By the time Joe Hills walked into the offices of the Tampa Bay Storm in 2012, he had quite a football resume, but no one asked him about his experience or his references on that day.
“They looked me up and down said, ‘You look like a defensive end or a safety.’ After I told them I played receiver, they were like, ‘Can you run? Can you move?’ Normal football questions,” Hills said. “That was it.”
The Storm of the Arena Football League were a Hail Mary at what could have been the end of a football career that started in earnest at South Carolina in 2007 as part of the Gamecocks highest rated recruiting class in history. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Hills was a four-star prospect out of Palmetto, Fla., when he signed with South Carolina. After catching 11 passes for 87 yards and one touchdown in two seasons, he was asked to move to safety.
“I kind of didn’t like it,” Hills said. “I expressed my thoughts to (Steve Spurrier Jr.) and went out there for a few days and he basically said if you don’t want to play it then leave. There are no hard feelings between. Just two guys that didn’t see eye-to-eye.”
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Hills did leave and finished his career at Tennessee State, where he led the team in receiving for two seasons, totaling 79 catches for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns despite “kind of going through the motions for a little bit there,” he said. He signed a free agent deal with the Tennessee Titans that July (the day after the NFL lockout ended) but suffered a meniscus injury on the fourth day of camp that limited his production, and he was waived in September without playing in a game.
He landed with Spokane Shock in 2012 but came home to Florida with five games left in the season. Football wasn’t out of his system though, which is what prompted his cold call in the Storm’s offices.
“To be honest it wasn’t even my idea. It was my wife’s idea,” he said. “She was like, ‘We have an arena team down here, She was like, ‘Babe just go in there and tell them you want to play.’ She bugged me about it for two or three days so I just walked into the office them I wanted to play football.”
One of the first people he met that day was team owner Derrick Brooks, the former Tampa Bay Bucs star.
“He’s got this deep voice, like, ‘Hello, how may I help you?’ I was like, ‘I want to pay football.’ He was like, ‘You look like you’ve been playing football,’, said Hills. “He told me to come back tomorrow and fill out the paperwork. It was the weirdest thing. They gave me a two day contract, said, ‘You go out and practice and we’ll go from there.’”
Hills hasn’t stopped going yet. He has played for three Arena League teams since and been affiliated with four other pro teams since. For the last three years, he has led the league in touchdown catches and finished in the top three in yards, most recently with the Albany Empire. He was the league’s offensive player of the year in 2016, and he has been first-team All-Arena four times. He holds the league’s all-time record for consecutive games with a touchdown catch at 92. He’s 10th all-time in touchdowns with 263 and 17th in yards with 9,910.
“Ah, man, Joe Hills was a phenomenal athlete,” said defensive back Antonio Allen, who was a part of South Carolina’s 2007 signing class along with Hills.
Hills has played in the CFL’s Grey Cup with the Hamilton Tiger Cats. He was drafted by the Dalian Dragon Kings, a Chinese team affiliated with the Arena League, but chose not to play. (“It was like a traveling circus,” he said.) Last year, during the Empire’s open weekend, he signed a one-game deal to play in a playoff game for the Florida Tarpons of the Ultimate Indoor Football League.
“I literally practiced for 15 minutes and had one touchdown catch,” he said.
The Tarpons went on to win their league title and offered Hills a championship ring, but he declined it, preferring to earn one the hard way.
“I keep telling myself whenever I win a championship I am going to shut it down, but I haven’t lost a step,’ he said. “I figure when I stop being No. 1 or 2 or 3 in the league that’s when I’ll shoot it down. I am at the peak of my career right now. I have kind of mastered my game.”
Hills now works for Derrick Brooks Charities in Tampa during the AFL offseason. He estimates that in the nine years since he left college he has worked out for “eight or nine” NFL teams, and nothing has ever worked out.
“I feel like if that was meant to be it would have happened,” he said. “All I can do is put my best foot forward.”
And count his blessings.
“My wife actually tells me how fortunate I am when days are bad,” he said. “Some days I just don’t feel like working out or whatever, and we have small conversations about when I didn’t have a job or was look for a job. I know how lucky I am. I’m positive there are lots of guys who were in the same situation I was in who never every walked in that door.”