When Derrick Hill returned from the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio in 2006, one of the first things the Oakland native did was hop on BART and get off at the Downtown Berkeley station. Hill had announced his commitment to play football at Cal during the high school all-star game and figured he should become more familiar with the town he was about to call home.
"I just walked around and it felt like somewhere I needed to be," Hill said.
As it turned out, the Berkeley community needed Hill just as much, if not more.
Cal's fifth-year senior nose tackle will play in his final home game today at Memorial Stadium, and although the career of the former McClymonds High School standout hasn't quite lived up to the enormous expectations he carried with him when he arrived in Berkeley, the impact he has made off the field will endure.
Hill has spent the final few years of his college career immersing himself in the community, speaking regularly at schools, hospitals and prisons. During this time, he has been a single father, raising his 2-year old son, Derrick III, while earning his bachelor's degree in African-American studies and meeting all the demands of a major college football program.
"He's a strong man, just to be able to do all that and play football," said fellow Cal nose tackle Kendrick Payne. "A lot of people could never do that with that schedule. I've seen him with Baby D a few times. Derrick is a great father, and he's also a father figure to a lot of people. He's got so many other things going. For him to still be able to love and cherish his son, that's really special."
Hill had his pick of major college football programs coming out of high school, and he got playing time right away as a freshman at Cal. But he tore up his knee after three games and sat out the rest of the season.
Since then, he has spent the rest of his career shuffling in and out of Cal's lineup because of an assortment of injuries. At times, he has been a dominant player. But he has never been able to string together those performances because of his health.
None of that seemed as important after Derrick III was born in 2008. That also was the time Hill felt the urge to start giving back. He was raised in a rough part of West Oakland and wanted to ensure his son had it better than he did as a child.
"One day I want him to be taught by his peers on how to live in this society and how to deal with things in life," Hill said. "I feel like the people in generations before dropped the ball so much that it's up to somebody like me to come in and start getting things back on the right track. Our youth is our future. If our youth doesn't know any better, our future won't know any better."
Hill is also motivated by the problems his own family has faced. His father has been in prison for murder since he was 2 years old. Hill says his father "was incarcerated for a murder he didn't commit." The Innocence Project, a public policy organization dedicated to "exonerating wrongfully convicted people" is attempting to get Hill's father his freedom.
Hill speaks weekly to his father, who has always told his son never to use his plight as an excuse.
"My father always told me to never let his situation be a crutch," Hill said. "I always want to let other kids know that if their mothers or fathers are going through some situations with hard times, you may feel like you'll never get out of it. But never use that as a crutch. Use it as motivation to fight through everything."
While Derrick III's mother is still involved in their son's care, Hill is his primary caregiver. Hill and Derrick III live together in Richmond along with his fiancee, Latasha Dunn.
During the season, Hill attends football practice and meetings in the morning, and then goes to classes. After that, he picks up Derrick III from day care and they typically spend the rest of the day together. It's when Derrick III goes to sleep that Hill does his schoolwork or has free time.
"When he's with me, he's with me," Hill said. "There's nothing more important. If I have a 10-page paper, I might have to put him to sleep a little bit early. But when we're at home, I'm getting tortured by Thomas the Train."
Hill has not been shy about bringing his son to his football obligations if he can't find child care. Derrick III has been to practice and even sat in on defensive meetings.
"Baby D will sit there and chow down on some bananas," Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "He'll be having a feast while we're having meetings. It's always fun."
Hill has spoken at schools of all levels, and frequently asks teammates to come along. Once, when he and recruiting assistant Kevin Parker went to speak at San Quentin State Prison, an inmate thought Hill looked familiar. When Hill informed him that his father was also incarcerated there, the inmate went and found him and the two were able to visit.
"All the stuff he does in the community is unbelievable," said Parker, himself an Oakland native who does a good deal of community service. "How he's handled everything, I look up to D. He's made it from the worst part that Oakland has to offer. He's definitely a success story."
At 6 feet 2, 308 pounds, Hill can be an intimidating figure. But those who have watched him in action say he exhibits a gentle side when speaking to children. He is firm with them but also injects humor into his presentations, which largely focus on education.
Last week, Hill received a call from Lolita Jackson, the principal at KIPP Bridge Charter School in West Oakland. Jackson was referred to Hill by Doris Fisher, who along with her late husband, Don, who died last year, has been a longtime Cal donor and founded KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), a series of charter schools aimed at low-income students.
"I called him and he was like, 'I'm two minutes away. Can I stop by now?' " Jackson said. "I told him I'd be waiting."
The two met, and Jackson had Hill speak to a student who "was having difficulties." Hill came back two days later to check up on the student.
"He spoke with him in a fatherly way but in a mentoring way," Jackson said. "Derrick let him know he would be back on Friday to check in with him. And he had two good days. So Derrick definitely had an impact. He has a gentle way about him, yet a firm and convincing way."
The KIPP Bridge school is on the same site as the old Lowell Middle School, which Hill attended. Jackson said Hill already has plans to start a mentoring program there.
Hill is hoping for a shot in the NFL next year. He's not expected to be drafted but should get invited to a team's training camp as a free agent.
No matter what the future holds, Hill says he will always remember that day he took a walk around Berkeley by himself as a high school senior. For Hill, that was the unofficial beginning to a journey he couldn't have anticipated.
"I still remember that day, just being amazed and happy that I did it," Hill said. "It's been a long journey and it's finally coming to an end. But it's been a great journey. (Today's game) is going to be a real bittersweet moment for me."