A coach and more

Besides winning games, Morgan's Donald Hill-Eley hopes to teach his players how to succeed in life

College Football

October 19, 2007|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun reporter

The roster has many players dealing with domestic issues, single-parent homes and dysfunctional families. For a football team, Morgan State brings enough personal baggage to the field to keep 10 counselors occupied.

But the Bears need only one.

Donald Hill-Eley, the coach with a master's degree in counseling, pulls together the loose ends and disparate parts of his team in a way that embraces the family spirit.

Under his roof, players with troubled backgrounds find a path out of despair. He nurtures, they grow. He teaches, they listen.

They will be listening closely tomorrow, when Morgan State plays Delaware State in perhaps the Bears' biggest game of the season. It is a game that ultimately could decide Hill-Eley's fate as the team's coach. In the final year of his contract, negotiations have stalled over the university's offer of a one-year extension.

Regardless of Hill-Eley's future, his past five years at Morgan have generated a feeling of renewal on and off the field.

"[Our relationship] is mentor to student, fatherly figure type of talk, big brother type of talk," senior linebacker Lamar West said. "He's always encouraging me. He's a real helpful person because he knows where I come from."

Hill-Eley knows because he has been there, too.

West grew up in Newark, N.J., with an absentee father. So did Hill-Eley, in Suffolk, Va.

West's mother was a drug addict when he was growing up. So was Hill-Eley's.

West, 21, used football to escape from his menacing environment.

Hill-Eley, 38, followed the football trail out of his own obscurity.

"I come from basically nothing," West said. "You're talking about a mother who's a recovering addict. You're talking about no father. You're talking about hardship.

"I've done it all, from selling drugs and everything else. ... [Now] I'm the light of my family to show that you can come from that type of environment and make something of yourself."

It's a lesson Hill-Eley preaches every day to his team. He enforces a dress code of ties and slacks on the road and has taken his team to church on more than one occasion. Hill-Eley is also quick to share his own life experience with players.

When he was born, his mother, Angela Hill, was 15, and his father, Vincent Eley, 16. He grew up with his grandmother, Mary Francis Hill, one of 16 people living in a three-bedroom house. Mary Francis held things together with an income of $330 per month and whatever the oldest children brought in working odd jobs.

Hill-Eley held a paper route when he was 9. He sloshed around in a hog pen, helped a carpenter and later worked 12 hours a day at a lumber mill. When he finally went to Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va., he said his mother was just four blocks away in a prison work-release program.

In 1994, Hill-Eley officially added Eley to his name in honor of his grandfather on his father's side. Claude Eley, who died that year, had been his father figure.

Hill-Eley says today that his mother still struggles with drugs "off and on," and his father, a one-time football star at Virginia Union, still battles alcohol problems.

"I always say I'm here for a purpose. I'm here because there are so many of them [players in need]," Hill-Eley said. "I don't have to ask my players: `What are you going through?' I know."

That's what attracted fifth-year quarterback Byron Selby to Morgan. The former Dunbar star could relate to Hill-Eley because they traveled similar paths.

"He's what I want to be in the future," Selby said. "Come from nothing to something. He turned his life around, helping people out. He overcame a lot of the hardships that I'm going through right now. ... My brother [Sean Scott] is behind bars, and my mother [Valarie Scott] is struggling. She raised two kids on her own."

Selby said he has only a limited relationship with his father, although it has gotten better.

Junior wide receiver Terrell White says he never would have met his father if not for Hill-Eley. When Ralph Sirmons wanted to make contact with his son, he called the coach. Hill-Eley arranged the phone call.

"Coach Hill dialed the number. I talked to [Sirmons], and basically I asked him why did he just abandon me and my mom [Judy White] like that. ... I was real mad. He's trying to have a father-son [relationship], but I'm not fully in it yet," White said.

Senior safety Kendell Jackson said he grew up about 30 miles from Hill-Eley's hometown.

"He knows there's nothing going on around there for people like me," Jackson said, "and he gave me an opportunity to get out of there. I knew it was nothing but trouble staying at home."

Jackson has a team-high three interceptions, and West ranks second on the team in tackles with 44. The Bears have won three straight games to contend for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title and a playoff berth in the NCAA's Division I Football Championship Subdivision. Their defense ranks fourth in the nation in yards allowed per game, and it is second in sacks and tackles for loss.

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