The Chiefs are marginal favourites to eclipse Tom Brady’s supernova light in Superbowl LV, thanks mainly to the catapult-arm and athleticism of its young quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the scintillating on-field clairvoyance he has developed with Hill. Kansas hadn’t won a Superbowl since 1970 before last year: now they are on the verge of back to back championships.

His past means his endorsement deals have been limited but in the summer of 2019 Hill quietly signed a three-year $54 million contract with the Chiefs

When Kansas selected Tyreek Hill in the fifth round of the 2016 draft, it provoked an instant flurry of reproachful and angry tweets, mainly from Kansas fans. By the fifth round, the main prospects have already been selected so the outcry was unusual. But the reason Hill had fallen so low had nothing to do with his ability.


Two years earlier, he had been dismissed from the Oklahoma State college team by head coach Mike Gundy after pleading guilty to domestic assault against his pregnant girlfriend.

The police report details of the assault were graphic and disturbing and during a prolonged legal process, Hill continued to hone his extravagant talents with the comparatively obscure West Alabama. He pled guilty and served a three year probationary service and declared himself eligible for the draft with that asterisk to his name.


His athletic gifts were and are dazzling. The most prominent was his end-to-end speed: he had announced himself as an Olympic prospect by running the second fastest 200 metres high school time ever recorded. But in addition, he had exceptional balance, velvet hands, an explosive jump and possessed an instinctive football brain.

There are clips of his time with the little known Coffee County school team when he is moving at a strikingly different speed to every other player on the field, already in a different realm. The nickname he required, “Cheetah”, was apt.

Even in his debut year in the NFL, Hill at full speed makes other highly-tuned players, athletes who have come through the intense scrutiny of a ruthless vetting system, look as if they are moving through water while he cuts through air.

There’s a bleak chapter in NFL history concerning the private conduct of some of its more violent practitioners, a litany of murders and assault, often domestic. One of the most viewed and listened film and audio documentaries of recent years tells the bizarre and horrific descent into casual murder by Aaron Hernandez, the now-deceased tight end who played with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

NFL teams have become increasingly prudent in their appraisal of the “character” of potential recruits, mainly to avoid becoming locked into multi-million dollar contracts and negative publicity through association.

On the weekend of Hill’s selection, Chiefs general manager John Dorsey and the head coach Andy Reid pre-empted the response by meeting with the media and explaining their thought process. They had looked deeply into Hill’s story and, without divulging details, believed they could work with him.

“The unique part of this - and I think the part that we have to understand is - very seldom does the other side try to right the wrong,” Reid said. “He’s trying to make the effort to right the wrong. And I think that can be a great example to so many people that have fallen into this situation.”

In 2014, the NFL invoked a domestic violence policy stating first time offenders would receive a six-game no-pay ban. But a second incident of domestic violence would mean a lifetime ban. The initiative was widely praised but was subsequently feared to be counter-productive as some of the victims of abuse were reluctant to file reports because they didn’t want their partners to forfeit those lucrative contracts.

Hill’s four years in the NFL has been a story of pyrotechnic brilliance. He has literally taken that second chance and run with it. His past means his endorsement deals have been limited but in the summer of 2019 Hill quietly signed a three-year $54 million contract with the Chiefs. Game commentators speak of him in terms approaching mystification and awe: the game has seen nothing like him before – at least as a player.


In 2017, ESPN's Mina Kimes wrote an important piece about the contradictions in trying to cover a player with Hill's background. She pointed out that it would be unfair to work the subject of Hill's assault history into every conversation about his latest show of brilliance.

“That doesn’t seem right or fair,” she wrote in that piece. “But it would be equally unfair to wipe Hill’s misdeeds from his record– to pretend he can outrun his demons as swiftly as he shoots across our television screens. Hill’s past is a permanent part of his story and it should be mentioned every time his life and character are discussed.

“His efforts to redeem himself are also part of that story. Someday, they could become the most important part.”

That has to be the hope for the Chiefs – and the NFL. Worryingly, Hill was interviewed by police about new domestic abuse allegations in 2019 which were not pursued: Andy Reid reiterated that the Chiefs “have trust” in Hill. And Reid is better acquainted than most with troubled young men: two of his sons were repeatedly charged with drugs related offences and he and his wife lost their son Garrett, aged 29, to an accidental heroin overdose in 2012.

Clearly, his wish for set Hill on a better path comes from a genuine place.

It would be foolish to mistake the NFL as some kind of rehabilitation centre for America’s flawed athletes. If Hill had been merely another exceptional athlete rather than a once in a generation talent, no NFL team would have taken a risk on him. Yet it’s hard to see how his being outcast would have benefitted Hill – or, more crucially his current partner and young son.

Within the Chiefs he is surrounded by strong guidance. Mahomes, for instance, is a perfect fit for the new NFL: a devout Christian, a young father, humble and supremely confident and set to be the new face of the game whenever Tom Brady does finally sit down on the porch.

And on the other bench, Tampa Bay has taken a significant stride forward by becoming the first team to employ women on its coaching staff: Lori Locust is assistant defensive coach Maral Javadifar a strength coach.

It’s over 20 years since the world was treated to Peak Pacino in Any Given Sunday. Oliver Stone’s death-metal vision of the game is arguably a pretty bad film disguised as a good film. But Pacino’s “game of inches” speech inspired a generation of coaching talks across the world. The film presaged the concussion dilemma which now haunts the game.

And it also presented the off-stage world of professional American football as a basket case of racism, sexism, homophobia, drug addled: a troubled paradise that bordered on lawless and dangerous. Little wonder the NFL didn’t want anything to do with that story.

But it contained a lot of uncomfortable truths. And decades later, the NFL continues, falteringly, to try and get its house in order even while its big annual extravaganza, the Superbowl, continues to hold America rapt.