How family and football saved Browns CB Troy Hill
Hill’s family’s intervention helped transform him into the man he is today
By Andrew Gribble Sep 02, 2021

Troy Hill has big goals to pay back the Youngstown community he needed to flee to help other kids in need

Troy Hill flashed a smile every time the camera popped. He talked glowingly about a dream fulfilled. He was back home — or at least really close to it — as the newest member of the Cleveland Browns.

Two days later, Hill bowed his head and said his final goodbye to his half brother, Vincent. Though they didn't talk all that often when Hill was on the other side of the country as a star defensive back for the Los Angeles Rams, Hill and Vincent always picked up right where they left off whenever they came together. Just like old times.

Vincent, at the age of 44, succumbed to cardiac arrest March 17, the same day Hill's phone was buzzing non-stop with the first official offers of his free agency. Hill agreed to terms with the Browns on March 19 and was in Berea just a couple of days later to officially put pen to paper.

"I didn't know if I was supposed to be happy," Hill said. "It was just a bunch of different mixed emotions going through my head.

"At one point, I remember telling my other brother I just feel empty right now. I know it's a bigger picture but I felt like he was supposed to be here to witness this."

It was a whirlwind week that ended with a sobering reminder of all the adversity Hill has faced to reach this point — the top option in the slot on a remade Browns defense that has big ambitions for 2021 — and how it continues to shape him as he enters a new stage of not just his career, but also his life.

"You look at it in chapters or quarters," Hill said. "I had adversity in every single quarter and I overcame that to get to where I'm at now. It shaped me to become a man in a situation where I don't really get fazed or worry about things that don't really matter.

"The adversity in the trials and tribulations I went through, I don't really show panic anymore. Everybody's got stories but I feel like my story really helped me become who I am today."

Every day, Sandra Jennings would come home from work, shake her head and worry. Troy was gone again.

Hill was a ninth-grader at the time, and Sandra felt him slipping away. When he wasn't at home, she knew wherever he was, whoever he was with wasn't good. He was months removed from a promising fall on the freshman football team at Youngstown's Chaney High School — an activity that kept him engaged at school — but his grades started to slip and his absences piled up. By the time spring arrived, Hill wanted to run track — he ran circles around would-be tacklers, after all — but he was ruled ineligible.

That only made things worse.

"He started rebelling," said Jennings, Hill's mother.

Jennings was running out of options, and Hill was running out of time. He failed his freshman year, and there were no signs he'd do any better in the future. If Jennings didn't act swiftly and sternly, Hill would fall down the same hole far too many young men at his age do when the streets pull them away from the structure of school.

Troy had to go.

Jennings called her brother, Jim Gilmer, and asked for help. He was thousands of miles away on the other side of the country in Ventura, California, but she knew Troy would have a far better chance of straightening out his life under Gilmer's watch.

"South side was a tough place, things had gone wrong in Youngstown with no jobs and a lot of folks hurting financially," Gilmer said. "Not a lot of opportunity for young kids, particularly for black men at that time. Lot of drugs, lot of gangs, lot of crime. My sister called me and was very concerned about Troy. He was slipping away and gotten into the wrong crowd and said I need to get him out of here."

“The adversity in the trials and tribulations I went through, I don't really show panic anymore. Everybody's got stories but I feel like my story really helped me become who I am today.” Troy Hill

It was an extreme move, the nuclear option, but it was necessary. And, ultimately, it couldn't have worked any better.

It just wasn't easy to execute. For one, Hill was dug into his lifestyle. He didn't know any other way, and he was surrounded by negative influences.

"I gotta be honest, I was really running the streets," Hill said. "I was really becoming a product of my environment ... I knew my mom couldn't control me. I didn't have nothing going for myself."

The first attempt to get Hill to California failed. Hill got word his upcoming trip to see his uncle wasn't just a vacation to "see some girls," so he went AWOL. He missed the flight and kept making trouble.

Gilmer and Jennings, though, wouldn't give up that easily.

It was just before Christmas in 2005, and Gilmer took an extra step to ensure Hill would get on the plane. He flew to Youngstown to pick him up himself. Hill had no choice but to fall in line when he saw Gilmer sitting on his family's porch.

"I wasted my money the first time. I said the hell with that, I'm not wasting anymore money," Gilmer said. "I told him you're getting your ass on the plane with me. You're not running away."

Both Gilmer and Jennings point to an incident that occurred about a year later as further validation for the decision. A couple of Hill's friends were involved in a shooting and were arrested for their involvement. Gilmer said Hill likely would have been involved if he hadn't been completely removed from the situation.

Jennings went one step further.

"If we didn't do that," Jennings said, "he would have been locked up or dead."

Pictured L to R: Hill's uncle Jim Gilmer, Hill's daughter Serenity, Hill's mother Sandra Jennings
Pictured L to R: Hill's uncle Jim Gilmer, Hill's daughter Serenity, Hill's mother Sandra Jennings

Gilmer grew up in Youngstown, the son of a single mother who worked long hours to support the family, and lived there until 1971, when he went off to fight in the Vietnam War. When his service ended, he found an opportunity in California. He enrolled in community college, one thing led to another, opportunities kept emerging, he started a family of his own and all of a sudden he found himself settled on the other side of the country.

This was the path that worked for Gilmer, and he saw a similar route for Hill — "the little skinny kid" whose uniform dragged near the ground but "seemed so tough." When Gilmer returned to Youngstown for visits, he was captivated by Hill whenever he watched him run around or through players twice his size.

"He had to get out of the old life because let's face it, I came out of Youngstown, I had issues over the course of my life that I'm still dealing with now," Gilmer said. "His life is a lot like mine. I was the first one to leave my family in Youngstown. Troy's life is like that. It was my uncles that took me under their wings and we had to tough it out. The military helped shape me and I brought all that to Troy."

Needless to say, it was a process to get Hill to fall in line, but the structure and support system worked just like Gilmer intended. It just took a few weeks.

At one point, Hill reached out to his mother to tell her he was coming home. She sternly let him know he'd have to walk if that were his decision.

Gilmer, Hill and Jennings all viewed that moment as a turning point.

"At some point, he said you know what, if I'm going to do this, I might as well do it and make the best of it," Gilmer said. "It's like the light went on."

"All that hard work, all that anger, all that pain, all that work paid off. It was an amazing journey. I'm not going to lie, it was amazing." Jim Gilmer, Hill's uncle

Gilmer's daughter was already enrolled at St. Bonaventure High School when Hill arrived, and Gilmer was able to tap into those connections to get his nephew into the school and on the football team. Because Hill failed the majority of his classes as a freshman in Youngstown, there was a lot to accomplish in a short amount of time to get him eligible to play football and, more importantly, to set him on a path toward graduation.

Every morning, Gilmer would drop Hill off at school at 5:30 a.m. for weight lifting. Hill would practice before and after school, get home in the evening, plow through his homework and do it all over again the next day. This was the structure that worked for Gilmer in the military, and it was working for Hill, whose grades improved and his prowess on the football field was drawing more and more attention.

"He would slip here and there and some classes he would kind of be lazy, but I stayed on top of him," Gilmer said. "He felt isolated at times until he got into the sort of rites of passage and transition and fully adopted the lifestyle out here and the opportunities ahead. He saw that and then he embraced that and was cool with it. It was a challenge."

Hill laughs when he thinks about what his friends back home thought about their old friend living in California, that he was just there to "see some girls" and hang out on the beach.

"When I was in California, people may have thought it was sweet. 'Oh, he moved to California and was with his rich uncle.' It wasn't anything like that," Hill said. "I slept in a room smaller than a dorm, like an office, on a little bitty bed with a little bitty TV and a computer."

The moment Hill got on the football field, he immediately turned heads. One coach approached Gilmer and told him Hill had the "fastest feet" he'd ever seen. He was too good to keep off the field no matter who had the ball. When St. Bonaventure had it, Hill was a wide receiver. When his team was on defense, Hill was locking down the opposing wide receivers as a cornerback.

Just 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, Hill was officially a problem for opposing teams, and colleges quickly took notice. He received numerous offers, ranging from Wisconsin to Iowa State to Washington, but he ultimately decided to attend the University of Oregon.

There was just one more hill to climb before he was officially a college football player.

Hill was initially declared ineligible by the NCAA because he played five years of high school football — one in Youngstown and four in California with St. Bonaventure. As a result, St. Bonaventure had to vacate its 11-2 record in 2009, and Hill was forced to wait for months while the NCAA weighed his waiver request. Ultimately, Hill was granted eligibility largely because the rule that was preventing his enrollment was enacted after Hill uprooted his life and moved to California.

"His dream was still alive," Gilmer said. "All that hard work, all that anger, all that pain, all that work paid off. It was an amazing journey. I'm not going to lie, it was amazing."

Hill played a key role on Oregon's 2014 team, which advanced to the College Football Playoff championship game.
Hill played a key role on Oregon's 2014 team, which advanced to the College Football Playoff championship game.

It wasn't a smooth path from that point. It never has been for Hill, who had to overcome a couple of significant, self-inflicted wounds to reach where he is today.

Hill redshirted his first season and bided his time as a productive reserve during his freshman and sophomore seasons. By his junior year, Hill was a fixture in Oregon's secondary in a role similar to the one he now has with the Browns, serving as the Ducks' top option in the slot.

Hill's future in football, though, looked to be in peril on multiple occasions. He missed the Ducks' rivalry game against Oregon State because he was suspended for a violation of team rules. Less than a month later, he was arrested on a felony assault charge that resulted in an indefinite suspension. Hill eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge, resulting in a sentence of 36 months of probation to the court, fines and 70 hours of community service. He was also required to complete a six-month anger management course.

Hill rejoined the team for his senior season, and it was a big one. He started 14 games as the Ducks rolled through the year and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff national championship. Though he would go undrafted, Hill landed in the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Hill signed with the Bengals as an undrafted free agent in 2015.
Hill signed with the Bengals as an undrafted free agent in 2015.

Though it was hours away from Youngstown, Hill was finally back close to home. For Gilmer, though, it was too much, too soon.

"When you've got a lot of money, you can have a lot of financial stuff but your psychology and spiritual life is like you're still back in the hood," Gilmer said. "I was always concerned about that when he was with the Bengals. I was happy he was in the NFL but I said, 'oh gosh, he's going to be back home, young, a lot of money, a lot of family members, friends, old influences being there and he could slip up and make the wrong decision here and there.'"

Hill's time with the Bengals was short. He was cut before the start of the season and later joined Cincinnati's practice squad. He was elevated to the active roster for three games but was waived once more on Christmas Eve and claimed on Christmas by the Patriots, only to be waived five days later. He finished the year as a member of the Rams.

During that topsy turvy start of his career, Hill endured the death of his half brother Te'Kquan Alexander, who was lost in a motorcycle crash.

"That one broke me down to the fullest," Hill said. "I really didn't understand it at the time. At that moment, I was still young. I was still trying to make my way."

This type of signed-again, cut-again back-and-forth is common for undrafted free agents like Hill. More often than not, the churn stops, and the player is forced to move on to other endeavors. Hill, though, stayed the course and eventually carved out a niche with the Rams.

This was the break he needed.

Though he was claimed by the Rams when they were in St. Louis, Hill played his first full season with the franchise in Los Angeles. Back in California and back near Gilmer, Hill carved out a niche he couldn't find in his previous stops, earned a spot on the 53-man roster and found regular playing time, including a handful of starts, through the first 12 games of the 2016 season. Trouble, though, found Hill once more, as he was arrested for DUI and was promptly waived and demoted to the practice squad.

"In the moments (of making mistakes), I was just going with the wind, I wasn't having 'intent' (or looking ahead)," Hill said in a July 2020 profile in The Athletic. "Now, I'm big on 'intent'. I could have avoided a lot of these situations by just not putting myself in them."

The Rams gave Hill one more chance. He was back on the active roster for the final part of the 2016 season and, after serving a two-game league suspension for the incident, back on the field Week 3 in 2017 when the Rams faced the 49ers. He's missed just four games in the four years since while establishing himself as one of the NFL's top slot cornerbacks. In 2020, Hill started all 16 games for a Rams defense that ranked as one of the league's best and led all defensive players with three touchdowns.

Gilmer had a front-row seat for all of it as he watched Hill grow and mature into the man he is today.

"I think it helped him to mature while still having that structure, still having that spiritual influence," Gilmer said. "None of us are perfect. I was always there during his down times when he did make wrong decisions. I was there during the good things and the bad things and it really helped him."

As close as Gilmer and Hill are, Gilmer was in the dark when it came to free agency this past March.

Hill initially told Gilmer he might be headed to San Francisco but later texted him it wasn't happening. Then, for days, he heard nothing as free agency really started to ramp up around the NFL. Finally, his phone buzzed with a short text that said it all.

"Unc," Hill wrote, "I'm going home."

It was a bittersweet moment for Gilmer, who loved having Hill playing football in his backyard but it was also oh so special. Shortly after he got the text, Gilmer, who grew up watching Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly run over defenders and race down the sidelines of Cleveland Municipal Stadium, went into his closet and pulled out some of his old Browns gear.

"It was an amazing culmination of our family history and legacy," Gilmer said. "It's kind of a spiritual thing for me.

"I wanted him to stay out here because he's like my son in many ways. I always had the thought that if he goes back home, those influences are there but it's like me. When I go home, I don't go back to the things I've done. A lot of our friends have passed on. He's mature now. I had to release him."

"He has been through a lot in his life. I think he is looking forward to mentoring guys where he is." Kevin Stefanski

Hill never expected to come back home this way. He's not only in the prime of his career after his best season yet, but he's also joining a Browns team that looks nothing like the ones he remembers watching as a kid. He fit exactly what the Browns were looking for not just on the defense, but the entire roster: Smart, tough and accountable.

"Troy is a versatile corner that has played inside and outside,'' Browns EVP of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry said. "He's a smart football player who can play man coverage, zone coverage, turn the ball over and is a sound tackler. We all viewed him as a really big part of the defensive success in Los Angeles this past year, and for us, the ability to have a corner that can play at a high level on both the outside and inside gives us a lot of flexibility with who we currently have on the roster and who we may add moving forward."

Hill is one of many new defensive players on a team that is looking to be much better than it was in 2020. His big-game experience on one of the NFL's best defenses combined with his veteran savvy made him appealing to his hometown team, and the fit has been seamless thus far. On top of his skillful play in the secondary, Hill has welcomed rookie CB Greg Newsome II with open arms and talked glowingly about how he was excited to "be a part of his journey and at the start of his journey."

"That's Troy Hill," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "That is part of the reason he is here is those leadership abilities. He has been through a lot in his life. I think he is looking forward to mentoring guys where he is."

That mindset is already taking place off the field, where Hill hopes to make a difference in the city he left behind to straighten out his life.

Hill understands most children who grow up in poverty surrounded by bad influences don't have the kind of escape plan that helped him. That's why he wants to make a difference for the children of Youngstown, a city that has seen poverty and violent crime continue to rise.

Hill has run football camps in Youngstown in the past, but he wants something more permanent. He's seen what someone like LeBron James can do in his home town of Akron and he wants to do the same as he dreams of one day starting a school of his own.

"There's so much talent out there, so many smart people who don't get the opportunity to do it," Hill said. "You only see drugs, poverty, drug dealers. If you aren't seeing something positive, how are you going to do positive? That's where I'm at with it. I need to bring a light and positivity."


Youngstown was certainly quick to welcome Hill back. A little more than a month after he signed, the city celebrated "Troy Hill Day" at the Boys & Girls club of Youngstown, a place he spent plenty of days as a youth. Hill, who also received a key to the city, presented a $5,000 check to Chaney High School.

Hill's goals match those of the Browns, who are dedicated to improving the quality of education for students in Ohio by making investments that keep kids in school every day so they can succeed, highlighted by the "Stay in the Game! Keep Learning, Every Day" Network. The Browns are also devoutly committed to assisting the development, safety and growth of youth and high school football throughout Northeast Ohio with year-round programming for players, coaches, officials and parents. Over the past five years, the Browns, courtesy of the Haslam family and through the Browns Give Back platform, have installed 11 high-quality synthetic turf fields across Ohio, giving youths a safe place to play a variety of sports at all times of day.

The beginning of Hill's return brought unexpected tragedy, but Hill's vision quickly came into focus.

"There's a lot of kids that look up to him. He don't know but I know." Sandra Jennings, Hill's mother

There's a difference to be made.

"This is the drama, the tragedy, life in Youngstown, which can be hard. You have to reflect on why this was the reason God brought me here," Hill said. "He slapped him in the face with the death of a brother and said you know what, this is why I called you here, to make a difference, to change some lives, so that other young people, young men particularly, don't have to end up like that."

Jennings was seeing it even before Hill returned. She remembered giving a young boy a shirt with Hill's name on it, and the boy said he didn't plan to wear it. He'd frame it.

"There's a lot of kids that look up to him," Jennings said. "He don't know but I know. When he comes home, I try to let them see him when I can. It brings excitement to their faces.

"He should be able to do a lot here."

back to top