LOGAN, Utah – A football career is a fickle one. Just when a player thinks everything is going perfectly and they are on track to meet the goals they have set for themselves, something goes wrong. All of a sudden, their world comes screeching to a halt when they are told their season is over.
For Utah State senior running back Joe Hill, that is what happened last September. An injury in the game at San José State turned out to be a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) that would require surgery and significant rehabilitation. The breakout season he was hoping to have would have to wait.
“It was a tough bump in the road, but it taught me a lot. It taught me to take advantage of the time I have out here because it can be taken away just like that,” Hill said.
Now, Hill is determined to make things happen. Utah State has a recent history of standout running backs, and he wants to be the next one on that list.
“My goal this year is to make the most of every play and every game and just enjoy my time here,” he said. “I want to get to 1,000 yards. That was my goal last year, and I kind of got set back. I’m ready to take another swing at it, and I think I can do it. I want to be a playmaker and help the team win. It means a lot. I was here with Robert Turbin, Michael Smith and Kerwynn Williams. I want to finish out strong for them. They taught me a lot of things and that’s the best way I can think of to go out.”
As he worked in the off-season, Hill had his focus on returning to the game better, stronger and faster than he was before. Once he was able to return to the field, it took some time to warm back up to the game, but that is something special teams coordinator and running backs coach Dave Ungerer is less concerned about now.
“Each day he’s getting a little bit stronger, a little bit faster and a little bit more comfortable. Initially, anyone is going to have some hesitation. He had to get used to the brace and then we changed the brace. Now most the time you don’t even notice he’s had surgery,” Ungerer said. “I expect him to continue to get better and better each and every game this year.”
As his high school career was wrapping up, Hill began looking into his options. The first offer came from Idaho State. The coaches at the University of Utah were next to come calling, but while they offered a visit and a spot on the roster, they could not guarantee a scholarship. The Utah coaches mentioned Hill to the staff at Utah State who immediately expressed interest and brought him on.
While he was thrilled for the opportunity to be playing Division I football, the bigger side of it for Hill is the fact that he was going to college at all. Now, just a few months shy of his degree, he is keeping his goals in sight, on and off the field.
“I’m the first person in my family to go to college, so it’s a huge deal. I have a lot of people depending on me to finish. I’m setting an example for my little brothers and sisters, and my nieces and nephews,” Hill said. “I’ve been working hard for them, and I’m just trying to finish strong.”
On the field, Hill is a quiet, but confident leader. With the experience he has and the trials he has gone through, he has learned a lot and is using it to benefit those around him.
“Joe is what I would consider a quiet leader. He leads by example, coming to practice every day and working really hard,” Ungerer said. “He’s not a real vocal guy, you’re not going to see him give the great speech or the big cheers. However, he does a lot by example for the young running backs in the program.”
Hill is quick to agree. He knows his strengths and what he brings to the program and the offense in particular.
“My role is to make plays. They rely on me to make plays and help the team. I’m here to boost morale and help the team no matter what,” Hill said. “I’ve been here a long time, so I’m just helping out.”
As he looks back on his time at Utah State and the experiences he has had, Hill knows he’ll be just fine in the future.
“Football teaches you a lot about life. When things go wrong, you just have to keep pushing through. Everyone goes through things. When things happen, you have two choices. You can keep going and push through, or you can give up. Football taught me to never give up,” Hill said.
He also knows there’s not much in life that can get accomplished on your own. Finding others with the same goals and purpose and working with them to move forward will make anything easier.
“It takes everyone to achieve a goal, you need help,” Hill said. “It helps boost your own confidence and helps everyone else out. You have a standard to hold yourself to every day because of who you surround yourself with.”
As one of the remaining few players from the struggling Utah State program, Hill knows where the team has been and what they are capable of as a group. Like so many others, he is quick to point to the game at Hawai’i in 2011 as the crossroads of the Aggie program.
“We were down by so much and went into the locker room and came out on fire. That game was the one that turned this whole program around,” he said. “We’ve been on fire since.”
Hill has been through and seen a lot in the five years he has been in Logan. As he embarks on his final year, which will include receiving his bachelor’s degree in exercise science next spring, he is excited to see how things end.
“It’s been a journey,” he said, “but I’m ready to finish strong.”