Andrew Hill has always had to grind a bit harder than others.
When Hill was in fifth grade, he and his family moved to the south side of the county. Right next door to him was current War Eagles teammate Jack Pehrson. The two began a close friendship, but it didn’t come without some competition.
During all the ensuing football and basketball battles, Hill began to realize an unfortunate fact: Pehrson was much more athletic than he was. Instead of giving up, though, the rivalry between the two best friends only pushed Hill.
“It was never a thing of discouragement,” Hill said. “Every time he got better, I was just inspired to catch up to him.”
Years later, during his senior year at South Forsyth, Hill has used that same mentality to embrace a bigger role in the War Eagle defense as a linebacker, in the kind of leadership role he’d never seen before. This season, Hill has run with the opportunity, jumping from almost out of nowhere on the stat sheet. He leads his team in tackles, and is fifth in Region 5-7A, after playing on defense in just five games last year.
Hill isn’t new to football, having played since third grade, but his small size always seemed to put him on the sidelines. That didn’t bother him too much at the time, but as he grew older, he realized that he’d have to get much more serious to gain a bigger role.
“When I was younger, I wasn't that mature about it,” Hill said. “What I was doing was fine. As I started maturing, I realized I needed to put a lot more work in to have an opportunity.”
Hill’s junior year was the season he credits with the most growth. He played snaps at linebacker to give the starters a breather, but was mostly a special teams player, with plenty of experienced seniors in front of him on defense at the time.
“I think I was really just focused on doing my job when that was my role,” Hill said. “I'm sure there were other things that I would have been able to do, but I was just happy to have a role on the defense, to do my part.”
Even with the limited playing time, South’s coaching staff began to see potential in Hill with the kind of intensity he played with.
“If you watch him on film, the great thing he does is his closing speed,” South head coach Jeff Arnette said. “He's so fast for a middle linebacker. I think that's the thing that makes him so effective for us. He plays as hard as any kid you'll ever run into.”
Before the season, Arnette and the coaching staff pulled Hill aside and told him that he was going to be in charge of the defense at middle linebacker, moving from outside, putting him in charge of the defense’s calls and alignment. The news was nerve-wracking for Hill at first, who had never held that kind of responsibility at any level of football.
But it was that feeling of being needed that drove him. He spent his offseason bulking up from 170 to 200 pounds, working out after school and doing as many linebacker drills as he could. Even after all of that preparation, the nerves were still in the back of his mind going into South’s preseason scrimmage.
“I was nervous going in but in that first half against Sequoyah, I knew my teammates had my back,” Hill said. “All the nervousness and everything went away.”
Hill has gone on to total 66 tackles since the regular season started, compared to just 12 for the entirety of last year. It wasn’t until South played Blessed Trinity on Aug. 24 that Hill truly knew how far he’d come. He logged half a sack against the defending Class 4A state champions.
“I was competing against some of the best athletes in the state,” he said. “It was just a much different game. When I played against teams my junior year like that, they were a lot faster. Just going out there and being able to compete a lot better than I did (before), that was the first time I realized that I'd grown.”
South hopes that growth can continue to lead the defense in the midst of region play. While there’s always something to improve, Arnette is glad to have a player with Hill’s attitude leading the charge.
“I've been coaching a long time, and guys like him make coaching fun,” Arnette said. “He's an awesome kid to coach, and I'm glad he's on my team.”