By Matt Brooks
Wednesday, April 21, 2010; D04
As a sophomore at Potomac Falls High School in Sterling, Adrian Tracy earned a spot on the varsity football team, a program that had experienced minimal success in its brief history. When he told his mother he was starting the first game of the season , Ann Hill didn't believe him. Convinced he was simply dressing out to make the team look deeper on the sideline, she showed up for the junior varsity game expecting to see her son on the field. He was nowhere to be found.
After a stellar career on the field and the hardwood, the undersized defensive lineman eventually decided to walk on at William & Mary, a school better known for academics. Hill -- who raised Tracy as a single parent for the first seven years of his life -- wasn't even aware the Tribe had a football team until former assistant coach Steven Jerry called midway through Tracy's senior year of high school.
Once again Tracy excelled in the small-school atmosphere, setting records and helping transform a defense that was one of the worst in Division I-AA during his redshirt freshman year into one of the best this past fall. As a result, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound end is projected to be selected anywhere from the third to seventh round in this week's NFL draft. But despite his visit to the scouting combine, the attention at his pro day and the recent workouts with several franchises, the realization of how far Tracy has come has yet to sink in for both mother and son.
"I don't know that it's really hit me yet," Hill said. "Here's this little guy from Loudoun County who went to little old William & Mary and he's going to play in the NFL. It's been a lot to take in."
Tracy emerged on the radar of pro scouts his junior season but his stock soared after an all-America senior campaign in which he tied the school's single season record with 12 sacks. He started every game of his career (47) to set another school mark and this past fall helped lead the Tribe to an 11-3 record and a trip to the national semifinals, where they fell to eventual champion Villanova by a point. Since then, Tracy has steadily been climbing draft boards for several franchises which see his quickness and athleticism as an asset for a 3-4 defense.
"Someone told me the best thing small school athletes have going for them is that they're smart and relentless," he said. "They may not have all the physical attributes or the exposure from playing at the highest level, but one thing that they do have is that they're smart, because they couldn't always rely on their physical attributes. And they're relentless because that's the only way they can get noticed."A mother's gift
The scripted black ink that adorns Tracy's right wrist bears a simple message.
But the meaning is far more significant than a mother's maiden name and her child's birth date. The moment Adrian Tracy was born 23 years ago, he became the only blood relative Ann Hill had ever known.
The daughter of a 17-year-old single Kenyan who came to the United States to pursue a college degree, Hill was left in foster care from birth. Multiple adoption attempts fell through as she bounced around several homes before settling in Purcellville. Isolated and alone, Hill described her childhood as "unpleasant."
"I never felt connected," Hill said. "And when I had Adrian I thought, 'This is somebody that can be related to me. I finally have someone I can really call my family.' "
With Tracy's biological father, Richard Tracy, out of the picture beyond infrequent visits, the 24-year-old single mother was determined to provide her son with the childhood she never had. Already working a full-time job in Reston while attending night school to earn a business degree, Hill began delivering newspapers seven days a week to earn enough money to create the illusion that her son came from a normal, two-parent home.
An avid sports fan, Hill collected miniature basketballs from Pizza Hut -- prizes Tracy earned by reading books -- and took her son to the park where she had him shoot on a 10-foot-basket until he could consistently get the ball through the hoop. Football was another story. Hill refused to let Tracy put on pads and a helmet until he turned 11, fearful her first born would get hurt.
"My focus, my discipline and my drive, I get from her," Tracy said. "Whenever there's something I don't think I can't do, I just remember I've gotten this far because of my mom. Anything I'm dealing with, she's dealt with something more difficult."Finding a father figure
Richard Tracy's sporadic visits during his son's childhood become more infrequent as his son grew older. Two years ago, the two reconnected as Richard -- a former body builder -- helped Adrian work out during his summer break and made good on a promise to buy his son a car.
But that all began to unravel last fall, during Adrian's senior season, when Richard read an interview in which Adrian credited his mother with teaching him how to play sports and filling the void his father left behind. Richard Tracy felt the piece portrayed him unfairly, according to Hill. He never contacted his son directly, and aside from a Christmas text message, the two have not spoken since.
"There were things from my childhood that I used to fuel my aggression on the field and in the weight room," Adrian said. "If I had picked up the phone and called him that moment, it wasn't going to be a polite conversation. So I just let it go."
Throughout his childhood Tracy relied on relationships with male teachers and coaches to piece together elements of what he imagined a true father-son relationship was like. He credits Charles Hill, who married Ann in 1994, for helping him mature, and his youth football coach, Bruce Bornarth, for getting him invested in the sport. When it came time to choose a college, Tracy found himself drawn to another individual with a father-like presence.
On the verge of accepting a long-standing scholarship offer from Davidson, Tracy reluctantly agreed to visit William & Mary's campus. It took one meeting with Coach Jimmye Laycock -- a Purcellville native whose mother taught Hill in high school -- to change Tracy's mind.
"I just knew it was the place I needed to be," Tracy said. "That's how strongly I felt about it. I thought I wanted to go to Princeton, I thought I wanted to go to Davidson. But when I sat down with Coach Laycock, all the anxieties I had with the other coaches went away."
Under the longtime Tribe coach, Tracy developed both on and off the field. His marked improvement from year to year on the defensive line was rewarded with a scholarship and he was elected team captain as a senior. Tracy completed a major in kinesiology last semester and will graduate this spring.
The values instilled by his mother have carried Tracy this far and now, as he awaits the phone call that will decide his future, he's determined to maintain the focus, discipline and drive that have him on the precipice of a career in the NFL.
"It's really a testament to a mother's hard work in raising a fine young man and then Adrian putting in the work to be successful," Laycock said. "Nothing was handed to him, nothing was given to him, everything was earned. There were certainly bumps in the road and setbacks, but he hasn't let those setbacks get him down. He just keeps coming back, and that's why I think he'll do well on the next level."