Hill ’69 shares tales from a life in sports

Calvin Hill ’69 said he recently had to borrow the car of his son, Duke and NBA basketball star Grant Hill. While he was driving, other drivers honked to get Hill’s attention and gestured toward his tires. Though Hill thought his tires were flat, he noted upon inspection that they were fine. This phenomenon persisted until Hill returned to his son’s house, where his son explained that the other drivers were admiring his new rims, to which Calvin Hill asked, “You mean the hubcaps?”

Last week, Hill spoke to Yale students about the changes he witnessed through his years of playing football for Yale and the pros — from new regulations to shifting gender roles to the advent of puzzling terminology such as “rims.” Hill, a former All-Ivy football player who went pro and played for the Dallas Cowboys, the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Browns, said graduation did not mark the end of his interest in Yale sports. Hill said sports at Yale were much different in the 1960s.

When Hill attended Yale, the only way to meet women in sports was to attend football victory parties. Thirty-six years later, women ­– including the national champion women’s squash team — have their own athletic victories to celebrate. Hill said the near-doubling of the number of varsity sports teams at Yale explains the school’s 1973 switch from Division I-A to Division I-AA.

Hill, whom several students described as personable, said he believes sports are a “totemic force” in communities. He said that during his time suiting up for Yale, so many people came to the games that special trains ran from Grand Central Station to New Haven on game days.

“Yale football meant a lot to a lot of people, not just Yalies,” Hill said.

But while the Yale Bowl used to overflow with spectators for almost every football game when Hill was playing for Yale, he said the current football team may only fill the stadium once or twice a year.

Hill reminisced that Yale football used to be so strong that scores from games were posted on the front sports page of the New York Times. Garry Trudeau’s ’70, ART ’73 recurring News comic strip, “Bulltails,” utilized the popularity of the football team to address political and social issues by portraying actual players such as Hill in its panels.

Although Hill still follows Yale sports consistently, he said he is dissatisfied with the lack of coverage they have received recently. The lack in coverage, Hill said, could partly be attributed to a lesser emphasis on men’s sports and “has nothing to do with the players.” Because of the addition of women’s sports, Yale is spreading its resources among roughly twice the number of teams, making it more hard for a single Bulldog team to become a monolith, he said.

Hill’s former teammate Brian Dowling ’69 said he also still follows Yale athletics but agrees the limelight has diminished around football.

“There was less going on, so [football] might have taken up a bit more of people’s consciousness,” Dowling said.

Hill said that because Yale is not a football powerhouse anymore, Ivy League policies may deter promising prospective athletes from attending Yale in favor of universities that provide merit scholarships and allow their players perks.

Hill said some of these regulations affected him during his time at Yale. He was invited to play in numerous all-star games in which he could not participate because of Ivy League policy and had to turn down a special invitation to Glamour Magazine’s “Ten Best-Dressed College Girls” premier party.

Stricter regulations make collegiate sports less enjoyable for the players, Hill said. He said that this feeling almost made him end his football career during his freshman year.

In high school Hill was All-American and described himself as the “offensive star,” but at the beginning of his first year at Yale he was only the third-string fullback on the freshman team. Hill said he remembers that he and his friend Ed Franklin ’69 received little playing time and that they seriously contemplated quitting. Hill said they would have done so if not for the unwitting intervention of the late Bob Kiphuth, the legendary swim coach.

Hill and Franklin decided to take their time walking to the bus for the Cornell game, thinking that if it left them it would be a sure sign they should quit. Sure enough, when they arrived at Payne Whitney Gymnasium, the bus had already departed. Resigning themselves to their fate, Hill and Franklin decided to head back to their dormitories when they heard Kiphuth say, “Hold on, I’ll give you a ride.”

The Cornell game turned out to be the turning point in Hill’s collegiate career. He played for a half and even scored a touchdown. His performance earned him a starting place on the field the next week against Princeton. Both Hill and Franklin went on to become All-Ivy in 1968.

Students said Hill made a great Yalie not just because of all that he accomplished when he was a student but after graduation as well.

“He’s a great face for Yale,” Matthew Goodman ’08 said. “Not only was he a great athlete, but he and his wife are very intelligent and dignified.”

After Yale, Hill’s career continued to flourish when he entered the pros. He was the first-round draft pick of the Cowboys and earned NFL Rookie of the Year and All-Pro honors that season. After six years, he became the Cowboys’ first 1,000-yard rusher. Hill moved on to the Hawaiian Football club of the World Football League before wrapping up his career with the Redskins and the Browns. Hill was selected to play in the NFL Pro Bowl in 1969, 1972, 1973 and 1974 and played in Super Bowls V and VI.

Dowling, who played quarterback, said he and others could see Hill’s talent in college and Calvin was the only player that could play all 22 positions.

“I always felt bad that I had the third-best arm on the team,” Dowling said. “First there was coach, and then Calvin, who threw me a lot of passes.”

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