The most talked about name on the 2014 OSU football roster came from nowhere.
In Pearson, Georgia, the population sign reads 2,117.
Thirty percent of the population is below the poverty line, and 21.6 percent of households have a female with no husband present.
Its claim to fame is how it was once considered the chess capital of Georgia.
In general, there’s not much to talk about in Atkinson County.
But Pearson is home to Tyreek Hill, who might just be the next big thing at Oklahoma State.
‘THIS BOY IS FAST’
The unlikey story of Hill’s journey starts when his grandmother, Virginia Hill, brought him home from the hospital.
Hill’s mother, who now lives in Norman, signed over custody. Hill’s biological father lives in Georgia, but the fastest college player in America was raised by his grandparents.
“I brought him home out the hospital,” Virginia Hill said. “I prefer mother, even though I know I’m a grandmother first. I’m mom to him. I’m mama.”
Hill — who is not available to the media under OSU coach Mike Gundy’s first-year player rule — spent much of his early life at his great-grandmother’s house while Virginia was at work. But nearly every day, she’d pick him up, and after taking a bath and cooking dinner, they played in the yard.
In a small grassy area in the middle of nowhere, Hll’s legend got its origin. They threw ball and ran around. Not long after Hill turned 3, Virginia had trouble catching him.
“Tyreek was fast ever since he started walking,” she said.
When Hill was 5, Virginia and her husband, Herman, got him in sports.
“He started playing flag football, and we knew then he was fast because none of the kids couldn’t catch him,” Virginia said. “Once he got that ball, he struck out.”
Soon, Hill’s rec league teams were the envy of every boy in Atkinson County. And by the time Hill was 7, he was a playing in a Pop Warner league with 10-year-olds.
“My husband was always the coach, and every child in Pearson always wanted to get on my husband's team because they knew Tyreek was going to try harder than everyone,” Virginia said.
As Hill later found out, even unreal athletic gifts didn’t make it easy for a young man to get out of Pearson. The city’s motto is “Stay a minute or a lifetime.”
In Virginia’s mind, it seems most cases are a lifetime.
“I didn’t know where it was going to go,” she said. “I just knew when he was 3 he was fast, and when he was 5 and got in the rec league, I said ‘This boy is fast. He is really, real fast.’”
Hill takes after his family members in seemingly all ways but one.
“Tyreek, he is a person without a lot of words, and I don’t understand that, because all of us, we talk tremendously,” Virginia said. “Tyreek, he just don’t have a lot to say.”
But what he did pick up from his genes is what has fueled his athletic success.
“He could play basketball, football, he could play baseball,” Virginia said. “He got all this that we had into one body. Each one of us had one thing we could do. He got all of us in one body.”
Starting as a freshman in high school, Hill’s athletic prowess was already on full display.
But at tiny Atkinson County High School, there wasn’t much room for Hill to spread his wings. The Hill family knew his ability, and wanted to push coaches to send out tapes and bring in scouts to get Hill noticed.
But in Pearson, Hill was an anomaly coaches didn’t quite know how to handle.
“I’m like, we gotta get Tyreek somewhere because we’re down here in this lil ole small town in the country,” Virginia said. “I said, ‘We got to find a school to get him where his name can get out there and he can go somewhere and make something out of himself.”
That’s when Herman had a life-altering idea.
During Hill’s freshman year, the family decided to move to nearby Coffee County, and Hill would go to Coffee High School about 20 minutes up the road in Douglas.
With a population of 11,589, Douglas isn’t radically bigger, but it would allow him more exposure, and Coffee High School had a reputation for strong athletics.
By Hill’s junior year he had — in Virginia’s words — “taken over” the Douglas Enterprise newspaper with his on-field exploits.
And it wasn’t just in football. Late in Hill’s sophomore year, he came home with surprising news.
“All of a sudden, he come home and he’s like, ‘Mom, I’m on the track team,’” Virginia said. “I said ‘You are?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m on the track team Mom. I’m fast.’”
By his senior year, Hill was the most electrifying thing around. In addition to starring on the football field, Hill won state in the 100, 200 and long jump.
He ran a 20.14 200 — the second-fastest time in the history of high school track. It would have been the fastest NCAA time in the nation that year, and would have placed Hill sixth at the 2012 London Olympics.
As a result, Hill had offers coming in from across the country, and nearly chose to play football and track at Georgia. But Hill’s grades needed work, and he ended up signing with Garden City Community College in Kansas.
Even then, Hill was reluctant to leave, telling Virginia he was set on taking a year off.
“Down here in the country, when a child takes a year off, eventually they’re going to want to stay off,” Virginia said. “That’s just the way it works usually. I thought, ‘Lord, if this boy takes a year off, I’m going to have to fight like the devil to try to get him to go to school.’”
The summer before heading to college, Hill ran in the IAAF World Junior Championships in Barcelona, Spain.
At that point, Hill remained set on staying home for at least another year. He wanted time off, and he wanted to stay with his parents.
“I don’t know exactly what entailed during that time, but I think it was just one of those things that comes with the idea of being away from home,” Garden City coach Matt Miller said.
After talking extensively with Miller, Virginia arranged for Hill to fly to Kansas upon his return, even if she had to all but drag him on board.
“As soon as he got home, I said, ‘You ain’t got time to sit here. You got to pack your bags because we going to the airport,” Virginia said. “He said, ‘Mom.’ I said, ‘Don’t Mom me. We got to go. You fixin’ to go to Kansas.
“He was just so sad, so mad, but look — he’s done all right.”
On the field, Hill’s ability came naturally. But off it, Miller said it was clear he needed time to adjust.
“With some young men, it’s their first time away from home,” Miller said. “When you have kind of a quiet personality it takes a little bit longer to get adjusted. But fairly quickly, when people saw on the football field how amazing he was, I think he adjusted real well.”
Hill became the man in no time at Garden City. In his sophomore year, he ran for 659 yards and five touchdowns, along with reeling in 32 catches for 532 yards.
Those numbers, along with his once-in-a-lifetime speed and compact 5-foot-10, 185-pound frame, propelled him to his status as a five-star recruit.
“He’s as dominant of an athlete as I’ve been around,” Miller said. “My dad was a front-office executive. I’ve been around some special athletes, and Tyreek Hill is as dominant an athlete or football player as I’ve ever been around.”
Hill had offers from seemingly every program in the country, including Alabama, Florida State, USC, Oklahoma and Texas.
When it came time to choose, Virginia said she left the decision entirely up to Hill. This time, he opted against the national powers and signed with Oklahoma State.
Why he chose OSU comes with a complex explanation.
First, Miller has strong ties to Stillwater, where both his parents and his brother attended college. He said he didn’t push Hill in any direction, but emphasized Hill base his decision off where he could feel comfortable.
“I told him to go where there’s good people because his talent is going to come through,” Miller said. “He didn’t base it on other things. He just got a great feeling for the people at Oklahoma State.”
There was also the allure of the top-notch facilities at OSU, and the Cowboys’ fast-paced offense was a big draw.
But in truth, it might not have happened if not for a sprints coach named Diego Flaquer.
THE COURTING OF TYREEK HILL
In recruiting Hill, all the right pieces fell into place for OSU.
It started with the completion of the school’s $10 million track complex in 2013. For the first time in decades, OSU had an attractive facility to offer sprinters.
As a result, OSU track coach Dave Smith hired Flaquer from Auburn to coach sprints. Given these changes, the OSU football staff looked for a way to take advantage.
“Over the years, we’ve had a number of young men, skill players, who made a decision on where they were going to school,” OSU football coach Mike Gundy said. “I think we lost out because we didn’t really have a track program for them.”
That meant calling on Flaquer to help recruit one of the nation’s top football players.
“(Strength coach Rob) Glass took me upstairs to meet with the football staff and they mentioned, ‘Hey, do you think you could try to help us recruit Tyreek?’ ” Flaquer said last spring. “I said, ‘Hey, I’ll do what I can.’ ”
Flaquer said he visited Hill during periods where the football team couldn’t have contact with him and tried to sell him less on OSU track and more on the atmosphere OSU offers.
For Hill, that might have been the tipping point.
Miller said early in the recruiting process, Hill was leaning toward a Pac-12 school Miller left unnamed.
Two weeks later, Tyreek switched his favorite to another Pac-12 program.
“I asked him why and he said, ‘Because the first school wasn’t having the track coach call me,’ ” Miller said. “So that’s how important it was to him.”
Interestingly, another school that fought to sign Hill as a two-sport athlete was Florida State, who the Cowboys play Saturday in their season-opener.
“When I knew we were recruiting against Florida State, I thought, ‘This is going to be a tough one,’” Flaquer said. “Obviously I think he found a home here.”
Hill enrolled at OSU in January and quickly jumped into competition on the track. All he did was set school records in the 200 and 60-meter dashes while helping the Cowboys win their first Big 12 team indoor championship.
“My dad was an Olympian,” Flaquer said. “I’ve been around a lot of great athletes, a lot of great sprinters … Tyreek is right up there with them, if not a step above them just because of the God-given ability that he has.”
THE HYPE IS REAL
All offseason, Hill has been the talk of OSU camp.
Every sign indicates the speed is no myth, the tapes are no lies, the hype is nothing but real.
“I think the sky is the limit,” Miller said. “I would not be surprised is he’s All-Conference or All-American sooner rather than later. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens this year.”
Hill will likely get heavy use from the running back position, and he might even line up at receiver or return kicks.
The OSU coaching staff said the exact way it will use Hill could vary from game to game. There are, however, no doubts about Hill getting the ball in his hands.
“He’s got unbelievable talent,” OSU receiver David Glidden said. “Everybody I talk to, they ask me about him and I say, ‘You’re just going to have to wait and see. It’s something you can’t really describe.”
Whatever happens in Hill’s debut Saturday, Virginia is likely to post on Facebook in support, children in the Hills’ church will gather around to watch their local hero and if the pattern holds true, Hill is likely to deliver with explosive plays that can’t possibly be limited to backwoods Georgia.
“Way down here in the country, you don’t really see a lot of this,” Virginia said. “Who knew — nobody but God — who knew that a little country child was going to end up in the fast lane?”