When Calvin Hill ’69 received a call from the Dallas Cowboys informing him that he had been selected as the team’s first-round pick in the 1969 NFL Draft, he thought it was a joke.
Earlier that day, Hill had called his Yale teammate Bruce Weinstein ’69 pretending to be an official from the New York Giants and tricked him into believing that he had been selected in the second round of the draft.
“I just started laughing,” Hill said. “He got really pissed off. I locked my door because he’s a big guy.”
Forty minutes later, Hill’s phone rang, and he assumed another one of his teammates was trying to pull a similar prank on him, so he played along. It was not until he got on the phone with Tom Landry, the head coach of the Cowboys at the time, that he realized this was no joke.
After starring at Yale as both a running back and a jumper on the track team, Hill went on to play professional football and enjoyed a successful 12-year career in the NFL. Today, Hill is still regarded as one of Yale’s greatest athletes. But his teammate at Yale, Kurt Schmoke ’71, said Hill’s success was an anomaly in that era.
“A lot of Ivy League athletes weren’t even given the chance during that particular era to compete at the pro level,” Schmoke said. “He was given the chance and he demonstrated what a great star he could become.”
But Hill said the Yale experience itself was a huge life opportunity for him. Yale taught him how to succeed — a lesson he applied even after he left New Haven, he said.
“It really teaches you to figure out where your boundaries are and you learn to go beyond where you thought perhaps you could go,” Hill said. “I always thought that Yale gave me that confidence. It didn’t matter what the challenges were after Yale — I felt somehow I could figure it out.”
Though Hill grew up in Baltimore, he left his hometown in ninth grade to attend boarding school at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, N.Y., after winning a scholarship.
Hill’s first encounter with organized football was at Riverdale. It was also at Riverdale that Hill first developed into a star on the gridiron.
His senior year, Hill was named to Parade magazine’s 1964 high school All-America team as a quarterback and was heavily recruited by many colleges, including Ivy League schools. However, Hill did not initially consider the Ancient Eight seriously. Instead, he harbored hopes of attending a big football school from the Pacific-8 (now the Pacific-12) or the Big Ten and was especially drawn to football powerhouse UCLA.
Nonetheless, on Riverdale’s college visitation day for seniors, Hill decided to visit Columbia. But Hill said that decision was motivated more by an excuse to skip class for the day than by genuine interest in the Ivy League.
When he returned to Riverdale and told one of the football assistant coaches there that he had gone to see Columbia, the coach assumed Hill was considering Ivy League schools and arranged for him to visit Yale that weekend.
“He was a pretty tough coach, and I didn’t want to let him know that I was more interested in missing class than I was going into the Ivy League,” Hill said.
But that weekend in New Haven changed Hill’s attitude towards the Ancient Eight. During his stay, he attended a football game and watched the Bulldogs defeat Dartmouth, 14–7, in front of a crowd of 70,000 people at the Yale Bowl. Hill was also impressed by Yale’s “gorgeous” campus, urban location and proximity to New York City.
“It was a really spectacular visit,” Hill said. “I came back kind of reinvigorated about the Ivy League and started thinking about some of the other schools. But I always liked Yale.”
In the end, Hill turned down all the football scholarships offered to him and decided to become a Bulldog.
BRIGHT COLLEGE YEARS
Despite being an All-American quarterback in high school, when Hill first arrived at Yale he was only the third-string fullback on the freshman team.
“It wasn’t the greatest thing for my confidence,” Hill said. “I had gone from the top of the mountain to the base of the mountain.”
But it was not long before Hill was climbing toward the top. In a game against Princeton his freshman year, Hill — who played as both a fullback and a linebacker for the freshman team — led the Bulldogs to a win by scoring five touchdowns, intercepting a pass, forcing a fumble and blocking a punt.
His junior and senior seasons, Hill earned first team All-Ivy honors as a running back and helped lead the Bulldogs to Ivy League Championships in 1967 and 1968. His senior year, the Elis went undefeated, though Hill’s final football game at Yale ended with the infamous 29–29 tie at Harvard. With the Bulldogs leading 29–13 and 45 seconds left on the clock, Harvard launched an improbable rally and scored 16 points to tie the game and earn a share of the Ivy League title.
“It just shows you what can happen,” Hill said. “Everything went right for Harvard, and everything went wrong for us. It was a forgettable day.”
Hill’s athletic talents also extended to the track. Though he joined the team mostly to stay in shape for football season, Hill became one of the best jumpers in school history. In his first ever meet, Hill’s mark in the long jump beat not only all of the freshmen, but it also exceeded the best varsity jump on the team.
Hill went on to become a double champion in both the long jump and triple jump at the Outdoor Championships in 1968 and helped the Elis capture the Heptagonal Championship his senior year, when he once again won individual titles in the long jump and triple jump. He still holds the school record for the outdoor triple jump.
Hill’s athletic abilities also earned him the respect of his teammates both on and off the field.
“Having all that ability and talent, he was a nice guy,” Ed Franklin ’69 LAW ’73, a former defensive back and teammate of Hill, said. “He was not inflated with himself.”
When he was not competing for Yale, Hill immersed himself in campus culture. He pursued a major in history, with a particular interest in Russian history and the antebellum South. Outside of class, Hill was a brother in the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, although he said that “they weren’t quite as wild as they seem to be now, from what I read.” Hill also was a member of Black Students at Yale from its inception and belonged to St. Elmo Society.
ENTERING THE DRAFT
Even with his successes as a football player, Hill’s initial career plan involved continued education, not the NFL. In fact, Hill said his primary reason for attending Yale was always the education. Although he had been drawing interest from professional teams, his original goal was to enroll at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Hill said he hoped he would be drafted or sign a free-agent contract with a team so that even if he ended up getting cut, he could make enough money to pay for two years of divinity school. But Hill never expected to be drafted in the first round.
“It was a shock,” he said. “It was totally out of left field because it wasn’t something I had been planning on doing.”
Still, Hill continued to excel on the gridiron. In his rookie year with the Cowboys, he rushed for 942 yards and scored eight touchdowns, earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and a selection to the Pro Bowl.
Hill said his transition from collegiate to professional athletics was an easy one.
“I was doing basically the same thing I had done at Yale,” he said. “In some respects you didn’t have class to worry about … [That] took a lot of discipline, whereas when you were through with football practice in the pros you just went home.”
In 1972, Hill became the Cowboys’ first-ever running back to break the 1,000-yard mark for the season in a game against the Redskins, finishing the season with a total of 1,036 yards. That year proved exciting for other reasons: Hill and his wife, Janet, welcomed the birth of their son, Grant, who would go on to collegiate glory at Duke and a successful career in the NBA with the Pistons, Magic and Suns. Hill’s football season culminated with a championship ring, as the Cowboys defeated the Miami Dolphins 24–3 in Super Bowl VI.
The following year, Hill broke his own franchise record by rushing 1,142 yards and earned his third Pro Bowl selection.
After six seasons with Dallas, Hill left the NFL to compete with the Hawaiians of the World Football League for one season before returning to the NFL to finish his career with the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Browns.
LIFE AFTER THE NFL
After retiring from the NFL, Hill stayed on with the Browns as a consultant and helped develop player programs to provide support for athletes who were struggling with substance abuse. In 1986, he joined the board of directors of the Baltimore Orioles and eventually became vice president of the club from 1987 to 1994. Hill hired future MLB general manager Theo Epstein ’95 in 1992 to work for the Orioles. Hill now works as a consultant for the Cowboys.
Hill also has remained connected to the New Haven community even after he graduated. During his rookie season with Dallas, his Yale teammate Schmoke approached him and asked if he would give his name to a daycare center a group of undergraduates were founding to help with fundraising efforts. That center, the Calvin Hill Daycare Center on Highland Street, has been in continuous operation for over 40 years.
Schmoke said that while Hill was an outstanding football player in college and professionally, his character was also exemplary.
In November 2010, Hill returned to the Yale Bowl to receive the Doak Walker Legends Award for his achievements as a collegiate football player and his dedication to the community.
Hill appreciates Yale as much as Yale appreciates him.
“[Yale] was a wonderful community,” he said. “The four years — they were some of the best years of my life.”