LARAMIE — Brian Hill has had three career paths.
When he was in elementary school, he wanted to be an astronaut. In middle school, he decided he wanted to be a mechanical engineer. In high school, he told his mom he was going to play in the NFL.
There’s no question Hill made the right call. If his first 28 games are any indication, he is well on his way to a career as a professional running back.
But Saturday, Hill might get a taste of the astronaut’s life. Wyoming’s star running back is about to reach heights that, for a Wyoming Cowboy, have never been reached before.
The junior is just 74 yards away from breaking Devin Moore’s program record of 2,963 rushing yards, set from 2005-08.
“It’s just something to be proud of,” Hill said. “Being able to look back and see your name in the record books, even long after you play, is something that everyone can feel that feeling of accomplishment (about).”
After Hill set the Wyoming single-season rushing record last year with 1,631 yards, it seemed all but a given that he would get the 536 yards needed to break the career record in 2016.
But the fact that Hill is breaking this record at this school at this sport, well that’s anything but a given.
First things first, there was the matter of getting Hill to play football.
His mother, Tamara Lewis, signed Hill and his siblings up for “all the little leagues there were” to keep him occupied when he wasn’t in school growing up in East St. Louis, Illinois.
Lewis would pay Hill $5 for each sack and touchdown he recorded. It worked.
“That’s what kept him playing up until high school was when he began to really like football and give it his all,” Lewis said.
And once Hill reached high school, he was hooked.
“He got there and he loved it,” Lewis said. “He breathes and eats football. That’s all he knows.”
Then there was the matter of Hill becoming a full-time running back.
At Belleville West, where he attended high school after his family moved, Hill was a star all over the field: offense, defense, running back, receiver. You name it.
His coaches even plugged him in at quarterback a few times when the starter was injured.
You can probably imagine how he did.
“I can’t remember how many rushing touchdowns he had when he came in there,” Belleville West head coach Cameron Pettus said, “but it was crazy because everybody knew he had the ball but they still couldn’t stop him.
“So it was one of those kind of games where you know when you’ve got a special player when you hear coaches say, ‘There’s a man amongst boys out there,’ and that’s what Brian was here at high school level.”
But Hill wanted to play safety in college. Northern Illinois recruited him as a linebacker. Other schools weren’t sure where they wanted to play him.
Wyoming’s coaches wanted Hill, and they wanted him to play running back.
“We like a bigger back, and he had ability there,” said head coach Craig Bohl, who first started recruiting Hill while coaching North Dakota State. “And so certainly we’re always open to moving guys, but we had given him the green light that we were going to recruit him as a tailback.”
The fact that tailback is the feature position in Wyoming’s offense helped.
“This is a place where we’re going to continue to do what we do, and it’s going to be an emphasis on running the football,” running backs coach Mike Bath said. “It’s a tailback-dominant offense, -dependent offense. It’s something that we hope in the future we can continue to sell young men on.”
It also helped that Wyoming knew what they wanted to do with Hill.
“It was a toss up,” Hill said. “So I went with the sure thing.”
Of course, there was also the matter of Hill winding up in Wyoming. Deciding to play for the Cowboys meant more than just choosing a team. It meant moving 14 hours away from home.
“I think that’s the big thing you look for here,” Bath said, “to have a young man travel how many miles away from home, when he had other options closer, to come and play tailback.”
It helped that Wyoming offered a strong engineering school, which Hill was planning on majoring in.
“As long as the academic level was right, then I was OK with whichever one he chose,” Lewis said. “Because outside of being married, it’s kind of one of the biggest decisions you’ll make.”
Hill’s relationship with Bohl was a big asset for the Cowboys in keeping Hill from schools like Purdue that tried to come in late and sign him.
“I was like, ‘This is up to you, Brian. Here you go,’” Pettus said of the last-minute offers. But he’s like, ‘No, Coach Bohl believes in me. He believed in me first, and that’s who I’m going to go with.’”
Bohl’s relationship with Belleville West didn’t hurt, either. He had recruited Hill’s cousin, linebacker Pierre Gee-Tucker, to North Dakota State before leaving for Laramie.
“Me just knowing Coach Bohl, how he is, it was an easy sell on Brian,” Pettus said. “Obviously, you’ve got to make your own decision, but I think obviously that’s a great choice because Coach Bohl is a standup guy.”
Getting Hill to Laramie was the hard part. Succeeding once he got here? He almost made it look easy.
It took all of one carry for Hill to convince Bath that he had something special in the freshman back.
“His first carry, Game 1 against Montana, it was in the fourth quarter. I wanted to get him in,” Bath said. “We threw him in on a power read, and he violently struck their all-American safety, and it was one of those things, we were watching it the next day ... and we’re like, ‘Hmm. Wow.’”
After that 18-yard run, Hill’s next 19 carries went for 32 yards. His playing time increased against Colorado State when running backs Shaun Wick and D.J. May were injured. Hill ran for 121 yards against the Rams.
Then came his first start.
“We were coming back from a road game and somebody said, ‘Cameron, you’ve got to flip on ... the Fresno State game and watch Brian,’” Pettus said. “That game, he had just that monstrosity of a game, and luckily they DVR’d it. ... I got home and I watched him there, and I’m like, ‘Wow, Brian is really, really special.’”
Hill ran for 281 yards on 23 carries that day and added 106 yards on three catches to set a Mountain West record with 287 all-purpose yards.
“He made a couple runs that were sudden, that were physical, that we hadn’t had,” Bath said. “And that was when we kind of took a step back. ... There were some things there that we just said, ‘OK, this kid has a chance.’”
The performance was no fluke. Fast forward a year and, having racked up three more 200-yard performances, Hill was nearing the Cowboys’ single-season rushing record as a sophomore.
With one game to go, he needed 57 yards to break Ryan Christopherson’s record of 1,455 yards. He ran for 232.
And the best part? His mom was there to see it.
“It was amazing,” Lewis said. “I can’t even explain the feeling. He’s an awesome kid. Nothing ceases to amaze me, but it’s always amazing to reach new journeys.”
Hill and Lewis are close. Leaving her was the toughest part of leaving home, he said, even though “with technology today, I get to see her face all the time.”
“Being this far kind of forces me to grow up a little bit,” he said. “It’s preparing me for life.”
It wasn’t as tough the first year, when his immersion into Division-I football kept him occupied. But the longer Hill was gone, the more Lewis could tell he was missing home.
“A couple times I came up, and he was like, ‘OK, I’m ready to go home,’” Lewis said. “And I was like, ‘Naw,’ and he was like, ‘I know. I know. I’m going to stick it out.’”
At one point last year, Hill drove the 14 hours from Wyoming to Illinois to surprise Lewis.
“And though I was excited to see him,” Lewis said, “I informed him not to ever do that again.”
Lewis made it to Laramie for Wyoming’s season-opening win against Northern Illinois and to Lincoln, Nebraska, for Wyoming’s loss to the Cornhuskers. Initially, she had planned on missing Saturday’s game because it’s her daughter’s homecoming.
But with the record on the line, she had to make some arrangements.
“I refuse to miss the moment,” Lewis said Wednesday. “I talked to him yesterday, and I said, ‘You know what? I want to be here for homecoming, but homecoming is going to come again next year. This moment won’t come next year, because this is the moment to break the record.’
“I refuse to miss it. It’s going to be amazing.”
One day, when his Wyoming career is over, Hill will look back and take pride in his accomplishments as a Cowboy. But right now, he’s got bigger things to worry about.
When Hill passed Christopherson’s single-season mark last year against the Rebels, he said his offensive line was more excited about the record than he was.
Hill was more concerned with winning the game. Luckily, he got to enjoy both that day, as the Cowboys won 35-28.
This year, the present will likely take even more precedence, because Saturday’s game against the Rams is Wyoming’s first of six in Mountain West play.
“At some point we’ll, probably after the season, take a step back and say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool so far to have passed that milestone,’” Bath said. “But ... I’m sure I’ll be getting a call from (offensive coordinator Brent) Vigen to signal in the next play right after it happens.”
If Hill does break the record Saturday, he will have done it at a startling pace. Moore set the record in his 45th game, the final game of his senior season. Saturday will be Hill’s 29th game at Wyoming.
But even last year’s accomplishments don’t satisfy Hill. As crazy as it sounds, the 1,600-yard rusher didn’t feel like he did enough to help his team win.
“He hasn’t really patted himself on the back for what he did last year,” Lewis said. “I think he felt like he could’ve done more, or could’ve kind of helped in different areas, to make it a win instead of them losing.
“... He understands it, but he’s just not going to accept the fact that, ‘My team was 2-10. It’s not about me. I don’t care what I did. What I did didn’t cause us to win, so that means that it’s not about me, it’s really about all of us.’”
That also means putting aside thoughts of potentially leaving Wyoming after his junior year to pursue his career in the NFL. All calls from agents are directed straight to Lewis.
“I’m focused on the game now, trying to win,” Hill said. “So I know if I help my team perform, I’ll be good, whatever I want to do. The only thing that matters right now is balling out for us, because we have to win.”
Perhaps Hill can find a way Saturday to work in that middle school career plan after all.
Because even if he doesn’t put up astronomical numbers or shoot up some NFL scout’s draft board, the day will be considered a success if he can help engineer a win.