While Cardinals safety Larry Wilson rightfully became a national darling, many believed Jimmy Hill was the best cornerback in the NFL in the early 1960s.
The Dallas, TX native was a star offensive end at Booker T. Washington High School where he was named to the all-Texas team in 1945 and 1946. He caught 134 passes and scored 16 touchdowns or the Bulldogs and also set a high school record in track and field in the low hurdles.
Hill attended Sam Houston State College in Austin, TX where he starred in four sports. He was named All-American honorable mention in 1948 and 1949 as a running back and once ran for 5 touchdowns in a game. In addition to football, Hill was a sprint champion in track racking up a 9.5 mark in the 100 yard dash and also starred on the baseball and basketball teams. He was named the school’s best all-around athlete his last three years in college.
Hill was good enough in baseball as a pitcher to garner interest from the Washington Senators and Cleveland Indians. In 1950, he was offered a contract by the Montreal Alouettes to play football in the Canadian Football League and the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League, but he decided to teach and coach football after college.
In 1953, Hill wrote a letter to the General Manager of a fledgling professional football team in St. Louis asking for a tryout. The St. Louis Knights’ season had already started, but Bob Reed told him to come on up for a meeting. Head coach Don Ingerson told Hill that he’d get the low scale of pay until he proved he could produce. And produce he did. Hill rushed for almost 200 yards and scored four touchdowns in his first game against Waukegan. He made $90 in eight games with the Knights and would go on to play part of 1954 with them before the team folded.
After an unsuccessful tryout with the Cleveland Browns during the 1954 season, Hill was signed by the Chicago Cardinals in 1955 and was switched to defense. The 27 year old rookie recovered three fumbles during part time play his freshman season and became a full-time starter the following year. He picked off 10 passes from 1956-1959 (he missed the 1958 season with an injury).
Hill returned to the Mound City after the Cardinals relocated from Chicago in 1960 and would make three straight Pro Bowl appearances. From 1960-1962 the hard-hitting cornerback did not give up a touchdown pass.
“I’d been very proud of that,” Hill told Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post Dispatch in a 1970 interview. “And over one stretch of seven or eight games, at my peak, opposing teams didn’t even throw into my territory.”
Hill may have had his finest season in 1962. He netted only two interceptions, but as he referenced in the Broeg interview, quarterbacks rarely threw to his side of the field.
“That Jim Hill is inhuman,” New York Giants star wide receiver Del Shofner told reporters after being shutdown by the Cards DB at Yankee Stadium.
Cards defensive backfield coach Ray Willsey called Hill the “best corner man in the National Football League.”
Hill, Billy Stacy, Larry Wilson and Jerry Norton gave the Cardinals one of the top defensive backfields in the NFL and Wilson credited Hill for taking him under his wing in his first training camp in 1960 and showing him how to be a professional.
THE BART STARR INCIDENT
The turning point in Jimmy Hills’ career came on October 20, 1963. The Green Bay Packers were visiting old Sportsman’s Park (Busch Stadium I) and had a 23-7 third quarter lead. Hill made a hard tackle on Packers quarterback Bart Starr along the west sideline. Starr kicked Hill in the mouth and Hill followed up with a punch to Starr’s face. Later the Big Red veteran expressed his regret.
“I apologized to Starr,” Hill told reporters after the game. “He kicked me in the mouth as I brought him down, but I know it wasn’t intentional. Bart isn’t that kind of guy. I swung out as a sort of reflex action.”
Starr broke a bone in his throwing hand on the play and missed the next four games. Hill would lose two of his teeth. However, Starr exonerated Hill explaining that his apology after the game was a “fine thing to do.”
The Cardinals were flagged 15 yards on the play and Hill was ejected from the game, but upon review of game film, there was no suspension from the league.
A few weeks later Sports Illustrated revived the story and made Hill out to be a villain. “In the most reprehensible play of the season, Cardinal defensive back Jimmy Hill slugs Green bay Packer Quarterback Bart Starr in the face, an example of professional football at its worst,” wrote Walter Bingham. There was no mention of Starr kicking Hill in the mouth resulting in the loss of his teeth.
In the aftermath of the Starr incident and SI story, Hill heard boos from the hometown crowd for the first time. “Those really hurt me,” Jimmy said in Bob Burnes book Big Red. “I thought all the fans in St. Louis were my friends.”
Tired of hearing the boos, he later requested to not be introduced with all the other starters before games. The nine year veteran had lost his lust for the game.
The 35 year old came back for the 1964 season, but was clearly past his prime. He shared time with young cornerback Jimmy Burson as the Cards put together their finest season in St. Louis to that point. Hill would announce his retirement the following summer, although he briefly played for Detroit and Kansas City in 1965 and 1966.
Hill would remain in St. Louis after retirement. He was a part time scout with the Kansas City Chiefs and opened three music stores in the area called “Jimmy Hill Music Centers.” He later opened a bar called “Jimmy Hill’s Sports Page” in North St. Louis and even later a supper club called “Jimmy Hill’s Continental Club.”
Jimmy Hill passed away in 2006 at the age of 78.