Perry Hills steps down from his dormitory stairs, sleepy-eyed and stretching, barely visible in the early morning darkness. Decked out in black Under Armour gear and a backward flat-brimmed red cap with “Terps” written in cursive, Hills wishes he had worn long sleeves. It’s 6:20 a.m. on a Wednesday and Maryland’s freshman quarterback is cold. ¶ The sun not yet visible over the College Park campus, Hills’s day begins with a 15-minute walk over mowed grass and broken glass, past a lone janitor emptying the trash and singing, “La, la, it’s wake-up time!” ¶ Never a morning person, Hills nonetheless refuses to rely on coffee or energy drinks. These days run on willpower. Maybe hot chocolate, too. ¶“There’s points where you’re pretty tired, but you have to fight through it,” Hills says. “If the coaches are here, running off little sleep, I have to step it up a little bit. No time for a nap. I have no choice. It’s got to work.”
Six feet 3 and unassuming, with cheeks that groove upward when he laughs, Hills maintains a hectic schedule that swarms him like oncoming pass rushers. The day directs him from meeting rooms to dining halls to auditoriums, everywhere but beneath the covers on his twin bed.
His first stop is Gossett Team House for a 7 a.m. lift, where Hills enters the weight room beneath a sign that demands, “What are you willing to sacrifice?” Then comes breakfast with multiple protein shakes for prescribed weight gain. Three classes follow, which only brings him to noon.
This is the life Hills dreamed about. Yet he never imagined it would come quite this soon.
It’s 10:03 a.m. and Hills is hunched over an L-shaped desk in a red plastic chair bolted to the carpet, six rows from the front in a windowless lecture hall. After reviewing the syllabus on an overhead projector, the Sociology 100 professor begins taking attendance, a new practice that day.
“Lauren? . . . Ethan? . . . Brianna? . . . Perry? Perry Hills?”
His name elicits no additional attention. It’s the same deal when Hills walks through an activities fair with his teammates, or when he eats lunch in the dining hall, scarfing down chicken tenders and fries. The starting quarterback at a Bowl Championship Series school doesn’t expect classmates to notice, nor does he particularly want them to.
Hills has heard stories about how Pat McAfee, the Indianapolis Colts punter who was born in Plum, Pa., just a half-hour away from Hills’s home town, received death threats after missing crucial field goals while in college at West Virginia. Anonymity suits Hills just fine.
His mother, Lori Hills, has a story about her son’s shunning of the spotlight. One day, Perry saw a television commercial in which NFL players stage a football game in a forest clearing flooded with light. Perry turned away from the television, and looked at his mother and said, “I want to play in the forest.”
There are no name tags outside the dormitory suite Hills shares with three other freshman football players. Those were stripped off early in the school year to prevent anyone from knowing who lived there. Inside, newspaper clippings featuring Hills cling to the wall of the common area; Hills’s roommates know how to embarrass him.
“He’s not looking for the limelight,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “There are some guys who love to play the position because of the attention and the accolades. Perry’s not like that. He’s not looking for attention. He just wants to be a normal guy who goes to school and plays football.”
It’s 1:50 p.m. and Perry Hills is sitting on a black steel bench outside Gossett Team House, chatting between the day’s media obligations and pre-practice meetings as teammates stroll by. The Terrapins are his family now, but he misses the old one, too.
Hills attended Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic High, the alma mater of NFL quarterbacks Dan Marino and Marc Bulger. He was a state champion wrestler, undefeated his senior season, honing the discipline Edsall raves about. Hills initially considered wrestling in college. That’s how Maryland came on his map. Despite living minutes from the University of Pittsburgh, its urban campus never appealed to Hills. He prefers the greenery of College Park.
Hills received Edsall’s scholarship offer 35 minutes into the drive back from a Maryland football camp with his mother. They still had several other visits planned. “Get your money back or cancel them,” Hills told his mother. “I’m committing now.” Afterward, they stopped at a gas station, and Hills had a chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich.
Stoic and composed in front of cameras, Hills is described by his mother as an utter goofball with a competitive streak to match. Wiffle ball, swimming, football. Didn’t matter. Perry had to win.
“When times get tough, he just keeps going, and it’s not for me, it’s not for the fans,” Lori Hills said. “He told me, ‘I would lay my life down for my coaches and my teammates.’ ”
He loves action movies, too. If a girl asks him to pick the movie, she’ll end up watching “300” or “Troy,” films in which heroes fight for a cause. He’s seen “Saving Private Ryan” 20 times, always when his father tells him it’s on. One sequence, however, infuriates him.
During the final battle, Cpl. Timothy Upham cowers in a stairwell, out of ammunition as a fellow American fights a German soldier in the attic.
The German overpowers the American, thrusting a steel blade through his heart. Upham meanwhile whimpers on the stairs, frozen with fear, unable to summon the courage to save his friend.
Whenever he watches that scene, Hills wants to smash the television screen. He hates that Upham failed his friend.
It’s 9:52 p.m. and Perry Hills is somewhere deep in Gossett Team House, eating a red velvet cupcake dropped off by Lee Hull, Maryland’s wide receivers coach. Hills washes it down with a half-hour voluntary film session. Hills had team dinner after practice, then two hours of study hall, mandatory for all freshman football players.
Tonight, Gossett is empty and silent, save the click-click-click of Hills working the remote inside the quarterbacks’ meeting room. A red laser dot dances on the screen, analyzing future opponents, scrutinizing his mistakes.
Hills never watched much film in high school. He arrived in College Park thinking he would challenge for the backup quarterback position. But when incumbent starter and captain C.J. Brown tore his anterior cruciate ligament during a non-contact drill in August, everything changed. On a team fresh off a 2-10 season, with a two-deep depth chart filled with true freshmen just like him, Hills became the starter within a week. He had to become the leader, the anti-Upham.
“I knew we weren’t going to cancel the season just because C.J. got hurt,” Hills said. “I had the team depending on me. It’s a good feeling, knowing that your brothers are out there with you, they trust you. Coming in? It’s not what I expected.”
Connecticut sacked Hills six times during its 24-21 win Saturday, the first loss Hills suffered as a college quarterback. But Hills bounced up after each hit, ready to make adjustments after instructions from his coaches. Things won’t get easier Saturday, when Maryland travels to face eighth-ranked West Virginia in one of college football’s most hostile environments.
“He’s the same guy every play,” offensive lineman Justin Gilbert said. “He ain’t going to show adversity, he’s not going to get put down because a couple things happen. He was the same guy from the beginning of the game to the end.”
It’s 10:09 p.m. and Perry Hills is walking across campus, past couples canoodling on brick ledges, through circles of ashy hookah pipes, over faded chalk drawings that command you to JOIN OUR FRATERNITY, BRO! He does this every Wednesday, the day ending nearly 16 hours after it began.
Clutching the straps of the Terrapins backpack he packed the night before, No. 11 stitched onto its front pocket, Hills trudges up his dormitory stairs. He glances at the blank white door and then across an empty quad, weary from another Wednesday bookended by darkness.