On Dec. 8 at Arrowhead Stadium, Tyreek Hill caught a 36-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith and returned a punt 78 yards for another score as the Chiefs beat the Raiders 21--13 on Thursday Night Football. The latter score helped seal the win, putting Kansas City in control of the AFC West, and Hill returned to the sideline amid thunderous cheers of Ty-REEK! Ty-REEK! But how many of those in the stands chanting Hill's name were also aware of what happened on Dec. 11, 2014?
The most electrifying returner in the NFL—and one of the league's fastest players—Hill committed domestic assault and battery by strangulation that night, the felony charge to which he pleaded guilty in August 2015. Now, as one of the most dangerous game-breakers remaining in the playoffs, he will take the turf at Arrowhead for the divisional-round game against the Steelers as yet another example of how on-field excellence can lead NFL fans to look past the crimes of domestic abusers.
On Dec. 11, Hill, a star returner and wide receiver at Oklahoma State, was at his apartment with his girlfriend, who was eight weeks pregnant with their child, when she received a text message from someone saying that Hill, then 20, had been "hitting on high schoolers." According to the police report and court testimony, Hill threw her phone and laptop into the hallway and shut her out of his room. When she re-entered, Hill hit her in the face, choked her and punched her in the stomach.
Officer Justin Reedy of the Stillwater Police Department met the victim at the hospital that night, noted her injuries and then went to Hill's apartment to arrest him. It's because "[I'm] black and she was white," Reedy said Hill told him as he was being placed in custody.
Cowboys coach Mike Gundy kicked Hill off the team shortly after the arrest, less than a week after his punt return touchdown helped beat rival Oklahoma. A first-time offender, Hill, who faced one to three years in prison, received a three-year deferred sentence with probation, along with requirements to participate in a domestic-abuse evaluation, an anger-management course and a yearlong batterer's intervention program.
Hill transferred to Division II West Alabama in Livingston the next season and scored eight touchdowns as a returner and wide receiver. Then he ran a 4.25-second 40 at the school's pro day the following spring. One NFC general manager told SI that Hill was a second-day talent but had informed his staff to "not even mess with him."
Kansas City did, drafting him in the fifth round last April. As a rookie lining up at receiver and returner, the 5'10", 185-pound Hill scored 12 touchdowns (six receiving, three rushing, two on punt returns and one on a kick return) for the 12--4 Chiefs and was unanimously voted All-Pro last week. His speed erases angles would-be tacklers have, and it's unlikely that Pittsburgh will give him any punt he can return on Sunday.
Yet if video of the attack existed, there's a good chance Hill would not have been drafted. "The reality is Ray Rice, that situation, is transformative," one AFC general manager says. "Fair or unfair, but it's the truth."
After Kansas City picked Hill the team's Twitter account was flooded with negative comments. In response general manager John Dorsey said, "I just want everybody to understand that we have done our due diligence with regards to full vetting each one of our draft-class members," and coach Andy Reid expressed admiration for how Hill was "trying to make the effort to right the wrong." Shortly after being drafted, Hill was quoted as saying that "I've just got to be better at choosing my friends." After being questioned by reporters, Hill then said that was "the very wrong way to look at it" and that he blames no one but himself.
The assault in Stillwater has flown largely under the radar this year in the media. In four nationally televised games, Hill's domestic-violence charge was mentioned just once, when NBC's Mike Tirico, Cris Collinsworth and Michele Tafoya detailed Hill's arrest and aftermath in Kansas City's Week 12 overtime win over Denver after he returned a kick 86 yards for a touchdown.
Hill, who is on probation until August 2018, has avoided any legal trouble since his guilty plea; if that continues, the felony charge will be expunged. He made $550,000 this year, though he would have earned at least $500,000 more in guaranteed money as a third-round pick.
The victim, who has since had a baby boy, has declined or not responded to multiple media requests—including one from SI—but in a 2015 tweet to an Oklahoma State fan she wrote "I'm the person he attacked. If I can let go, so can you." Letting go, though, should not be confused with forgiving or forgetting what happened that night.