Last fall, while the Maryland football team was clawing back from an 0-2 start to secure another 10-win season, one 21-year-old was on the other side of the world, serving his country, staying alive and doing everything he could to one day wear a Terrapins uniform.
Christian Hill, a member of the 352nd Civil Affairs CMD in the U.S. Army Reserve unit, worked 12 hours every day but made sure each night to train at the only weight room he could find in Baghdad, located in the basement of an old palace of Saddam Hussein.
"The whole time I was thinking of four things," Hill said. "My family, going to school, football and my girlfriend."
He's here now, enrolled at Maryland, taking part in the Air Force ROTC and practicing with the football team as a walk-on after a one-year deployment in Iraq. Hill is one of two current Terps who served in the military -- Jon Gruber (Marines) the other -- and the only one who was stationed in Iraq. Hill's inspiration, as much for football as for the military, comes largely from a family member he never met.
Hill's great-grandfather, Col. Neil B. Harding, played football for West Point in the mid-1920s before becoming a famed commander of the 100th Bomb Group during World War II. He received numerous awards, including the Army's Silver Star for "gallantry in action," according to newspaper accounts.
Although Hill never met his great-grandfather, who died in 1978, Hill's mother, Elaine, believes she kept his spirit alive. And one day Hill told his family, "I think I'll pattern myself after him."
Hill started at defensive end his senior year at Northwest High. He had already taken part in a basic training program the summer before. By November 2002, he was in Kuwait. And finally, on Easter Sunday in 2003, Hill departed for the three-day drive to Baghdad.
At first, Hill worked counting supplies but said it wasn't exciting enough for him. He requested more work and was assigned to be a driver. Asked to describe the condition of Baghdad, Hill said: "It was hell. I don't know if you've ever smelled death before."
He lived initially in a cement building in Baghdad called the Republican Guard Presidential Complex -- 30 guys for every bathroom. Temperatures approached 115 degrees. His mom knew better than to send chocolate. And water tasted like hot tea.
He often wrote home, saying, among other things, how much he was looking forward to attending college and playing football. "I think that was one of the things that kept him going," said his father, Bernard.
Then, last summer, Hill stood on the roof of one of Hussein's palaces, explosions everywhere. He told his mother on a cell phone, "Mom, I have to get off the phone. We're under attack."
But they weren't. Both the Iraqis and some U.S. servicemen were celebrating, Hill later learned, because Hussein's sons had just been killed.
Perhaps the most sobering moment came before he was about to leave Iraq in November, after he had been accepted to Maryland and received permission from his general to return to America.
On Hill's C-130 plane to Kuwait were two body bags. "They asked us before we got on the plane, 'Does anyone have a problem flying with human remains?' And, of course, no one had a problem with it because they wanted to get home," Hill said.
After arriving in Kuwait, Hill's mother said he called home, crying. "Mom," he said, "how come I got to live and they didn't?"
"Certainly he's quite a different young man now," said his high school coach, Randy Trivers. "He's very mature, disciplined. It has given his life a lot of focus."
Two weeks after Hill returned to the United States, he broke up with his girlfriend of more than three years because she opposed the war.
"It made me feel like I was a piece of" junk, Hill said of his former girlfriend's stance. "I didn't feel like I was anything. People were against the war, and I was like, 'What did I go over there for?' "
But he does not regret it.
"If I had to do it over again, I would," Hill said. "It was very rewarding and I think it needed to be done."