Born Leader

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 19, 2009 edition of Army Football Game Day versus Ball State.

By Brian Gunning

When John Donne wrote the famous line, "No man is an island ..." in 1624, he definitely did not have cornerbacks in mind.

Okay, so football was still 250 years away from being invented, but even if Donne was sitting in the Michie Stadium stands on a beautiful fall afternoon he would have noticed the lonely existence that Mario Hill leads on the football field.

On the field, the senior cornerback is often matched up one-one-one with a receiver, his lone responsibility to keep his man from catching a pass. Off the field, Hill is the furthest thing from alone and carries many responsibilities with him each day.

In addition to his duties as a cadet and West Point football player, the 22-year-old from Greensboro, N.C., has eight brothers and sisters watching his every move. Since enrolling at the Academy, Hill has lived by the motto, "Duty, Honor, Country," only a slight departure from the mantra, "Duty, Honor, Family," that has guided him since he was a youngster.

Hill is the oldest of nine children, ranging in age from 22 to five. As not only the oldest sibling, but also the oldest of his cousins, Hill had to develop leadership skills at an early age, a trait that has served him well at West Point.

"I was big brother, slash father, slash mentor," Hill said while describing his childhood. "Not only was I the oldest of my household, but I'm the oldest in my generation of family. Growing up, we all lived in the same house so it was kind of tough sometimes. I was the one trying to tell everyone to do the right thing and basically leading by example."

One of the examples that Hill provided for his younger siblings was attending college, becoming the first member of his family to advance his education beyond high school. His younger brothers and sisters have received the message loud and clear. Two of his siblings have reached college age. One is currently attending Morgan State, while the other is enrolled at North Carolina A&T.

"I think about being a role model all the time," Hill said. "I send them (his brothers and sisters) West Point shirts and things like that, and they're constantly reminded about it by other people. The other day my sister was at the store and someone asked her if she went to West Point. When she told them her brother did, the person said, ‘Tell him I'm so proud of him. I don't know him, but thank him for his service. They go to my old high school and they hear it all the time from their instructors. They are always telling me how sick they are of hearing it."

Hill's road to West Point was not the easiest path, but it's a journey that he wouldn't trade for anything. While all cadets have proven their willingness to make certain sacrifices, putting others before himself is a way of life for Hill.

"I've never had a room to myself. Here at West Point is the closest thing I've ever had to my own room," Hill said chuckling. "The bunk beds we have everywhere during training camp remind me of what it was like at home when I was little. I was the last one to eat and things like that because I made sure to take care of everyone else before I took care of myself. That's just how it was. I wasn't mad about it or anything - that's just life. It helped me here a lot."

After a successful two-year career on both the football field and track, Hill earned Grimsley High School's Leadership Award following his senior season. Interested in an engineering degree, the two-sport team captain was being recruited by some Football Championship Subdivision and Division II teams, but when his high school coach dropped Hill's name to then Army special teams coach Bruce Hardin, the seeds of a Division I career were sowed.

After going through the admissions process, Hill was offered an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy Prep School. He jumped at the opportunity despite never having visited West Point. In fact, the first time he ever stepped foot on the banks of the Hudson was after he enrolled at Fort Monmouth and the entire school came for a visit.

"Before I went to the prep school, I had to look up West Point on the internet," Hill said. "That and hearsay were the only things I knew about West Point, but all I heard was positive things. When I told people I was thinking about coming here, everyone had nothing but good things to say like, ‘You'll be set for life, or it's one of the best schools.' I couldn't say no."

The chance to be a two-year starter for the Black Knights was not on Hill's mind right away. In fact, he did not even start at the beginning of his one season at the prep school. Once he arrived at West Point, he set his sights on using special teams as a way to get playing time on Saturday. After going through the usual transition as a plebe and not seeing any game action, Hill became a regular on the Black Knights' special teams units as a sophomore. In 10 games, he registered 12 tackles, including three stops at Georgia Tech. As a junior in 2008, Hill had showed enough on special teams to earn a chance on defense, and has started every game at field corner since the start of last season.

While his transition on the football field from plebe to special teams standout to starter seemed rather seamless, Hill had to make even bigger adjustments on the field. Hill had never known anyone involved in the military until he arrived at Fort Monmouth and the regimented lifestyle caught him off guard.

"My biggest adjustment was taking instruction," Hill recalled. "I was not used to that. The whole military lifestyle was an adjustment. Nobody in my family was in the military. I didn't know anybody in the military. Everything was new - the uniforms, the greetings, and the whole chain of command didn't mean anything to me at the prep school. I actually got into some trouble with that because they (his superiors) were just like a person to me."

Hill quickly became indoctrinated into the culture and has thrived ever since. He credits all those rough experiences with bringing his teammates, especially the senior class, closer together, on and off the field.

"There is definitely a brotherhood here, coming up with the same group of guys all four years," Hill said. "The people have been my favorite thing here. My teammates and I have been through so much. No other team in the nation can say they've been through as much as we have. It's not just football, but the academic year and the military training. Going back to prep school basic training and cadet basic training, all the way through Buckner and the leadership details, what we've done has brought us all closer together."

While football introduced him to teammates he has created lifelong bonds with, those cadets he shares the field with on Saturday are not his only comrades at West Point. A self-described "quiet guy," Hill has had an entirely new world open up to him since came through the gates.

"I never really left North Carolina so I didn't know how much else was out there until I came here and met everyone from everywhere," Hill said. "I've met people from Rwanda, Nigeria, Belize and every state in the nation. It's amazing. It was a culture shock at first, but I've been able to take in so much from other people. It's been a great experience."

That interaction with those people he might never have met elsewhere has had a profound effect on Hill. While he has always been a leader, he always chose to lead by example rather than by words. While he still subscribes to that philosophy, the leadership positions he has taken on at West Point have forced him out of his comfort zone in order to maximize his effectiveness.

"I'm a lot more outgoing since I got here," Hill said smiling. "You could go back to my high school and ask about me, and 95 percent either wouldn't know who I am or didn't know who I was until my senior year. Here, I tried to be a lot more outgoing. It changed me.

"With the leadership roles you have here, you have to be able to talk to people. They have what's called ‘e-mail leadership' where you send everything out over e-mail instead of talking to people. I try not to do that."

Hill has certainly had plenty of leaders to learn from in his four years at West Point. In their careers, this year's seniors have played for three different coaches. Not only have they learned from different leadership styles, the group has also learned valuable lessons Hill believes will serve them well during their military careers.

"If nothing else, it shows we can adjust to anything," Hill explained. "The Army is the same way. In a way, it has prepared us for when we get out of here. We need to be able to adjust and be prepared for anything."

In a bit of irony, the man who tries to lead mostly by example was drawn to the Black Knights' latest mentor by the words he spoke. When first-year head coach Rich Ellerson made it clear that he was not bringing a three or five-year plan with him, but rather the expectation that Army Football needed to be a winning program immediately, Hill and the other seniors took notice.

"I think that got me immediately," Hill remembered. "I was watching the press conference because I wanted to know more about him, and when he said that he wanted to win right away because he had seniors on this team that didn't have time for a three-year plan, that took me in immediately. We knew he was coming in to win right now."

While that statement might be what drew the players to their new head coach initially, Ellerson has done nothing to make them doubt their belief in their leader.

"We believe a lot in the system," Hill said. "We see it working. There is just something about it."

Despite being focused on each week's opponent, Hill can't help but remember the long and winding road that brought him to this point in his career.

"I'll always remember my whole experience with the football team, starting off with Coach (Bobby) Ross and then Coach (Stan) Brock and now the Coach (Rich) Ellerson era. I've seen change. I've seen progress, and hopefully we can keep it going the rest of the season."

After offering the reflection about his time at West Point, Hill quickly snapped back into the mentality that Ellerson and the coaching staff have been preaching since spring practice.

"The only thing on our minds right now is winning the next game," Hill said. "I feel very confident."

Brian Gunning is the Assistant Athletic Director for Athletic Communications at West Point.

Knight Vision


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