He thought it was a joke when he heard he'd been selected as a first-round NFL pick, but just weeks into his rookie season he was being compared to Jim Brown. Yale's Calvin Hill has yet to be stopped.
One can take a look at the Yale and Ivy League record books and quickly grasp the impact that Calvin Hill made as an athlete. A two-sport standout, he became an Ivy League champion in both football and track & field on multiple occasions. But one must go beyond the athletic history to see the full picture of the contribution Hill made during his time at Yale.
As a high school All-America in football as well as an honors student at Riverdale Country School in New York, Hill was pursued by big-time football programs and Ivy League schools alike. Riverdale's mission was to prepare students for matriculation at an elite liberal arts college, and despite his status as a top player, Hill was not trying to predict which school would give him the best chance of making the NFL. To the contrary, he planned on pursuing a graduate degree in divinity after college.
He had one main priority for evaluating football programs. "For some reason, I just knew I wanted to play in a big stadium. When I visited Yale and saw that the Yale Bowl had a capacity of 70,000 — and the day I visited the stadium was full — I fell in love with the school."
The other school to which Hill gave serious consideration was Harvard. But another factor in Yale's favor was the opportunity to make history walking in the door. "I was a quarterback in high school and Yale had never had a black quarterback. I was attracted by the chance to be the first."
Hill ended up making his mark at Yale as a running back but could also be counted on to gain all-purpose yards as a receiver. He surpassed Albie Booth to become Yale's all-time scoring leader during his final game, the infamous 29-29 tie with Harvard in 1968.
Both teams entered "The Game" that year undefeated in Ivy play, so the winner would also capture the Ivy title. After falling behind by 16 points, Harvard, miraculously, scored two touchdowns and made both two-point conversions — all in the final 45 seconds — to tie the game and grab a share of the Ivy title. While it lives on in infamy for Elis, it remains a legendary game in Ivy football history.
Although that was a disappointing finish for Hill, it capped off a remarkable career. He was selected as first-team All-Ivy as a junior and senior. Nearly four decades later, he remains in the top 10 in Ivy history for most rushing touchdowns, most touchdowns and most points scored during the Ivy League season.
Hill's star shone equally brightly in track & field as he established himself as one of the best jumpers in the school's history while helping Yale to win Heps Championships. In both 1967 and 1968 he was a double champion winning both the long and triple jumps at the Outdoor Championships. He still holds the Yale home track record for the long jump, and after holding the school record for nearly 20 years, he remains second on the all-time list. Combining his accomplishments in football and track & field puts him on a short list as one of the greatest athletes to ever wear a Yale uniform.
Thanks to his achievements Hill was, naturally, well known both on campus and in the larger environs of New Haven. In addition to his roles as scholar and athlete, he also took seriously his role as a citizen of both the university and the city. "I loved Yale," he says. "It was a wonderful place, very challenging academically, athletically and socially. I just tried to take as much as I could, but also give as much as I could, and tried to be a good citizen of Yale and New Haven. But it was easy... because I loved the place."
When football teammate, Kurt Schmoke — now the dean of Howard Law School and formerly mayor of Baltimore — requested Hill's help in founding a daycare center to help the employees of the university have access to quality childcare, Hill did not hesitate to help raise money and allow his famous name to be used to attract donors. In a remarkable feat for undergraduates, Schmoke and his partners were successful in establishing the daycare center in 1970.
To this day, the Calvin Hill Daycare Center offers innovative, quality childcare to Yale employees and other residents of New Haven. The Hill family remains active supporters of the Center and Hill himself visits on an annual basis. "I always meet a kid who asks why my mother named me after the daycare center. But I know of several daycare centers that are using the curriculum they developed at Calvin Hill and at Yale. It is sobering. More than the athletics, that is a special legacy."
After Yale, Hill went on to a Pro Bowl NFL career. Although he was surprised to be drafted — he initially thought it was a practical joke when he received a phone call from the Dallas Cowboys informing him that they had selected him in the first round — once he entered the league he continued his gridiron success.
In his rookie season he took the league by storm. Five games into his rookie season Coach Tom Landry said "he might be the best ball-carrier I've seen in 20 years of pro football." Sportswriters were comparing him to Jim Brown as he finished second to the legendary Gale Sayers in rushing yards, likely missing out on winning the rushing title outright because of a late-season broken foot. For his outstanding first season he was rewarded with a near-unanimous selection as Rookie of the Year.
In 1972 he became Dallas' first-ever 1,000-yard running back and repeated that with another grand performance the following year. He left the Cowboys after the 1974 season to play for The Hawaiians (in the short-lived World Football League) and Washington Redskins, before concluding his career with the Cleveland Browns in 1981.
Over the balance of his career, he was named to the Pro Bowl four times and played in two Super Bowls, including Super Bowl VI, in which the Cowboys won their first NFL title.
Despite all of this, Hill says that what he is most proud of from his NFL career was his resilience. Despite several serious injuries, including a torn knee ligament that led one doctor to predict he would never run again, he returned to compete again and again. "I am most proud of overcoming adversity. That's what you learn from sports... that when you get knocked down, you get back up. That's what I'm most proud of — being able to bounce back."
Since the NFL, Hill has built a successful career in sports management and consulting. His professional credentials and affiliations have included Vice President of the Baltimore Orioles and service on numerous corporate and not-for-profit boards including Toys R Us, the NCAA Foundation, International Special Olympics and the President's Council on Physical Fitness during the Clinton administration. He has also remained active in service to both of his alma maters. For his career achievements and civic contributions the NCAA honored him with its prestigious Silver Anniversary award in 1994.
Hill is now doing what would appear to be his life's work as a consultant providing programs for professional athletes to give them the support they need to succeed beyond the playing field and prepare for life after sports.
While living and playing in Dallas during the early 1970s, Hill attended the SMU School of Divinity, as he had always planned. That training, combined with his own life as a scholar, athlete, citizen and parent, have uniquely prepared him to work with professional athletes learning to have the success he has had both athletically and professionally. He and his wife, Janet Hill, also a corporate consultant, have had plenty of hands-on experience with this as they raised NBA All-Star Grant Hill.
His work is guided by an English proverb, "Pray that a person does not enjoy success before they can endure success." Hill sees his role as helping provide the infrastructure for young players to "deal with the perils of fame and fortune."
For an excellent example of balanced success, those athletes need look no further then Calvin Hill himself.
— Meredith Rainey Valmon