For as long as he’s coached football, Randy Edsall loves to recruit wrestlers. The physical sacrifice. The mental discipline. Those who toe the mat, stare down opponents, face one-on-one battles alone on a stage have always drawn the Terps coach.
“If there’s a guy out there who’s a really good wrestler and plays football and is worthy of being a scholarship guy,” said Edsall, “I’ll take those guys all the time.”
Edsall claims he’s experienced “pretty good luck” recruiting former wrestlers to his teams. But he’s never had a starting quarterback who also happened to be a state-champion grappler. Then again, the Terps haven’t started a true freshman quarterback since 1999. So Perry Hills isn’t exactly cut from the traditional signal-calling cloth.
Hills arrived at College Park from Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic High School, where playoff games regularly draw 10,000 fans and alums named Dan Marino and Marc Bulger decorate the football program’s legacy.
And just months after he committed to Maryland during the summer, Hills went 35-0 during his senior wrestling season. His friends wondered why a Division I football player would risk an injury wrestling. He won the 195-pound title at the PIAA AAA state championships instead.
After the championship match, Hills remembers looking around the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa., staring back at the crowd that cheered for him, pumping his fist as he basked in the spotlight.
“I’m not the type to quit something when you’re so close,” Hills said. “It’s just awesome to accomplish one of your goals. It was one of the happiest days of my life.”
Of the memorable moments that have since broached that feeling, the most recent came just two weeks ago. Edsall called the freshman into his office. Told him that the diagnosis was bad. Junior C.J. Brown had torn his anterior cruciate ligament during a non-contact drill. The team’s presumed starter would be out for the season.
The first person Hills told was his mother, Lori Hills. She thought he was joking. “Mom,” he replied, “I’m serious. I’m the new starting quarterback.”
“It’s terrible for CJ. I would have never wished that upon him at all, but I was ready to step in,” Hills said. “Everyone keeps asking me if I’m nervous, if I’m ready. Yes, I’m ready. I’m excited. I can’t wait. I’m not nervous at all.”
He thought about wrestling in college, and received recruiting letters from Oklahoma and Maryland, among other schools. But his heart was set on football. On Saturday, Hills will become the first true freshman to start Maryland’s opener since Calvin McCall beat Temple, 6-0, on Sept. 2, 1999.
“Well, I can’t read the crystal ball, but I think Perry will do well. I really do,” Edsall said. “Any time it’s a first-year guy, going out in playing, nobody knows how well he’ll react or how well he’ll do. But all signs point to him going out any playing well.”
Hills anticipates blitzes early and often at Byrd Stadium. He knows William & Mary will try to rattle him in his debut. And with the confidence developed during his time on the mat, Hills is relishing the opportunity.
“You’re the only one on the mat,” Hills said. “All eyes are on you. There’s no one you can blame for a loss. You just have to prepare harder than in a lot of sports. It’s a really tough sport physically, and with the mental aspect, that really prepared me for this.”