From the north and south on Highway 441 and via the west and east on Highway 82, this rural Georgia village is framed by signs paying homage to its most prominent native son:
CITY OF PEARSON … HOME OF TYREEK HILL … #10 NFL KANSAS CITY CHIEFS.
The wide receiver grew up here, about 220 miles southeast of Atlanta, 3.4 square miles where 37.5% of approximately 2,000 residents live below the poverty line. Born 25 years ago to teen parents, Hill might easily have become what he referred to in an interview with The Star last year as “another lost piece.”
But Hill was lifted by grandparents he speaks of with reverence and nurtured in a church on the edge of town — the same church he returned to with an apology to its congregants after a 2014 incident in which he pleaded guilty of domestic abuse.
“He came back before the church and just said he was sorry,” said Jerry Braswell Jr., the pastor of Pine Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. “He just felt like he let a lot of folks down.”
That’s no doubt part of what has made this time so distressing and puzzling for people in a community where Hill has stirred imaginations and symbolized hope, and where he was bestowed the “key to the city” just a few weeks ago.
In Pearson, you won’t see any obvious hints of the recent trouble swirling around Hill that threatens his NFL career. If you come seeking to understand more about his background and who he is, and how people here are processing all that is unfolding this spring, though, you’ll see something more.
Recent events have rendered Hill’s name a hot button even in his hometown, where some who know him well didn’t respond to messages and others declined comment, citing the combustible nature of the situation. Numerous efforts to speak with his grandparents were unsuccessful.
Inside the P&W Family Restaurant on the day of its grand opening, a poster featuring Hill dominates one window. A girl wears a shirt promoting Hill’s charitable foundation; another young woman is clad in one touting his celebrity basketball game.
But when a waitress is asked after a meal about what Hill means to Pearson, she promptly walks away to speak with another woman who evidently is in charge … and is visibly upset that a reporter is asking such questions.
She yells across the room that they don’t know Hill, and adds that she knows nothing about Hill’s foundation. No one returns to the table afterward.
It’s one moment, one anecdote. But it’s telling about an apprehension of being misconstrued or misrepresented, or saying something that might be recorded and then regretted.
“I think people are really frightened of reporters and frightened of things like that,” said Braswell, who noted Hill was a regular part of his flock from age 8 to 18. “Even me, I had to pray about this situation myself before I called you back.”
The restraint in Pearson obscures a truth: After Hill’s three exhilarating years on the field and apparent redemptive arc off the field since pleading guilty to abuse of then-pregnant girlfriend (and current fiancée) Crystal Espinal in 2014, his story has become a contentious and confounding affair.
It’s a rise and fall after a rise and fall.
For Hill and his hometown, the next stage of his life is a guess inside a riddle shrouded in a mystery. With investigations of the couple for abuse and neglect of their 3-year-old son unresolved but resulting in his removal from their custody, the sadness of it all is compounded by Espinal being pregnant again, this time with twins.
The muddled mess remains in limbo, with Hill effectively indefinitely suspended by the Chiefs, the NFL yet to make a meaningful statement, let alone take action, and the Johnson County district attorney’s office reopening its criminal investigation in the wake of the recordings of Hill by Espinal — audio obtained and played in excerpts over two days by a Kansas City television station.
Emotions run rampant despite so much remaining in the shadows beyond the obvious issues between Espinal and Hill. His past with her and those awful, secretly taped words — “you’d better be terrified of me, too, dumb bitch” — loom large, even as other sentiments he expressed, including that he would never harm their child, have received less attention.
All of which has made for a living, breathing Rorschach test of perceptions and an ever-bubbling battle to control the narrative, including a reference that links present circumstances back to Hill’s upbringing.
Consider the leak last week of a letter sent to the NFL by Trey Pettlon, Hill’s attorney, in which Pettlon attempted to absolve Hill of any fault while deftly mentioning that both parents — Hill and Espinal — grew up in households where “corporal punishment was an accepted discipline, and that they both admit that they have used ‘spanking’ as a form of discipline with their child.”
That mention alludes to what might reasonably have been wondered: If Hill hurt or hurts his child, has it been incidental as he tried to instill a form of discipline and respect that was part of his upbringing?
No one has specified if that was the case at his home, where corporal punishment still is lawful in all states. Per the National Institutes of Health, Georgia is one of just 19 states (most of which are in the southeast part of the country, but the list includes Kansas and Missouri) that still allow corporal punishment in schools. Hill’s elementary school still practices the policy, though parents can opt out.
In the absence of clarity, many on social media argue their side vehemently with little room for nuance or reasoned debate.
Each point of view comes with its own convictions, its own backgrounds and experiences and realities that are complicated, if not impossible, for the “other side” to grasp or appreciate.
“People really don’t care about the truth,” said Derrick Shaw, Hill’s birth father, who says his son is “not the type of person” he’s been portrayed as in the media.
Google “Tyreek Hill should never play in the NFL again,” and you’ll find outlets from USA Today to Pro Football Talk calling for Hill to be banned for life from the NFL and outrage (reasoned and otherwise) about everywhere online, on radio and in newspapers. Meanwhile, Facebook posts by family and friends have suggested this is all about people just out to get Hill, using phrases like, “They did it to Jesus, they will do it to anyone.”
In Pearson, Hill’s unresolved situation is as delicate and confusing and radioactive as anywhere, if not more so.
Longstanding cultural tensions here perhaps played a role in Hill saying on tape that “these white folks don’t give a f— about our kids.”
Doubt or disavow Hill and risk being called racist, as has been experienced in and around a town that as of 2017 was 41% black, 40% Hispanic or Latino and 19% white.
Defend him and risk regretting it as the story further unfolds.
The dynamics remind Braswell, the pastor, of what he sees in news coverage on CNN and Fox News: polar-opposite interpretations of the same stories.
As one who believes in love and compassion over judgment, one who thinks the world is a better place when we try to connect with people who don’t look like us or think like us, he prays for Espinal and their son, each of whom came to his church with Hill in February.
And he prays for Hill, for many reasons, as he holds to the notion of innocent until proven guilty.
“I believe all of the youth, they look up to him,” said Braswell, who lives in nearby Douglas, where Hill attended Coffee High. “He’s hope to a lot of them that they, too, can get out of the ‘hood.”
For that matter, whether they are “white, black, blue or green.” At Downtown Fitness, which sits amid shuttered storefronts in the heart of town, local high school athlete Eli Meeks reflects that spirit of inspiration. He said he thinks of Hill every time he drives by Hill’s grandparents’ home.
When Hill was home for his birthday celebration in late February and early March, the wide receiver visited the church to encourage youth there, Braswell said. And he spent a day at his elementary school that captivated and motivated teachers and students alike, principal Jarred Morris said Friday in his office at Pearson Elementary.
He dunked for them and danced a little, held back or flopped for a few races with kids before making sure to win the last one or two.
And he left them with messages befitting a would-be role model, the principal said, about the importance of education — and that if he could make his way in the world, anyone could.
Symptomatic of the scene here, though, Morris declined to speak about Hill beyond the events of that day. And Meeks expressed confusion over what to make of Hill now, saying he has been left “just wondering what he was thinking after he has all this that he’s been working for.”
‘Don’t know what to believe’
Hill was raised by the parents of his mother, Anesha, who gave birth to him as a teenager and is still very much in her son’s life but was unable to be reached for this story.
Hill’s biological father, Shaw, became a story of hope himself. He recently earned his MBA, according to his LinkedIn profile, and now runs his own business in the Atlanta area despite spending part of his high school years here homeless. Shaw said he speaks with Tyreek several times a week now, but he added that Virginia and Herman Hill are rightfully referred to as Hill’s parents.
The church, too, was a major force in Hill’s youth.
Braswell said Hill was a good singer who led the choir, played drums and was on the “praise team.” He also believes he embraced what Braswell espoused.
“We try to teach them to be good people first, good Christian people who love God and give our lives to God,” the pastor said, adding that “the value and importance of loving thy neighbor” and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you were paramount teachings.
Amid the aftermath of the 2014 incident to which Hill would plead guilty a year later, Braswell said he offered Hill guidance over the telephone, telling him such things as, “Keep your head up; trust in the Lord; don’t give up. … Any mistakes that you did make, correct them,” and to, “Confess to the Lord.”
“I didn’t ask him what happened,” he said. “I just gave him counsel and let him know this isn’t the end.”
Ultimately, Hill came to the church to offer what Braswell called a “bona fide confession” to the congregation.
Braswell and the church are praying for Hill again. If he coul