On a rainy Monday evening, two days after Kasim Hill threw three touchdown passes in a dominant win over Rutgers and five days before his team stumbled in Iowa City, his 12-year-old sister, Kaylah, created an opening in the blinds to peer outside her Crofton, Md., home.
Kaylah had been working on math homework at the desk a few steps away from the street-facing window. But by now, just after 6 p.m., her focus had shifted. She walked toward the door and placed her hands on her hips.
“Where’s Kasim?” she said, dragging out her words with a mix of longing and excitement.
Kaylah couldn’t find her phone — the one she got a few months after her brother went to college so they could easily stay in touch — and it needed to be charged anyway, so she grabbed her mom’s instead. Kaylah dialed her brother, a title far more important to her than “Maryland starting quarterback,” and asked how far he was from home.
Kasim soon arrived, and the two greeted each other in the kitchen with an energetic series of high-fives to the melody of Kaylah’s giggles.
Earlier in the day, Kasim had class, a meeting to go over that week’s game plan and study hall. He took a quick nap and then headed to his family’s house — the place he retreats for a few hours most Mondays. As a college quarterback, Kasim faces constant scrutiny since most eyes gravitate toward the ball, which is frequently in his hands. For his sister, a middle-schooler with Down syndrome, life can at times be much the same.
“They both have a unique situation,” said their mother, Michele, “where they have things about them where people have a perception of how they are.”
The drive from College Park to Crofton takes about 30 minutes — one of the reasons that made Maryland an attractive choice compared to other schools that offered him a scholarship such as Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan State. Kasim, a redshirt freshman, said he can’t imagine being even just a few hours away from home, his family and his sister.
After Kasim tore his anterior cruciate ligament three games into last season, he and his sister talked almost every day. She reminded him, “You need to get back,” and that motivated him. But he also drew from what he’s seen since he became a big brother at age 8. He realized his struggle was temporary, while Kaylah’s will be lifelong.
“At the end of the day, it’s just a game,” Kasim said. “There are way bigger challenges and bigger things you’re going to have to overcome in life. I think I learned that from a young age.”
During football games, Kasim places a sheet of paper with Kaylah’s name on a wristband he attaches to his belt. He said he can always hear his sister in the stands.
Kaylah loves sports, whether she’s watching or participating. She plays tennis in the spring, and when Kasim was a senior in high school, he’d pick up Kaylah from school and take her to taekwondo practice. Even now that he lives in College Park, Kasim has made it to all his sister’s belt testings.
Kaylah understands football, especially the offense and, even more so, her brother’s position. At Maryland games, she’d rather pay close attention to the action than have conversations with those around her. If her brother gets hit, Kaylah displays outsized emotion.
“When they had the Texas game and his helmet got knocked off, she jumped up. She's like, 'I'm going out there! They hit my brother!'” Michele said, thinking back to a targeting call when her son ran with the ball. “She was really, really mad. She does not like that at all. And she's very vocal about it.”
When Kaylah finds Kasim afterward, she hugs him and offers feedback. She tells him how well he performed, and if a defender pummels Kasim to the ground, Kaylah says he’s got to throw the ball away or get down to protect himself.
“She takes it a little bit easier on me if we lost,” Kasim said, “But if we won and I had a bad game, she'll let me know I've got to play better.”
As the starter, Kasim has had an up-and-down season, completing 61 of 118 passes for 701 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions in an offense that has relied more heavily on running plays. His passing ability has come under criticism on message boards and social media. Still, Maryland heads into its home game against Illinois this weekend with a 4-3 record and a clear path to bowl eligibility.
After games, the Hills usually hang out as a family and have dinner together in College Park. By the time Kasim comes home on Mondays, football is an afterthought.
As the family gathered around the kitchen table last week to play UNO, a favorite activity among the four, Michele asked her son about the team’s upcoming travel arrangements before the card game quickly became more important.
They like how UNO creates a level playing field, and Kaylah loves to talk trash. She shouted, “Boom!” and stretched her arms outward as she took a successful turn. When her brother won the first round, Kaylah quickly responded by saying, “Kasim cheated!” (He didn't.)
The three rounds of play included alliances (then broken ones), screams, laughs, excited foot stomps and loud announcements of color changes. When Kaylah won the final game, she showed off a celebratory dance.
Before having burgers for dinner, Kasim curled his 6-foot-2 frame onto the couch and migrated to the floor as he wrestled with Kaylah. He played gently with his little sister but jokingly objected to the way his mom described the activity as a joint decision.
“I see it as attack,” he said, pointing to Kaylah, “and defense,” pointing to himself. A few minutes later, Kaylah called the family downstairs for a different game. Kasim and his mom followed.
“She rules the roost,” Michele said.
“And I’ve accepted it,” Kasim said.
On World Down Syndrome Day in March, Kasim encouraged his teammates and others to raise awareness by wearing bright mismatched socks. After football, he thinks he might try to create a business that in some way helps kids like his sister.
In public, strangers will stare at Kaylah, almost as though they’re “trying to figure her out,” her dad, Joe, said. As Kaylah has gotten older, she notices. If Kasim is with her, he’ll put an arm around her or maybe they’ll find a way to laugh about it.
On Saturdays, Kasim finds himself in front of thousands in a position that often gets too much blame and too much credit, said interim coach Matt Canada, who has worked with quarterbacks for about 20 years. The ability to self-analyze becomes a necessity. Quarterbacks need to “worry about what’s going on in our building and not really what everybody else thinks,” Canada said. Kaylah must do the same.
With the national spotlight on Maryland’s program since the death of Jordan McNair, “this is a rather unusual circumstance to carry that kind of weight,” said Joe, who was a safety at Columbia University. This season, he’s noticed Kaylah showing even more affection toward her brother.
For both siblings, the attention probably won’t fade anytime soon. Neither will the unsolicited questions and criticism. But there’s comfort in another constant. Outstretched arms will always be waiting.
“They’re support for each other,” Michele said. “And they protect each other.”