VERMILLION, S.D. — Stephen Hillis could and did go home again.
It just may not have happened the way he would have pictured it.
However, Hillis, a 2017 Cedar Catholic graduate, is not mourning a loss of one dream, but instead, he is holding tight to the excitement of living a new one.
Hillis, transferred from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs to play football at the University of South Dakota.
Life is different in Vermillion.
In Colorado Springs, he enrolled and got right to work learning the ways of life at the academy and then there was football.
“You get there and do the Air Force stuff and then football is kind of secondary,” Hillis said. “I wasn’t playing, yet, and was doing more of the basic training. Not a whole lot of freshmen get to play.
“The driving was the biggest difference there. I went from my town that doesn’t have a stop light to freeways and lots of traffic taking a ton of time to get places.”
But a shocking discovery of being a type 1 diabetic soon led the academy to move Hillis out of the program at the end of the 2018-19 school year.
He never got a chance to suit up or fly for the academy, two of his long-time dreams.
“I went through the whole medical board process and they discharged me from the Air Force,” Hillis said. “They let me finish out the school year. They knew I was going to get kicked out, so I was looking at schools and the final official notice came in February.”
Hillis then began looking for a new home to take his academic and football talents and ended up coming back, well, home.
“I visited last year and decided this was the place to me,” Hillis said. “They were the front runner. SMU was my second choice.”
Enjoying the majesty of the Colorado mountains, one of the byproducts of being and working out there, was Hillis’ ability to develop a stronger cardiovascular endurance following intensive workouts at higher altitude.
“It’s easier when coming to Vermillion because my first workout was hard, but I could breath a lot better,” Hillis said.
It can come in handy playing at USD and in the Missouri Valley Conference, undoubtedly the dominant conference at the Football Championship Series (FCS) level.
“It’s awesome and I am very grateful that I get to compete against good players every day,” Hillis said. “I haven’t played a full season of college football, so it will take some time getting used to. I think I am adapting pretty well.”
Linebackers coach Rob Aurich was intrigued when Hillis approached the Coyotes about joining the program and his enthusiasm about the addition has been rewarded.
“When he came to campus and talked about wanting to join our program, we threw on his high school tape knowing he had an opportunity to play at Air Force, and we were really excited,” Aurich said early during preseason workouts. “He comes in with four years left, and the best thing about Stephen, besides the fact that he can really run, anytime you give him direction – any critique, any coaching point – it is immediately implemented in his game. That’s really fun to coach.
Hillis will play an important role on the team right away Aurich said.
“He’s a kid that came in with low expectations to break into our two-deep, but he’s going to basically start on every special team for us and contribute a lot on defense. He will be a vital part of our team this fall, and he’s made an impact already even though he’s only been with us for 10 practices.”
The marriage has been a good one for Hillis.
“I had high expectations going in and since getting here it’s been top level,” Hillis said.
Hillis is a 6-foot-1 225-pound redshirt freshman who has three years of eligibility remaining but is working with compliance officers to get his lost year back.
He will fight that battle and do it within the embrace of his hometown, his family and friends – a mere 30-plus miles away.
One dream has been replaced by a pleasant reality and Hillis isn’t complaining.
“That part of my life is over, so I have to get over it and move on,” Hillis said. “I was obviously sad, but there was nothing I could do about it.
“Everyone is just great here. On off days I come home, and dad grills a steak. I get to see my dog. It’s awesome.”
The Coyotes open the season at 2 p.m. Aug. 31 at home in the Dakota Dome.
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