David Adam

Former Gems outfielder finds new love as SEC football official

LSU Auburn Football
LSU head coach Les Miles talks with side judge Chad Hill during the second half of a college football game against Auburn on Sept. 24, 2016, in Auburn, Ala. | AP Photo/Butch Dill
Butch Dill FRE
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Sep. 5, 2017 10:00 am Updated: Sep. 5, 2017 10:32 am

Chad Hill was looking for something to replace the excitement of playing baseball.

The former Quincy Gem had finished his college career at the University of Mississippi, and he played one year as an outfielder for the Hudson Valley Renegades, a Class A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2000. At age 23, he missed being around the game ... any game.

"Once I got out of baseball, I got out," he said. "I didn't even enjoy playing softball, but once you stop, you have to figure out what you want to do. I missed the camaraderie. I missed the guys."

Now, Hill has found a new love as a football official.

When he's not selling lab equipment for Beckman Coulter in Oxford, Miss., he's working every Saturday in the fall for games in the Southeastern Conference, and he's also one of 30 officials from across the country who are a part of the National Football League's Officiating Development Program, which looks to find officials to replace those who are retiring.

Football always has been in the blood of the Hill family. His father, Johnny, was a high school coach in Oxford, and his sons all played the game.

However, Hill turned out to be a pretty good baseball player, too, and he spent the summer of 1998 in Quincy.

It turned out to be one of the best summers of his life. The Gems won 23 of their first 24 games, finished 40-10 and cruised to the Central Illinois Collegiate League championship. Hill batted .282 with 30 RBIs and 33 stolen bases.

"I got to go play baseball in a cool place, someplace I'd never been," he said. "The game always was just a game. You meet new players, guys from other conferences. We had Ryan Duncheon, John Lackaff, Josh Rabe, Les Graham ... the whole squad was fun. It was a fun group."

Hill was more concerned about where he was going to live during his time in Quincy. He spent the summer with the family of Jim and Carmell Fitch, who had a young family of their own.

"I was a little nervous about meeting a host family, because I'm coming in and disrupting their lives. I wanted to be as respectful as possible," Hill said. "Being able to meet the Fitches was incredible."

When he stopped playing baseball, Hill said he had no desire to start officiating football.

"A friend of mine, his dad was an official, and they just kept on wearing me down," he said. "The first game I did was between two fraternities in Oxford, and once I stepped on the field, I was hooked. Every athlete has that wish to go back to their high school years, and this kind of fills that void. I was shocked at how much I enjoyed doing it."

The flexibility of his sales job gave Hill a chance to officiate as often as he wanted, and he started doing junior high school and high school games around the Oxford area. His job eventually forced him to move to Texas, South Dakota and Alabama, but he kept finding local officials associations to help him find games to officiate.

He eventually started working college games for two years in the Ohio Valley Conference. Now he's in his seventh year as a side judge doing SEC games with a crew that includes his brother, Walt.

Hill was involved in one of the most memorable games of 2016 when LSU played at Auburn. LSU appeared to have won the game 19-18 on a touchdown pass on the final play of the game, but replay officials determined that LSU didn't get the snap off before the clock expired.

Asked if he had a game that he'll never forget, Hill replied, "It's pretty much all of them. When you talk to officials, you can remember specific plays from years ago. I remember the things we do in preparation for a game or the things that happen with your buddies on the trip to the game, not necessarily being part of the game."

Hill was part of the crew that worked at the Michigan-Florida State game last year in the Orange Bowl. He's also officiated at the Quick Lane Bowl, the Peach Bowl and the SEC Championship game.

"For me, it doesn't matter if you're at the largest stadium in the world or the smallest high school game on a Friday," he said. "You might have a few more cameras on you, but the excitement is still there. We do the same to prepare to call a fair game, and once you get into it, it's really cool.

"You get the nerves early, and you have all the hoopla going on, but once they kick off, it becomes a game, and you just kind of get into your own little zone. You drown out the things that surround you and focus on what you're doing."

The chance to become an NFL official, Hill says, doesn't change his attitude toward officiating.

"I'm very happy where I'm at," he said, "but if I had the opportunity (to work for the NFL), I would be honored."

Until then, he'll keep working on Saturdays and helping raise a family. Hill, 40, and his wife, Kimmy, have three girls under the age of 5, and Kimmy is pregnant with their first boy.

The Hills also might have a new babysitting candidate in town. Audrea Fitch, the youngest daughter of Jim and Carmell, recently enrolled at Mississippi.

"Carmell was pregnant with Audrea when I was there," Hill said. "Jim recently reached out to the university to try to find me, and he sent me an email. I had to explain to my wife who he was. It's really cool that Audrea's going to school here, and it's given me a chance to reconnect with the Fitches.

"It's really cool to help a family who helped me."

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