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Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Austin Burton
PULLMAN As he ran onto the field Saturday for Washington State's first series against Colorado at Qwest Field, Jason Hill kissed his hand and pointed to the sky.
"I do it for my dad, to let him know that I know he's watching me," he said. "Letting him know he helped me get to where I've gotten."
Hill put on quite a show in the 20-12 loss. The sophomore caught six passes for 206 yards in the seventh-best receiving performance in WSU football history. One of the catches was for a 60-yard touchdown from Alex Brink and another was a 40-yard reception that got the Cougars to the 4-yard line with less than a minute to play.
In two games this season, Hill has caught eight passes for 240 yards, an average of 30 yards per catch. In the come-from-behind opening win at New Mexico, he caught a pass from Josh Swogger for a 25-yard gain on fourth-and-nine to keep a touchdown drive alive.
As for his big game last Saturday in Seattle, Hill said, "I thought I did good, but we didn't get the win."
At this time last year, Hill had a lot more than football on his mind.
As he sat in a team meeting on Sept. 9, 2003, Hill was a homesick freshman and a bit overwhelmed. On the field, he was still trying to adjust to the speed and complexity of the college game. Off the field, he didn't feel much better, having left his close-knit family in San Francisco for the wheat fields and dorm rooms of Pullman.
His life took a dramatic turn as soon as that meeting was adjourned. Coach Bill Doba had just learned from Hill's mother, LaVerne Hawkins, that Jason's father had died.
"When he told me, it felt kind of unreal," Hill said. "I had just talked to my dad the day before. It was just a shock. It didn't really hit me until I talked to my mom."
Ten years ago, Jerry Hill was shot in the back during a family dispute, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
"I had to grow up fast, just from watching my little brother and sisters," he said. "I always had to be the grown-up of the family."
Hill started playing Pop Warner football at age 8. At Sacred Heart High School in San Francisco, he was all-conference in football and basketball. He played quarterback and safety and ran three kickoffs back for touchdowns of 90 yards or more.
"My dad and I were 49ers fans, so we'd watch football. But my dad was a real big wrestling fan," Jason said. "We talked about football, we talked about girls, about life. But wrestling was our escape watching Hulk Hogan and stuff."
Jerry Hill died after developing an infection in his hip. For Jason, the trip home entailed more than just mourning. Because his oldest brother had a family of his own to take care of, Jason became the man of the house that week, handling most of the paperwork and funeral arrangements.
"I kind of had to do it all. A lot of pressure was put on me," he said.
He also had to provide emotional support for his younger siblings, Paul ("Puma"), now 11, and twins Mary and Helen, 15.
"They took it so hard," Jason said. "I couldn't express the way I really felt, because I had to be strong for them so they wouldn't see me cry and break down."
When it came time to go back to school, Jason was reluctant to go.
"It was hard to leave, but my family helped me understand that it was for the best for all of us for me to come back up here," he said.
Hill was one of two freshmen to play and letter last season. He was used primarily on special teams because the Cougars were loaded at wide receiver with Devard Darling, Scott Lunde and Sammy Moore. Hill won two weekly "big hit" awards and blocked a punt in a 55-16 romp over Oregon. He didn't catch a pass all season, but few were thrown his way.
This year, he has been a starter since the first day in camp.
Hill (6 feet 2, 200 pounds) plays with aggressiveness usually found in defenders.
"It's hard to intimidate me," he said. "If you knock me down, I'm going to get up and try to knock you down on the next play."
Hill said he knows this can be a big year for him.
"We lost a lot of playmakers from last year," he said. "Now I've got to make plays. I've got to be the one to make that big catch. I'd just like to get the ball in my hands so I can show what I been waiting to show."
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