Calvin Hill knows what players deal with
As consultant, former Cowboy provides expertise for dealing with all kinds of off-field issues
He slowly walks into the locker room and drops a newspaper article into a player's locker. He exercises on the same equipment as the players. He travels to the road games. And when there's a problem, Calvin Hill lends an ear.
In fact, Hill provides much more in his role as a consultant in the Dallas Cowboys' player development program.
If there's anybody who can help a player deal with the pressures of being a pro athlete in today's social media world, it's Hill. He last played an NFL game in 1981, but he understands what it means to handle being an athlete in Dallas today.
Hill's background opened the door for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to hire him in 1997 to improve the team's player development program.
"He's obviously very smart and has such credibility with his background with the Cowboys and his background as a player," Jones said. "All of those made it probably the easiest hiring I've ever done since I've been involved with the Cowboys. He's got very knowledgeable insight into player issues."
Experience as a player, businessman and father (his son is NBA veteran Grant Hill), gives Hill, 65, a unique understanding of what players go through.
"He can see a hustle a mile away," said Bryan Wansley, the Cowboys' director of player development. "He's seen it all. When players have problems with family members, a business opportunity, they can go to him and talk freely about what's going on."
After a 12-year NFL career where he played for three teams and became the first Cowboys running back to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season, Hill was hired in 1982 along with Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield by then-Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell to start a player development program.
Modell had two major problems: He didn't want to create a wall between management and the players as a result of the 1982 strike, and several of his players had drug problems. Modell wanted Hill and Warfield to help the players.
"We called it the inner circle," Hill said of the players who were part of the program.
Hill had a unique knowledge of talking to players, especially to the Browns, because he had just finished his playing career with some of them.
"He could relate to all sorts of people," Warfield said.
Players in the program could talk in confidence to Hill and Warfield and were drug tested and received treatment for substance abuse.
Warfield said Hill was able to get local businesses to develop relationships with Browns players so when their careers ended, jobs might be waiting. The program also pushed for former players to return to college and get their degrees.
Sam Rutigliano, head coach of the Browns from 1978 to 1984, remembers the impact Hill and Warfield's program had on players.
"A player came into my office one day and said he attempted suicide because of drug addictions and I began my career in confronting this thing," Rutigliano said. "We sent the young man away for six weeks and when he came back we would help him."
Rutigliano went on to say, "I still get a call from that same player, 30 years later, that says we saved his life."
Running back Charles White, whose battle with substance abuse has been well documented, was another player who received help from the Browns when Hill was there.
"A player came to me when I was there and said Charles White was in trouble," Rutigliano said. "I contacted him and he denied it but he eventually admitted to me and we put him in the program. Calvin Hill was an integral part of that program. I can see why Jerry Jones hired him in Dallas."
Hill left the Browns in 1986. After working with the Baltimore Orioles and leading a few attempts to buy a Major League Baseball franchise, Hill took a call from Jones.
"The Cowboys were having all kinds of issues," Hill said. "It was pretty much the same kind of situation [as in Cleveland]. I supposed, in some respects, without getting into specifics, Jerry was interested in what could be put together. What could he provide [in terms] of support to deal with the problems he had."
Players appreciate what Hill has to offer.
"He was important," said Charles Haley, a defensive end for the Cowboys in the '90s who talked to Hill about various undisclosed issues. "He can relate to these players and try to motivate them and get them out of the dark ages. Guys are from low economic backgrounds and these guys become men in the NFL and Calvin is there to help them."
Former Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens also talked to Hill about on- and off-the-field issues. After Owens suffered an accidental overdose during the 2006 season, Hill was there for the wide receiver.
"Calvin has always been in my corner," Owens said. "He would come to my locker and speak to me. He's a guy who is easy to talk to and can relate to you in many different ways."
Hill noted that, like Modell, Jones cares about players. He doesn't think of them as pieces of property and develops relationships with them on a regular basis.
The Browns are believed to be the first NFL team to have a player development program. Now every NFL team has one, and the Cowboys' is considered one of the best.
When the team traded up to select Dez Bryant in the 2010 draft, Jones mentioned how the player development program could be beneficial to the talented rookie whose stock had fallen because of character concerns.
"There are lots of ways in Dallas to have fun and get into trouble," Hill said. "You take a guy, I don't care where they're coming from. 'How do you handle it [fame], responsibility?' That's the challenge."
That's why Hill and his group is there.
Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.