Each player's road to the NFL is unique, especially the ones who fight to land those last few roster spots. Every week this season, espnW will profile the players who just made the cut, but still have a chance to make an impact. Meet the 53rd Man.
Will Hill didn't even have his own number: He was No. 38B for the New York Giants.
His makeshift locker was one of dozens crammed into the middle of the team's oval-shaped locker room, part of a temporary settlement inhabited by football players waiting to get cut. Most of them spent training camp wearing some piece of their college gear, eyes glued to their phones, knowing that by Sept. 1 -- the date each NFL squad trimmed to a 53-man roster -- they would probably be on a plane back home, without a job.
Of the nameless men in blue, the players with letters attached to their numbers, only a couple impressed enough to earn a spot on the final roster. Hill was one of them -- an aggressive, hard-hitting, 6-foot-1 safety who can also fly down the field and make big hits on punt and kickoff coverage for the defending Super Bowl champs, who opened the season Wednesday night with a 24-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
Of course, if you're going to be one of the last few guys to make the team, you need to show more than skill. And Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell says Hill has been doing all the things a player must do to make an impact. "He's 30 minutes early for the meetings, and when I go into the meeting room, he's always in there studying," Fewell said earlier this summer, as the clock ticked down to decision day. "He's a very athletic young man. This is his second chance, so to speak, and he's being the ultimate pro by the way he is preparing for his opportunity."
Ah, yes second chances. In some ways, Hill was just like anyone else trying to catch on during training camp, walking around with his Florida Gators backpack slung over his shoulder, one of dozens of free-agent signees without a dime of guaranteed money. But in other ways, he was nothing like the typical scrappy hopeful, those under-the-radar guys who proudly wear the overachiever label on their way to earning an NFL gig.
Hill is a former blue-chip prospect out of New Jersey and a member of the 2008 SEC All-Freshman Team at Florida. During his sophomore season with the Gators, he was tabbed as a potential first-round draft pick by some NFL scouts. After his junior season, he left Florida and declared for the draft.
And then things got ugly. Hill embarrassed himself on his Twitter account, sending out public messages about sex and drug use -- and raising a lot of red flags. He didn't help himself in his interviews with NFL teams, coming across as undisciplined and entitled. He quickly went from surefire to pariah, a guy with so many question marks that no team would take a flyer on him.
He was undrafted and unwanted.
Hill spent the 2011 season out of football, letting his ego deflate. He trained in Atlanta with former All-Pro safety Ray Buchanan, while assessing the damage he had done to himself.
"Rough -- that's what last year was like," Hill told espnW. "Not playing football after playing since I was 4 years old, that was a rough, rough year. But it was also a reality check, letting me know what I needed to do to better myself."
He means as a person, away from the game. "It wasn't like my on-the-field play kept me from going [in the draft]," he said. "It was the off-the-field stuff. I was really just worrying about those issues."
Before the Giants signed the 22-year-old Hill as a free agent, they sat him down and spelled out their expectations. Then they sat him down again after signing him, just to make sure he knew the score. They emphasized professionalism and accountability. (Immediately after the fiasco, Hill had initially claimed his Twitter account was hacked, but he has since taken ownership for the messages he sent.) The Giants stressed the word "respect" more than a few times.
These days, Hill is quick to accept responsibility for his actions. During the team's training camp in Albany, he pointed the finger at himself when asked what had tripped him up. "Me, me," he told reporters. "Just thinking too highly of myself and thinking, 'Oh, I am at the top again. Nothing can happen to me, and I can do whatever I want.' And I paid for it."
Hill said he needed to be knocked down a peg -- and he was. Now, he's enjoying the climb back up.
Giants fullback Henry Hynoski recently explained it like this: "No matter where you are, the bottom of the list or the top, you have to be early to meetings, stay after meetings, show that you want to be involved and that you're going the extra mile."
Hynoski was one of the last players to make the team in 2011, so he knows as well as anyone the kind of pressure Hill felt in training camp. "You're just so grateful to be considered in that final few," Hynoski said. "Right from the start, you know who are the few guys fighting to make the team, and that gives you extra motivation to work hard. Will is in that spot now."
Giants fans will likely see Hill in a number of different spots this season. Fewell has said he may use Hill as the team's third safety, or even as a nickelback against slot receivers, utilizing Hill's speed and aggressiveness, especially on the blitz. Hill recorded one tackle (solo) on Wednesday night, but as the season progresses, Giants fans should also expect to see him on special teams, hustling and making plays deep in the opponent's territory.
The great thing about the NFL is that once you're on the team -- once you have your own number -- you almost always have a chance to come up big at some point during the season.
So keep an eye out for Will Hill. He's No. 31 now.