Santa Barbara High football quarterback Deacon Hill, surrounded by a UCLA-educated sports family, took the advice of his siblings and future brother-in-law and signed with a Power-five football conference on Wednesday.
But it wasn’t the Bruins.
“They all told me to go to Wisconsin,” Hill said with a laugh after signing with the Badgers during a National Letter of Intent ceremony at newly reconstructed Peabody Stadium.
Hill’s three older sisters — Sami, Kodi and Abbi — are all either former or current UCLA water polo All-Americans. Sami’s fiancé, Sam Tai, played on the offensive line for the Bruins’ football team.
“You would think they would all tell me to go to their alma mater, but no,” said Hill, the youngest of Pe’a and Cindy Hill’s four children. “They told me that Wisconsin is the place I need to be.
“A lot of schools tried to come in, but Wisconsin has my heart.”
His parents had both played basketball in college — Pe’a at BYU-Hawaii and his mother, the former Cindy Battistone, at BYU’s main campus in Provo, Utah. But Pe’a, who had also played football at Fresno City College, named his son, partly at least, after former Los Angeles Rams star Deacon Jones.
“I can’t speak enough about Cindy and Pe’a, and how great they are as parents, and the foundation that they laid for their kids,” Santa Barbara football coach J.T. Stone said. “We are losing a quality, quality kid — a community kid — who the minute that he walked in the door wanted to be the ambassador for Santa Barbara High School. I’m very proud of him.”
Stone said UCLA and many other schools called him constantly after Hill passed for a school-record 3,102 yards and 33 touchdowns to lead Santa Barbara to the 2019 CIF-Southern Section Division 8 finals.
Playing close to home in sunny Southern California did have its allure, but the 6-foot-4 quarterback decided to honor the commitment that he’d made to Badger coach Paul Chryst several months earlier.
“It did take some heart to think about it,” Hill said. “I drive around Santa Barbara, just thinking to myself, listening to music.
“But at the end of the day, it just came down to what would make me a better person and a better football player, and that’s Wisconsin.”
It was a feeling of family that made him stick with the Badgers.
“You hear all about how coach Chryst is a players’ coach, and it’s true,” Hill said. “He’s all about his players. On Sunday, you could go in for a workout, but he gives you the day off to go hang out with your family since you don’t get to see them a lot.
“Him being that players’ coach and that adult role in your life while you’re in college is one of the main reasons I wanted to go there.”
He was also convinced by the commitment that Wisconsin had made in him.
“They told me that I was going to be the only 2021 commit” for the position of quarterback, Hill said.
Chryst’s interest in Hill was piqued when he and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph watched a video tape that had been sent by Sam Fisher of the “Throw To Win” training academy in Los Angeles. They scouted him at a football camp that summer and offered him a scholarship two months before the start of his junior season.
By that point, Hill had been mostly the backup quarterback at Santa Barbara High.
He did make an impressive starting debut as a sophomore the previous fall after starter Frankie Gamberdella broke his collarbone. Hill passed for 201 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-7 win over Dos Pueblos that clinched a CIF-Southern Section playoff berth for the Dons.
Stone was the least surprised, having trained him since the fourth grade at his Big Picture Athletics camp. The veteran coach was admittedly emotional before Wednesday’s ceremony.
“It’s almost been a decade of our relationship, so this is definitely a hard day for me,” he said. “I’m not going to lie to you guys, there was about a good 30-to-45 minutes when I broke down.
“It’s not necessarily the football. I established a relationship with this kid… I feel like I’m losing a son, which is difficult. Today is almost a decade of working with this kid, and you get only one year out of him. But in that one year, look what came out of it.”
Athletic director Todd Heil said much the same after having Hill in one of his classes last year.
“The stories are true,” Heil said. “He’s an incredibly humble kid, passionate kid, conscientious kid.”
The Dons were expected to contend for a CIF championship again this year with the return of Hill, last year’s Channel League Offensive Player of the Year, as well as several other honored stars. They include nose guard Noach Wood, the league’s Defensive Player of the Year; offensive and defensive back Ty Montgomery, the Utility Player of the Year, as well as all-conference receiver Jake Knecht.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has put their senior seasons on indefinite hold.
But Hill, who has been selected to play in Hawaii’s Polynesian All-American Bowl on Jan. 23, has also signed up for a tackle football league sponsored by Corona’s Winner Circle Academy. His team will open a six-game schedule on Jan. 2. The games will be played in San Diego with the playoffs to follow in Bullhead City, Ariz.
“I’m playing for the Prime Time Polynesian Team — my uncle is the head coach there,” Hill said. “He texted me and said he needed a quarterback, so I decided to go. We’ve got a good team.
“I just can’t go a year-and-a-half or two years without playing football before college. I’ve got to get something in.”
It’s that dedication that got Hill to this point, Stone said. He noticed from the first day at his camp nearly a decade ago.
“The DNA was there and the foundation was there, but it was, ‘Let me take this kid and really nurture him and show him the way, and along the way put him in front of people,’” Stone said. “It was, ‘Deacon, go run with this… You’ve got to embrace this.’ And he did that.
“There are certain kids that I work with that I know just have the ‘it’ factor, and he definitely has it.”