Troy Hill still remembers his days as a child when his family would watch Cleveland Browns games together on his living room TV.
Hill, who grew up in Youngstown, had Browns fans all around him for most of his youth. His family was thrilled when the franchise returned to Cleveland in 1999, and Hill — who was originally a Denver Broncos fan before the Browns were revived — slowly grew a passion for what became his hometown team.
When Hill, now a six-year NFL cornerback veteran, considered his decisions on where to take his career next as an NFL free agent, those memories of watching the Browns on TV came to mind. Cleveland and Los Angeles, the city that hosted Hill for his last five seasons when he broke out with the Rams, were the top destinations he could pick from.
The lure of returning home was too strong to pass up.
"It (feels) like a homecoming," said Hill, who signed a fresh contract with the Browns last week and conducted his introductory press conference Monday.
"A lot of my family is still out here. Just being able to come back home and give them an opportunity to make more games … it's an exciting process for me."
Hill's return to Ohio puts a full-circle finish on his long journey to becoming one of the top free agent cornerbacks of 2021.
The path started in Youngstown, but it transitioned to Ventura County, California, when Hill was 15. Hill's family sent him to live with his uncle and with the hopes that he'd straighten his school-life — he was on the verge of flunking out of high school, and his family had little resources to help him in Youngstown. Football was important for Hill, too, but his future in the sport meant little if he couldn't find motivation to thrive as a student.
The move worked.
"I was surrounded by just a bunch of different people and different mindsets," Hill said. "Ohio gave me the foundation, but California shaped my mind in a way to becoming a stronger person."
With his grades back on track, Hill forged a path to the collegiate level at Oregon, where he played substantial time in the secondary all four seasons but received little interest when the 2015 NFL draft arrived.
Hill joined the league as an undrafted free agent. The Bengals, who originally signed him after the draft, used him for three games in 2015 before releasing him. The Patriots claimed him next, kept him on the roster for five days, then sent him back on the waiver wire again.
The Rams were Hill's next team, and possibly his last shot to make in the NFL. But Hill slowly began to blossom in Los Angeles — the growth became noticeable in 2018 and 2019, when he ended the seasons with two interceptions each.
By 2020, six years after going undrafted, he turned into a premier cornerback.
Three interceptions. Two touchdowns. 10 passes defensed. 16 starts.
Hill was one of the top players on a defense headlined with two All-Pro stars in Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald. Their talents helped Hill take his game to the next level, and he peaked right when he was set to hit the market as a free agent.
"We all believed in each other," Hill said of the defense, which ended the season ranked No. 1 in the league. "We wanted to see each other do well, and that's what I felt like really changed our secondary. Nobody wanted to be the weak link."
Now, Hill is bringing that same mentality back home to Cleveland.
Hill is the perfect puzzle piece to a defense the Browns aggressively upgraded at the start of free agency. He's set to become the featured slot cornerback, a position he only began to learn last year but immediately thrived in, and he's capable of playing on the outside, where the Browns need depth behind Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams.
He'll be joined in the secondary with safety John Johnson III, his former teammate for four years with the Rams who also headlined the Browns' free-agent signings.
Both Hill and Johnson were vital pieces to the Rams' immense defensive success last season. Both of them will be asked to carry heavy roles in Cleveland in 2021.
"I know what he brings to the table, and he knows what I bring to the table," Hill said. "It's going to be epic out there."
The future for Hill couldn't be much brighter, which was a stark difference from when he left Ohio in his youth. It didn't look this bright when he signed as an undrafted player. A big free-agent contract didn't seem possible when he joined his third NFL team as a long-shot to make the roster.
Now, the journey has a new, familiar destination. The Browns have big plans for Hill, and he has big plans for life back at home. He's back with his family and ready to leave a new legacy in Northeast Ohio.
"It kind of reminds me of being a kid again and playing ball as a kid," he said. "Just knowing what Ohio football is, how much they cherish Ohio football, the fanbase in Cleveland and everything that comes along with it, I'm excited to be out here."