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  • Writer's pictureShehan Jeyarajah

Legend of Justice Hill: How an overlooked running back became an Oklahoma State superstar

Originally published on DieHards.

STILLWATER, Okla. — The legend of Justice Hill starts under the lights on a field in Northeast Tulsa.

It was a football Friday at S.E. Williams Stadium – Oct. 2, 2013, to be exact. A scrawny sophomore warmed up, but knew he wouldn’t play. Hill didn’t even make varsity as a freshman, as concerns about his durability outweighed obvious natural ability. Now, stuck behind a junior on the depth chart at a high school that produces NFL talent, there wasn’t much of an opening.

But Justice Hill has turned out to be one of the best there is at crafting his way through those small gaps. When an opening presented itself on that brisk Friday night, Hill was ready.

Just minutes before Washington’s big game against Enid kicked off, coach Marvin Dantzler unexpectedly came to Hill.

“You’re starting.”

Washington’s top running back, Deonta Owens, was out for the game with back spasms. In his place, the skinny sophomore had to take first-team carries. Dantzler and his staff privately worried that Hill would struggle to deal with the spotlight.

That was the last time anyone at Washington High School doubted Justice Hill.

Hill dazzled both fans and coaches in his first high school start, running for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns on more than 30 carries in a huge 23-13 win over Enid. He diced up the defense for 6 carries of 16 yards or more.

“That was his first-ever high school start,” Dantzler told DieHards. “After that, he was the guy.”

In the nearly five years since that moment, Hill has never relinquished being “the guy.” He put together an elite high school football career. He turned heads the second he got on campus at Oklahoma State. And now, he’s poised to leave Stillwater as one of the best running backs in Cowboys history.

Not bad for an overlooked kid from Tulsa.

Building a legacy at Booker T.

Countless superstar athletes walked the halls of Booker T. Washington High School. Legendary Oklahoman Wayman Tisdale graduated from Washington. So did the famous Lockett family – Tyler, Kevin and Aaron became collegiate All-Americans. Two Booker T. alumni won Super Bowl rings.

Hill doesn’t look much like them. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, he could easily get lost in a crowd. But when the lights go on, Hill becomes unstoppable. Between his junior and senior seasons, Hill posted 3,374 yards and 54 touchdowns.

“He could have doubled his yardage at Booker T.,” Dantzler said. “People don’t realize he sat out four games as a junior with a dislocated shoulder. Senior year, most of our games we’d be up by 50 at halftime and he wouldn’t play the second half. He almost had 2,000 yards that season anyway.”

But despite his profile growing, elite offers eluded him. The 247Sports composite ranked Hill as the No. 963 player in the nation, and No. 79 running back in the class.

Even after a standout junior season, Hill didn’t have a Division I offer.

“I think a lot of it had to do with his size,” Dantzler said. “He was smaller in high school than he is now.”

Racking up offers wasn’t important to Hill, though. He didn’t need the validation. Hill was only looking for one scholarship.

Hill grew up an Oklahoma State supporter. He remembers watching as the Cowboys come within one game of playing for a national championship in 2011. When recruiting letters arrived, Oklahoma State was the only offer he wanted.

“It was my dream to play here,” Hill told DieHards. “As soon as recruiting opened, I told myself that I would commit here if I got the offer.”

It didn’t take long.

Earning the coveted offer

Hill went to church in Tulsa before Oklahoma State’s junior day — a Sunday — and prayed that the coaches at Oklahoma State would notice him. Call it divine intervention, but running backs coach Jemal Singleton pulled him to the side once he arrived at the facility.

Justice Hill had his offer, and he was ecstatic.

Singleton brought Hill up to Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy’s office, where Gundy fawned over his ability.

“He was just a good player,” Gundy said. “Everyone recruits Booker T. Washington and he had a lot of skill. We were a little surprised he wasn’t more highly recruited.”

Hill went home and spoke to his parents and to Dantzler. He told them that Oklahoma State was the perfect fit for him. A few weeks later, Hill became Oklahoma State’s first commit of the 2016 recruiting class.

Offers from Houston, Kansas and Louisville poured in over the coming weeks. Other major schools contacted him, too. Regardless, Hill never wavered.

“Some kids want to be recruited – he wasn’t one of them,” Dantzler said. “He’s well-grounded when it comes to vision and how he wants to pursue it. That’s one thing that’s rare for someone so young. He could have sat around and piled up 25 to 30 offers like other kids. That’s just not Justice.”

Making a quick impression

With his preferred scholarship in hand, Hill put together a stellar senior season. He won Class 6A-II offensive player of the year honors and made all-state, while leading Washington to a 10-1 season and state semifinal appearance.

Despite that finish, Hill ranked as the No. 9 prospect in Oklahoma State’s signing class and second-best running back. Everyone expected Hill to redshirt his freshman season.

Oklahoma State had many running backs. Chris Carson and Rennie Childs were both back. The pair ranked among the team’s most productive rushers in 2015. Jeff Carr expected to move into a bigger role after a promising freshman year. Plus, fans were enamored by a new addition with a recognizable name: Barry Sanders Jr.

But when Hill arrived on campus in June 2016, his new teammates took notice. His performance in the weight room is legendary. Fans got a quick glimpse when Hill squatted 565 pounds last summer in a Twitter video. Gundy also expressed admiration of Hill’s astonishing 40-inch vertical jump right when he got on campus.

“I think before we even touched the football, it was just in the weight room,” Cowboys fullback Britton Abbott told DieHards. “I noticed he was really strong, and saw his work ethic. From that time, I thought he might have a chance.

“You never know until you put the pads on and take the ball, but I thought he had a chance.”

The natural

Once he hit the field, it was clear Hill was special. Coaches marveled at how easily he diagnosed defenses and found gaps for a player of his experience. Hill also made it through practice without any durability concerns.

“He’s got the best vision from a running back that I’ve ever seen,” said defensive end Jordan Brailford, who played with Hill at Washington. “He had it back then, he has it now. He knows how to find the creases in the defense and hit the gaps as hard as he can.”

Keep in mind, Hill didn’t enroll early. He arrived on campus in June. Even Dantzler assumed Oklahoma State would redshirt him, especially with so many senior running backs.

“I knew he would have success when his time came,” Dantzler said. “But I was shocked that he started as a true freshman. We were honestly thinking, ‘Hey, let’s do everything they ask you to do. We’ll see when you get there. If you redshirt, that’s not a big deal.’

“But Justice is so competitive. He did everything they asked.”

In his first collegiate games, Hill performed well in limited opportunities against Southeastern Louisiana and Central Michigan. By his fourth game against Baylor, Hill was a key producer. He rushed for 122 yards and a touchdown in his first Big 12 game against the Bears. Hill added 135 yards and a touchdown against Texas the next week.

“I’ve always performed well in games,” Hill said. “I didn’t think I’d have a drop off when I came to college. When they let me into the game, I knew I could make things happen.”

‘You can’t help but say wow’ 

Hill never looked back. He rushed for a season-high 162 yards at Kansas and finished with 6 100-yard games in his freshman season en route to becoming the first Cowboys freshman to rush for 1,000 yards. His 1,142 yards surpassed freshman records set by Mike Hamilton and Thurman Thomas.

“You think about a guy who was in high school in May and was starting at a Power 5 school in September, you can’t help but say wow,” Dantzler said.

As a sophomore, Justice Hill improved his numbers to 1,467 yards and 15 touchdowns on 268 carries. He also added 31 catches for 190 yards and a touchdown. His effort helped improve the Cowboys from 113th to 47th in rushing offense over the last two seasons.

For his efforts, Hill earned All-Big 12 first-team and was named one of 11 semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award. Only three of the them were freshmen or sophomores.

His 8 100-yard games last season enabled him to become one of four running backs in Oklahoma State history to average 100 yards per game. The other names? Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas and Terry Miller. It’s hard to find a more exclusive collection of Cowboy royalty.

“I never expect that out of a young player,” Gundy said.  “He exceeded our expectations early in his career.”

Taking center stage

In 2018, Justice Hill won’t take anyone by surprise. Every Big 12 defensive coordinator will be planning for him next season.

Quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receivers James Washington and Marcel Ateman are gone to the NFL. Top linemen Zach Crabtree and Brad Lundblade graduated, too. Now, it’s the Hill show.

Hill has been preparing for this spotlight his whole life. He worked to become the best running back in the state of Oklahoma. Then, he grew into the Big 12’s best running back. There’s now talk Hill could become the nation’s best running back.

With two years of eligibility remaining – and a lengthy NFL career on the horizon – Hill’s potential is unlimited if he can stay healthy.

“I knew that going to Oklahoma State meant I’d be able to play in big games and against top opponents,” Hill said. “That’s what I always wanted to do.”

For a backup underclassman running back at a talent-rich high school in Tulsa, getting there was the hard part.

Five years later, his legend is only getting started.

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