Rod Hiill - voted greatest Blue Bomber defensive back of all time in a 2014 Free Press/TSN 1290 poll

By BERNIE BELLAN
When sportswriters write about the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at the start of a new football season a certain number of well-worn clichés usually get trotted out.
How about “long suffering fans”, “the drought continues”, “Will this be the year?” - just for starters.

 

 

It’s maddeningly difficult even to remember the last time the Bombers actually won a Grey Cup. (The answer is 1990.) So, when you get a chance to talk with one of the members of that Grey Cup team - who also happens to be a devoted member of the Rady JCC, why not take the opportunity to reminisce about some of those halcyon days of the Bombers - when they actually won three Grey Cups in the space of six years?
Such was the occasion when I sat down recently with Rod Hill, who was voted the greatest Blue Bomber defensive back of all time in a fan survey conducted by the Free Press and TSN1290 in 2014.

Hill, who almost any regular at the Rady JCC would recognize for his adherence to a disciplined regimen of working out almost every week day, is one of the most personable and outgoing individuals you’re ever going to meet. He never turns away from anyone who might want to have a word with him - and his easygoing manner can put even a total stranger at ease once you begin conversing with him.
It was only five short seasons that Hill actually played for the Bombers - from 1988-92, but during that time he set records for the most interceptions in team history (47), also the modern day CFL record for most interceptions in one game (5 - set in 1990 against Hamilton). Hill also holds the Blue Bomber record for most blocked punts (8).
Standing 6’ and weighing 185 lbs. (when he played), even though Hill is about to turn 60 next month, he still looks like he could step on to a football field. I ask him whether he weighs about the same as when he played and he says he only weighs about “10% more”.
I tell Hill that I wanted to ask him about his career as a Bomber and what’s followed, but I’m also curious to know what draws him to the Rady JCC. After all, here’s a renowned athlete working out diligently at a fitness facility that isn’t known as a magnet for jocks.

By the way, here’s a trivia question that might stump you: Who were the two quarterbacks on the Blue Bomber teams that won the Grey Cups in 1988 and 1990? (The answer is: Tom Burgess in 1988 and Sean Salisbury in 1990.) It was because neither of those two players would have been considered star players by any means that Hill is dismissive of the notion that a team has to have a great quarterback in order to win the Grey Cup.

Hill grew up in the community of Holland Park, which is a “suburb of Detroit”, he explains. He played college football at Kentucky State University and was drafted (in the first round) by the Dallas Cowboys in 1982.
Although he managed to play in the NFL for five seasons (with four different teams), Hill admits he “didn’t have a lot of success down there.”
Looking back on his five years with the Bombers though, Hill says that “we had a lot of great teams, a lot of great teammates. We went to three Grey Cups and won two.”
Following his retirement from football Hill says he was “a banker for 10 or 11 years, then I went into the retail business for about 10 or 11 years.”
I ask him whether he’s now “fully retired”, but Hill said he’s “semi-retired. I’m still waiting on what I want to do next.”

Having spoken with Hill previously, I was aware that he’s been a long-time member of the Rady JCC. I ask him when specifically he joined?
“It was around 2001,” he answers.
What made him “want to come here?” I wonder.
“Well,’” he begins, “first of all I had a lot of friends here. I was familiar with the community and once I got here I saw the facility and the community atmosphere - so it was a good fit for me.”
As far as the quality of the exercise equipment and the layout of the facility, Hill says “it’s second to none. The good thing about it is anything goes wrong, they fix it immediately and the best thing about this place is: It’s extremely clean.”
From observation I was also aware that Hill spends quite a bit of time walking on the track, but I wanted to know what the rest of his exercise regimen looks like.
“I spend about three days a week on cardio vascular,” he notes. “I try to get my heart rate to about 180. I spend about four days lifting weights.”

I ask Hill how many of his former teammates still live in Winnipeg?
“I’d say about a third of them,” he answers. “I see Willard Reaves on occasion, I see James Murphy, Chris Walby, Stan Mikowas… I see a lot of the guys.”
Hill also lists older Bombers such as Nick Miller and the legendary Kenny Ploen as individuals he keeps in touch with.
“We call Kenny Ploen the ‘godfather”,” Hill says. “Without him there’d be no ‘us’.”
Hill adds that he also keeps in touch with former Bomber coach Mike Riley - and he used to keep in touch with former coaches Urban Bowman and Cal Murphy - both of whom have passed on.
But, when I ask Hill whether he’s ever been involved with Bomber teams as a coach, he says “No, that doesn’t interest me…It’s a tough job.”
He does stay active in the Bomber organization though, “hosting games at the Pinnacle Room” on game day, he says.

I ask him what he makes of the CFL right now?
“I think the CFL is in a good place,” he says. He goes on to say that he likes what they’re doing with international associations and improvements to players’ health and safety.
But what about the Bombers, I wonder? Do they have what it takes to win? Is Matt Nichols good enough at quarterback?
“He’s done it in the past,” Hill suggests. “He’s won over 60% of his games…It’s not all on the quarterback.”

Hill is active in other community endeavours, he notes. “I do some work with Special Olympics,” he says. “I’m on their board. I do some work with Kiwanis.”
I end the interview by asking Hill whether he’s looking to get into something else. “Yah, I’m looking around,” he says, “but it won’t be sports.”
In a way that’s a shame. Rod Hill would make a great colour commentator - if he were ever interested in doing that. He oozes charm, is articulate, and has a great sense of humour. In the meantime, since he’s known as one of the most recognizable Rady JCC members there is, don’t hesitate to go up to him and say hi. This is one athlete who doesn’t separate himself from the community.