Tyreek Hill returns a punt for a touchdown in the regular season finale. (Alex Gallardo/Associated Press)
For a while she tried to reconcile the voices appealing to two parts of her: the cheers for her favorite NFL team and the soft desperation of the women who leaned on her for support.
How could she balance it? Was it possible?
For the better part of two decades, Annie Struby has spent her days and nights working at Rose Brooks Center, a domestic violence shelter in Kansas City, Mo. She heard the survivors’ stories, looked past the wounds and into their eyes, and guided them through simple tasks such as utility bills and grocery lists and complicated ones such as forever abandoning their homes.
“Their bravery is overwhelming to me,” said Struby, 38. “Some women thought they were going to die in their houses and really didn’t have any hope of escaping the relationship. . . . The horrifying thing is how common it is.”
Sundays during football season, though, offered an occasional break. She followed the Kansas City Chiefs, imagining the team reaching the playoffs or maybe the Super Bowl. She explained the game to her son, who seemed to absorb its nuance and idolize some of its players. Once, a cheerleader quizzed the boy, who’s now 8, on his knowledge of the team; his answers were so impressive that the young woman handed him two free tickets.
Then, in the fifth round of the NFL draft last April, the Chiefs drafted Tyreek Hill , an electric wide receiver and kick returner out of West Alabama. Hill had been kicked out of Oklahoma State in December 2014 after choking his pregnant girlfriend and punching her in the stomach at his Stillwater apartment.
Domestic abuse has been a front-and-center issue in the NFL the past three seasons, but some advocates have been confounded by what they see as the league’s inconsistent discipline and teams’ continued willingness to stand by players with violent histories.
“Overall, the domestic violence community is pretty frustrated,” said Susan Miller, Rose Brooks’s chief executive, adding that she considers the Chiefs’ drafting of Hill the latest in a series of mixed messages.
With the Chiefs opening pursuit of their first Super Bowl appearance in 47 years Sunday, many hopeful supporters are marveling over Hill’s ability while wincing at his past. “An amazing talent,” said Tim Grunhard, a former Kansas City offensive lineman who often feels himself pulled in opposing directions when it comes to Hill. “In the back of my mind, it’s always there.”
Eight months ago, Struby began her workday at the Rose Brooks shelter. Colleagues were talking about the player the Chiefs had drafted a night earlier, the things he could do on a football field being weighed against the things he had done in Oklahoma.
She thought about it, trying to balance these two powerful forces in her life. Eventually she realized that, no, it was not possible to a support a team with Hill on it. Anything else, she would say much later, would feel disloyal to those who confided in and relied on her.
That day she went home and braced for a complicated discussion with her son. Her husband, though, had reached the boy first, carefully explaining Hill’s background in contrast to the women Mommy helps.
When she reached her son’s bedroom door, Struby said, she saw his hand-drawn sign: a Chiefs logo with lines crossing it out.
Many fans expressed outraged when the Chiefs selected Hill in the fifth round. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Hill stood alone during an early December game at Arrowhead Stadium, and even before the Oakland Raiders punted, the crowd was chanting.
“Ty-reek! Ty-reek! Ty-reek!”
The ball went up, and Hill backpedaled and fielded it, then cut to his right and darted through an opening. By then the chants were overpowered by cheers. He flew past two last Raiders and sprinted 40 yards, alone again, into the end zone.
It was dazzling, memorable. Hill wasn’t just skilled; he seemed to have a taste for the theatrical: Seven of his touchdowns have come during prime-time games.
By then, even some of the team’s most adamant critics had come around. Danny Parkins, a Kansas City sports radio host, had been so disgusted by the team’s selection of Hill that, shortly after the draft, he set up a GoFundMe page to protest the choice and direct donations to Rose Brooks Center, which serves more than 15,000 women and children each year and fields around 30 hotline calls each day, Miller said.
Months later, like so many others who followed the team, Parkins couldn’t take his eyes off Hill. “You just started to marvel at it,” he said. “Rookies aren’t supposed to make that type of impact.”
This was a 22-year-old athlete who, a little more than a year earlier, had pleaded guilty to putting his girlfriend in a headlock and compressing her airway, striking her in the face and slamming her head against a wall, punching her in the abdomen while she was eight weeks pregnant. Hill, who was sentenced to three years’ probation, would say he was sorry and that he understood why fans were angry. The Chiefs’ general manager, John Dorsey, asked for the trust of the organization and community, still wounded from the morning in 2012 when linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and then committed suicide on team property in front of the former coach and general manager.
“I know that I would never put this community in any type of situation where it would not be good,” Dorsey told reporters shortly after drafting Hill.
Before the season, it didn’t seem like enough. Fans, at least those committed enough to form an opinion on a fifth-round pick, expressed outrage. Column inches were filled; call-in lines lit up; second-guessers voiced their concern.
Then the Chiefs (who declined a request to interview Hill) started the season 5-2, and the consternation surrounding Hill, with his four touchdowns in seven games, weakened. Supporters found ways to rationalize their changing feelings, suggesting Hill deserved an open mind, that his transgressions were behind him, that it was the team they were supporting and not necessarily one complicated man wearing its jersey.
“A lot of people have struggled with that,” Grunhard said. “But in America there’s a tendency to give people a second chance, whether they deserve it or not.”
A different dissonance
In his August 2015 plea agreement to domestic abuse and assault and battery charges, Hill agreed to attend anger management classes and a one-year batterer’s program. In late November, he spoke with reporters after being named the AFC’s offensive player of the week, smiling and vowing that the experience had changed him.
“I’m really dedicated,” he said, “and I’m going to stick to it so I can be a better man and a better citizen for this community and a better father to my son.”
He also indicated that, though the court had not ordered it, he was providing financial assistance to his ex-girlfriend and their now 18-month-old son.
But Oklahoma court documents show that Hill’s ex-girlfriend sued Hill for financial support in September. In December, a new filing outlined the ex-girlfriend’s demands for $1,382 per month in child support and medical costs.
Hill has not formally responded, records show, and the case is still pending. Attempts to reach attorneys for Hill and his ex-girlfriend were unsuccessful.
By the end of December (for which Hill was named AFC special teams player of the month), the Chiefs were division champions, a team with a personality and energy, a multi-barbed No. 2 playoff seed that no team would want to face. Hill was perhaps the clearest reason for all this, and he was undoubtedly the team’s most exciting and versatile player.
Hill’s past was discussed less frequently, a few whispers again overpowered by the cheers, and once-emboldened critics found themselves torn between the strength of what the young man had done and what he was doing.
“When you started to see the plays that he made downfield, you were like: ‘Oh, okay, he can do that too?’ ” said Parkins, the sports radio host. “I’m still furious that we’re all okay with this. But I’m enough of a pragmatist to acknowledge that we are.”
Chiefs fans cheer are two victories from seeing their team in the Super Bowl for the first time in 47 years. (Jason Hanna/Getty Images)
A world away
Struby works every other Sunday at Rose Brooks Center, but the afternoons she had free recently became much more open this fall.
Her family stopped watching the Chiefs, and after a brief adjustment, they filled the hours by going to the zoo or to Science City or by doing nothing much at all. She noticed score updates on Facebook, couldn’t help but read the statuses of friends excited by the team’s ongoing success, found herself arguing with friends about why certain things matter more than others.
“I want to get excited about it,” Struby said. “But at the same time it makes me cringe a little bit to see the community just wholeheartedly — I think without any qualifiers — embrace it. I understand why people do it. I don’t fault people for it. I get why people are excited. It’s just . . .”
She trailed off before continuing.
“I think that’s part of the hard part: I fear people — and maybe this is cynical — I feel like people would’ve been more concerned about Tyreek Hill, in particular, if he wasn’t so good.”