Tyreek Hill and a deeper level of redemption

FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 14: Tyreek Hill #10 of the Kansas City Chiefs catches a touchdown pass against the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium on October 14, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 14: Tyreek Hill #10 of the Kansas City Chiefs catches a touchdown pass against the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium on October 14, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) /

A closer look at the deeper redemption at work in the life of Tyreek Hill and what we all might be able to take away from his story.

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.” -Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Late Sunday night, while shedding himself of his uniform, Tyreek Hill did his best to rid himself of the familiar grime of a game. The dirt from the field, the likely drips of blood from untold injuries, the sweat from running faster than anyone else—all commonplace elements in the locker room when all is said and done for the Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver. But on this night, getting cleaned up meant to scrub off a bit more than normal—the remaining remnants of an overpriced beer thrown at him from the stands of Gillette Stadium.

By now the clip is ubiquitous, a viral video of a New England Patriots fan greeting Tyreek Hill after scoring a touchdown by throwing his beer in the player’s face. Authorities were contacted. The Pats issued a statement. The fan was identified. If rules are followed, the young man will never again be able to root for his favorite team on their home field. His privileges have been revoked.

An undertow remains from this story, however, because the victim here has not been the victim in years past. Instead, he’s been the offender, a tragic story with a different victim. Tyreek Hill’s own history with domestic violence has resurfaced with this headline, as it does every time he’s the story’s subject. It’s a trend that will continue as long as he plays in the National Football League.

* * *

Tears and beer have gone together ever since Hank Williams, Sr. first put them together back in 1950.

They were certainly present a few nights ago. I was catching up with Steve, an old friend I hadn’t seen in several years. Over the course of a couple hours (and plenty of IPAs), he told me about his wife, his newborn daughter, his journey back to school. Then I asked about the Exodus House.

The last time I saw Steve, he was running a men’s transitional shelter for guys in recovery or coming out of prison. The house itself was small and the budget much smaller. Steve and another friend were the live-in staff who would facilitate the schedule and shepherd the community of up to five other guys who needed a leg up. The guys received free counseling, attended numerous 12-step group meetings each week, were offered career services to help them find gainful employment and, of course, food and shelter.

I would go over the house myself some nights. The guys were always very friendly and open. They’d made a wreck of their lives and seemed grateful that anyone would even care to hear their stories. We had community meals there once or twice each week, so it was an easy time to gather with other neighbors and these residents trying to turn their lives around.

As I sat in this beer garden with Steve, I asked him about some of the old guys.

How’s Larry?

Off the deep end.

What about Anthony?

Got a bunch of back-dated disability money from the government and took off on his own.

And Phil?

Steve lit up. “Dude, have you not heard about Phil? He was our first graduate. We got him a job as a line cook at the local country club and he kept moving up. The guy saved money to buy his own pottery wheel and equipment and he ran with the art classes we got him into. Now he’s a self-employed potter full-time making mugs for local coffee shops and vases and the like. In fact, he’s even a live-in staff member now working with the guys because he wants to help others make the same changes.”

Then came the other stories. One after another, this small house that can only hold a handful of men at one time has slowly but surely been changing lives in an impoverished Midwestern town. Steve moved out a few years ago. The program runs itself, with live-in staff now comprised of former addicts and a retired addictions counselor—an incredible feat considering the annual budget is only $30K.

* * *

If you’re not familiar with Tyreek Hill’s story, it is disturbing and disgusting. There’s no way around it.

In 2014, Tyreek Hill got into an argument with his girlfriend, Crystal Espinal, who had confronted him about a text message from someone who had alleged witnessed him “hitting on high schoolers.” Per court testimony, Hill refused to talk and threw his girlfriend’s phone and laptop out of the room into the hallway. After retrieving the items, Hill’s girlfriend re-entered the room and the argument allegedly escalated to a physical attack, which included a headlock that choked her and punches to the face and stomach.

It should be noted that she was eight weeks pregnant.

Hill was arrested and convicted and received a deferred prison sentence with probation. He was also ordered to attend classes for anger management and a 52-week batterer’s program. Consequently he was also immediately kicked off the team. From there he would transfer to a much smaller school, West Alabama, where he would continue to play football and hope that some NFL team would give him a chance.

We all know the rest. John Dorsey decided the fifth round was the ideal time to take a flyer on an unknown small school returner with impressive numbers. These days he’s referred to as “The Cheetah,” a two-time Pro Bowler who currently ranks among the NFL’s elite wide receivers. He also completed his assigned probation this summer. Officially, his record has been expunged.

* * *

Ever since I met with Steve, I can’t stop thinking about the guys I met around that table and how they’re doing today. Nearly all of their mistakes were made early in life. Some of them were born into them—cycles, I mean—patterns of behavior handed to them by their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers.

That’s no excuse, of course. Disgusting behavior is disgusting behavior, no matter the story of the perpetrator. Someone who commits heinous acts of violence deserves to feel the full repercussions of those actions. Justice is necessary.

But back to that table. If I could identify any single element as to why I enjoyed my time getting to know those guys, it was that over time I realized just how blurred the lines were between “us” and “them.” As I heard their stories, I replayed my own. I also made stupid decisions. I also chose poorly. Sometimes the difference comes down to sheer luck or more resources or slightly better coping skills.

What I am saying is, as much as I might not want to admit it, there’s no that much difference between me and the guys I sat across from at those community meals. Maybe the distance between us isn’t all that far.

* * *

Leonard Cohen is right.

There is a crack in everything, including the backstory of one of the NFL’s bright young stars, a lightning-fast player who is currently tied for the league lead in receiving touchdowns. Some people remain unaware of the cracks of their own story, which is why they’re able to throw a beer in the face of Tyreek Hill on primetime television.

Some football fans will never move past Hill’s past to credit him in the present. That’s fine, I suppose. We’re all free to believe what we want, to live by whatever moral code feels right and good and true to each of us, and for some, such a horrible incident of domestic violence is the final straw. The present damned by the past.

But I’m drawn to this Cohen lyric because it’s what I, myself, have found to be right and good and true. These days, Tyreek Hill has become engaged to that exact same woman who testified against him. They all live together in Kansas City, home to the team that took a chance on him in the first place. Their now three-year-old son also testifies to a different story, one where the light gets in.

No one should be proud of Tyreek Hill’s past, including Tyreek himself. But there’s a beauty within the brokenness that’s found in the present. I’m glad to know that part of the story, too.

It gives me hope for my own journey.