Troy Hill kept the football tucked in his left hand as long as possible.
Following his second-quarter interception Sunday, the Rams’ cornerback was patted on the back and pounded on the head. He was wrapped in enthusiastic embraces and warmly wrangled back to the bench. He returned to the sideline with a right hand free for high fives and handshakes.
His left arm, however, remained occupied by his keepsake all along.
“I was about to just keep on going,” Hill said, smiling widely in the wake of the Rams’ 17-7 win over the Chicago Bears. “I was about to take it back home, go give it to my mom.”
Eventually, Hill relinquished the pigskin to a team ball boy. His diving snag of Mitch Trubisky’s tipped pass, after all, wasn’t his first career interception or impact play. Rather, it was the latest validation of Hill’s potentially permanent starting status.
A perennial backup before this season, Hill now tops the depth chart in the Rams secondary. The team’s mid-season shake-up — which saw starting cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib depart as Jalen Ramsey arrived — has thrust the former spot-starter into a first-string role for the foreseeable future.
“In my head,” Hill, 29, said earlier this month, “I was like, ‘This is an opportunity I’ve got to take advantage of.’ ”
Quietly, Hill has become one of the Rams’ longest-tenured players. Since being claimed by the club late in 2015, he has appeared in 50 games while bouncing in and out of the starting lineup. He made four starts early in 2016, three more in relief of an injured Kayvon Webster late in 2017, and seven after Talib got hurt in the middle of last season.
Hill has never had an opportunity such as this though. After signing a two-year contract extension in the offseason, the starting job is now his to lose.
After struggling in Pittsburgh last week, his fourth start of the season, he shined against the Bears on Sunday. He recorded six tackles, knocked away three passes, and had a sack. Three plays after Hill’s interception — part of Trubisky’s injury-shortened 24-for-43, 190-yard passing display — the Rams scored a touchdown to go ahead by two scores.
“I know I get a lot of recognition or whatever it may be,” said Ramsey, the Rams’ high-profile acquisition who plays the other corner in the new-look defensive backfield. “But Troy’s been balling. Seriously.”
That Hill is in the league is a mini-miracle. Brought up in the backstreets of Youngstown, Ohio, he was sent by his mother to live with an uncle in Ventura for his high school years. After starring at St. Bonaventure High, he played collegiately at Oregon but didn’t get drafted. He found free-agent opportunities, but was released by the Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots in 2015.
Away from the field, he’s had issues three times — once with the Ducks and twice with the Rams, most recently a two-week suspension to start the 2017 season for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
A wake-up call came as he served that last punishment. On Sept. 11, 2017, his daughter was born. Suddenly, “She’s looking at me like I can do no wrong,” Hill said. “When you’ve got a responsibility like that, it becomes even deeper.”
So, when Hill — who coaches say was never a distraction in the locker room — returned to the team, he reset his focus. He embraced a special teams role while biding his time for a bigger opportunity.
“You can tell, he’s one of those guys that was built to want to do whatever it took to make a team and carve out a role for himself,” Rams special teams coach John Fassel said. “He’s persevered. It’s been awesome to see him just hang in there, and then get rewarded for having a pretty important role.”
On a team that has seen mid-season personnel changes along the offensive line, at receiver and in the secondary, the Rams are hoping Hill can handle his new duties on defense and deliver the kind of under-the-radar production the Rams will need to climb back into the playoff picture.
“The more you play, the more you learn,” Hill said. “The more you get the feel for the game, you understand, ‘I did that wrong with my technique,’ or, ‘I need to stay tapped in longer.’ ”
Though his game Sunday wasn’t perfect — Hill was beaten for a completion on the Bears’ only scoring drive, and committed a third-down penalty that extended one of Chicago’s fourth-quarter possessions — his interception proved to be the pivotal play in the team’s defensive masterpiece.
“When you’ve got Jalen on the other side of you, you’re going to get a lot of opportunities to make a lot of plays,” Hill said. “You’ve got to go one game at a time, one play at a time, and keep focusing. Let it come to me.”
Years of experience ringing in his head, he repeated for emphasis: “That’s my thing. I’ve got to let it come to me.”