Renaldo Hill is face down in the grass.
A whistle blows. He pushes off the ground and takes off, the spikes of his cleats pushing him forward. He stays dead even with the fastest Wyoming football players as they race toward an empty trashcan on the sideline and finish the drill.
“He’s still got the juice in him,” Wyoming coach Dave Christensen will say later. “There’s no question.”
A better question: how does an NFL defensive back who played 10 seasons in the NFL after a standout college career at Michigan State end up as a graduate assistant for the Wyoming football team?
After practice ends, Hill trades his black and silver cleats for sandals and tells the story.
“I believe everything happens for a reason,” he says just two minutes in.
The Denver Broncos cut Hill in July 2011. First-year coach Josh McDaniels brought him to Denver in 2009 as part of a veteran-heavy secondary that included Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins. In his first year, Hill started all but one game of the season. The second year he started all 16. The safety’s performance was consistent. Denver’s was anything but.
The team started 2010 3-9. McDaniels lost his job, and John Fox took over. The Broncos selected two safeties in the 2011 NFL Draft, a move that led to Hill’s release.
“I understand [Fox] had to make it work for himself,” Hill said Monday. “I respected it and understood it.”
Hill played 10 seasons in the NFL after being drafted in the seventh round [pick 202] by the Arizona Cardinals in 2001. He switched positions [cornerback to safety] and switched teams [Arizona, Oakland, Miami and Denver]. He made 596 tackles, intercepted 19 passes, sacked six quarterbacks, forced five fumbles and scored two touchdowns.
But at age 32, he was out of a job. He returned to his home in Miami. He figured his fifth team would call soon.
The New England Patriots watched him workout. San Francisco showed some interest. Ed Donatell, the 49ers defensive backs coach, had coached Hill in Denver. But no official offers came, and the longer Hill waited, the more he thought about not playing anymore.
“I was sitting at home and your mind gets to wandering a little bit,” Hill said. “You think about that. I was already going into year 11.”
He decided to look into a backup plan, a second career others had predicted for years. Hill says he heard the same thing in every locker room he landed in. His teammates saw the way he understood more than one position, the way he could direct an entire defense.
“I know what you’re going to be doing when you’re done,” Hill remembers hearing. “There’s no reason you shouldn’t be coaching.”
He knew he would need to finish school to coach his desired level of football. He left Michigan State early to prepare for the NFL Draft, never completing his merchandise management degree. He called Jim Pignataro, the associate athletic director of student services at Michigan State, to ask what it would take. What Pignataro said surprised him.
“You’re about 30 credits away,” Pignataro told Hill. “But this is the catch.”
Michigan State no longer had a merchandise management degree. Hill’s old credits could transfer to a retail degree, but only if he completed his remaining classes within a year. If he waited longer, he would have to reenter school as a sophomore. Knowing he would want to coach eventually, Hill stopped waiting for his fifth NFL team to call, and became a student for the first time in a decade.
“When I was in school, you take notes from the teacher,” Hill said. “When I got back, everything was on a computer.”
Some professors remembered him. Others had no idea. He finished the required credits in two semesters and graduated on May 5.
Another decision loomed. His first step into the coaching world would be as a graduate assistant. He was OK with starting at the bottom of a program. He just had to decide which one.
It would make sense for Hill to take his graduate assistant job at Michigan State. Mark Dantonio, the team’s head coach since 2007, offered it to him.
Dantonio had been the Michigan State defensive backs coach while Hill played for the Spartans. He realized the amount of experience Hill could bring to his staff. Hill also had another option.
Donatell, the same man who wanted Hill to come to San Francisco as a player, had helped Hill on his path to becoming a coach. Donatell knew new Wyoming defensive coordinator Chris Tormey. He put in a good word that led to Hill making a visit to Laramie this spring. While there, he watched film with cornerback Blair Burns.
“I had never watched the film. He had never watched the film,” Burns said Monday. “But by the way the receivers were lined up, he could tell what routes they were going to run.”
Hill said he noticed players who were eager to learn.
“They were absorbing it,” he said. “They made me feel like they wanted me here and they wanted to get better.”
Hill asked Tormey and Wyoming coach Dave Christensen for some time to think. He returned to Michigan State, where he discussed his options with a professor. He said the woman told him about her own experiences, about how she got her doctorate’s degree at a different university before returning to Michigan State to teach.
Hill said he applied the thinking to his own situation. Wyoming would be a place to grow, a place he could use his still-fresh athleticism to teach while seeing how different coaches ran a different program.
“I think that’s going to help me become a better coach,” Hill told himself.
Then he called Tormey and took the job.