Football is Demonte Hill's inspiration.
When he struggled to distance himself from gangs in his tough Wichita neighborhood, football kept him straight.
When he didn't feel like going to school, wondering what he had to gain, football rolled him out of bed.
Through difficult obstacles and a determined focus, the 21-year-old Hill has made it this far, determined to inspire his 15 brothers and sisters — his mother has eight children and his father has nine — to make the most of themselves.
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Hill is a 6-foot-2, 245-pound linebacker from East High with near-running back speed. There's never been a question about his ability, only about his judgment.
He was dismissed from the Butler Community College team after a freshman year that included Hill recovering the football in the end zone for the winning touchdown in the second overtime of the 2008 NJCAA championship game against Snow (Utah).
"I was at odds with the coaching staff,'' Hill said. "There were a lot of misunderstandings. I didn't think Butler was the right place for me. Now I realize it was.''
He transferred to Hutchinson, but was dismissed in two weeks after participating in a fight, he said, at a Hutch nightclub. His return to Butler went well at first, but Hill was again dismissed after spring 2010 workouts for, he said, violating the program's cell phone policy inside the locker room.
It's not that Hill did terrible things. He is not, say coaches who know him, a bad guy. He needed to get away from Wichita, where the burden of his responsibilities can be overwhelming and the pull of some of his friends can be detrimental.
"Demonte has a tremendous amount of ability,'' said Butler coach Troy Morrell, who had his share of issues with Hill. "I think he could really make something of himself. When he's focused, he's a really, really good player.''
Godsends, Hill learned, can happen in the middle of nowhere. His came during the 2010 season at Eastern Arizona Community College in Thatcher, population 4,121.
Though the team went 8-3, Hill said he didn't enjoy the football experience.
"It was like every man for himself,'' he said. "We just scrimmaged all day in practice; we never learned the fundamentals. Players never bonded. At Butler, we were taught to love and trust one another. More than teammates, it was a brotherhood.''
But without even being aware, Hill was maturing as a person in Thatcher. Freed from some of the responsibilities of family and away from the influences of friends, he flourished. He made the All-Western States Conference team and was an all-region linebacker, too.
Hill had 88 tackles — 29 for loss with four sacks. He was a disruptive force, but wasn't able to graduate at the semester break so some of the offers he had from Bowl Subdivision schools were taken away.
He accepted a scholarship offer to Southern University, in Baton Rouge, La., and will depart for the bayou soon. Once there, he said, football will again be his focus. And he has big plans.
"I want to be able to do the things I want to do,'' Hill said. "School is important now because I want to live a different lifestyle. I'm going to school and playing ball because I want to have a better life for me and my family. I want to break the cycle of stereotypical black men and keep the torch lit.''
Hill's father, Derek Hubbard, was an All-City League running back at South. Since high school, he has been in and out of prison.
Hill hopes for the best for his dad, but doesn't want to end up like him. He's driven. He wants to inspire, not impress.
There are 15 brothers and sisters, all younger, who look up to him. That kind of pressure would make some people wilt. But Hill is taking on the challenge like he believes a man in the family should.
"He loves football so much,'' said Aliyah Winesberry, Hill's mother. "Ever since I can remember, since he was 2 years old or so, he always carried a football with him everywhere he went. To this day, that's still the case. Even when he goes with me to the grocery store.''
Hill not only loves football, he loves what it could potentially do for him and his family. It's not crazy to think that if things go well at Southern, he could play in the NFL someday.
Southern coach Stump Mitchell, who played nine NFL seasons as a punt/kick returner and running back, isn't putting anything past Hill, whom he spotted at Eastern Arizona.
"I think we have a guy with the prototype body of an NFL player,'' Mitchell said. "A guy who unfortunately had to go the junior college route to do what he had to do to become eligible at the next level. But what we see is a very physical young man who has the ability to cover tight ends and perhaps some backs. There's no question he could get to the NFL. He seems to have a good knowledge of the game and he still has a couple of more years to improve.''
Hill says he is driven. And judging from his piercing eyes it would be crazy to doubt him.
His past transgressions are just that — in the past. He didn't burn any bridges when he was asked to leave Butler and Hutch. In fact, he remains close to Butler defensive coordinator Tim Schaffner, who helped Hill get to Eastern Arizona and talks to his former pupil frequently.
"He still hasn't tapped much of his potential,'' Schaffner said. "He could be as good as anybody who has come through Butler. He just comes from such a disheveled background and he continued to get sucked back into it when he was here.''
Hill admits the adjustment to Butler was too much for him to handle. The structure and expectations were overwhelming. He was too used to gliding through his day without giving much effort. Football came easily to him until he was asked — or told — to do more.
"There were times that first year there when I wanted to give up because I didn't have a work ethic at all,'' Hill said. "Camp before the season was like hell. I had to question myself: 'Do I like football?' "
Hill wasn't a starting linebacker as a freshman, but he received significant playing time. He, like most junior college freshmen, fought to make the adjustments.
"I've always wanted Demonte to succeed but we weren't going to cut corners for him,'' Schaffner said. "The move to Eastern Arizona was in the best interest for him and our team, both. To get out of here was awesome for him. I want him far away, which is why Southern is great for him. There were times when he was talking about going to KU and K-State and I told him he should look for something in New Hampshire, Florida, Oregon — anywhere but here.''
Hill, a two-time honorable-mention All-City fullback at East, idolized Barry Sanders when he was a kid, always requesting uniform No. 20 when he played junior football. He was a running back in those days but was destined to outgrow the position. Literally.
Hill might be a kid in some ways, but he looks like a man. He's imposing, which wasn't necessarily a good thing growing up. Others would challenge him and while he stepped away most of the time, there were occasions when he would get into fights.
He longed for male role models and found a few, mostly because of football. He credits Darnell Johnson, a close family friend, with pushing him to keep going to school and keep pursuing football.
People who know Hill consider him to be quiet and reflective. But when it comes to his story, he wants to tell it from a mountain top.
He has a big family to feed and whether it's fair or not, those brothers and sisters have expectations for him. It would have been so easy for him to drift off into a life of gangs. To drop out of high school and become a criminal. To fall to the temptations his father did.
He says his mother, though burdened with multiple jobs to feed her kids, did everything she could to make his life tolerable. She has always had a special place for Demonte, her first child. She tried to point him in the right direction.
"Now he wants that 'Cosby Show' because he never had that,'' Schaffner said. "He treasures those people in his life that do help him and that he knows he can count on.''
Hill's desire to tell his story to the public doesn't come from ego. There's a message he wants to deliver, one that has been told time and time again.
Hard times don't have to last. Hard times don't have to win.
"Demonte isn't an attention grabber,'' Schaffner said. "He's a very quiet guy. But still waters run very, very deep.''
Hill is a young guy who only in the past year or so has realized life is much easier when he stays out of his own way.
"It seems like I went from being a boy to being a man overnight,'' he said. "I had no choice but to grow up. I knew I had to take care of business in Arizona to get where I wanted to go. Adversity has defined my life, but whenever it's been thrown at me I've tried to respond well.''