Funny, isn’t it, how a life can turn on a moment? Not just one life, but dozens, hundreds, even thousands, that moment spreading in a ripple effect across a town, a county, a state — ultimately, a football-crazed nation.
Ira Hillary knows.
In the spring of 1978, the then-16-year-old wasn’t thinking about football. His plans for the following fall, his sophomore year at Strom Thurmond High, revolved around becoming — at 6-foot, 180 pounds — the starting center for the Rebels’ basketball team.
Then one day, the school’s new football coach came to Hillary’s history class and invited him to step into the hallway.
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Keith McAlister didn’t know Hillary — yet. But everyone else in Johnston did. “They all said, ‘That’s your quarterback,’” McAlister said.
McAlister looked the youngster up and down. “What’s this I hear about you not playing football?” he asked. “By God, son, I need you to play football, and I expect you to be on the field.”
And Hillary, being the youngest of Rufus and Hattie Hillary’s 12 children, all of whom had been taught by their parents to be respectful, humble, to work hard and do their best at everything, knew there was just one answer for McAlister’s pitch.
“Yes, sir,” he said.
In what he calls “my storybook life,” Hillary says that day was the turning point. “The previous season hadn’t been a good one; we didn’t have any tradition. But when Coach Mac gave me that LONG speech,” he said, laughing, “that turned everything around.
“I fell back in love with football.”
And, in the process, began a Strom Thurmond tradition of Hillarys playing quarterback, now a half-dozen or more strong. The most recent are CoCo (now a receiver at Appalachian State), who led the Rebels to the 2005 Class 3A title, and Aramis, a freshman at USC — both tremendous athletes, solid students, good citizens.
All of the examples set by their Uncle Ira, which in turn were handed down to him.
Three decades removed from his “turning point,” Hillary fondly recalls other moments: two trips to the Class A state championship game, the pivotal play in the greatest season in Gamecocks history, a Super Bowl with the Cincinnati Bengals — “my storybook life,” indeed.
He was the first in a regal Rebels lineage, a quiet hero for USC’s ultimate “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” team, an NFL player — and the best athlete in Edgefield County history.
But most of all, the man his parents expected him to be.
Doug Painter, Strom Thurmond’s athletics director, takes “credit” for Hillary’s career. In 1978 he was the senior quarterback; Hillary was a free safety and Painter’s backup.
A week before the season, during a scrimmage at Airport High, Painter suffered a broken collarbone. “Ira took over,” Painter said. “He was an outstanding athlete, and the next two years, that came out.”
Not right away, though. “Coach Mac said, ‘Hillary, over here, you’re in at quarterback,’” Hillary said. “My eyes got big; I had that ‘deer in the headlights’ look.
“But after a while, having been a quarterback on JV’s, it all came back to me.”
McAlister laughed at the memory. “If we didn’t have an idiot tailback not pick up the backside end,” he said, “we never would’ve known (about Hillary).”
The Rebels, loaded at running back, could give Hillary that 8-3 season to grow into the job. His final two years, Strom Thurmond was 12-2 and 13-1, reaching the title game each year but not winning. In 1980, Hillary was named to the Shrine Bowl.
“He was the best I ever saw,” McAlister said. “He was magic.”
Magic? At first, “I couldn’t get (college coaches) to recruit him or even look at him,” McAlister said. So Strom Thurmond scheduled a game with Aiken and its larger-than-life star, William Perry.
“I told our radio guy, ‘The scouts will be here to see Perry, but by the first quarter they’ll be fighting over the game program (to find out who Hillary was),’” McAlister said.
The day after the game, Aiken coach Eddie Buck phoned McAlister. “He asked, ‘How did Ira get out on that 63-yard run (for a touchdown)?’ I told him our film hadn’t come back,” McAlister said. “Eddie said, ‘Come to Aiken and see ours.’”
“We had run a 35-fake-19, rolled Ira to the corner, and five guys are converging on him in one frame of the film. In the next frame, he’s two yards to the right and they’re all piled up.
“We ran it back. ‘I can’t see it,’ Eddie said. And I said, ‘He’s magic, Eddie.’”
Hillary at one point seemed headed to Clemson but ultimately chose USC. With junior Gordon Beckham set at quarterback, Hillary decided a quicker route to playing time was at receiver.
“I’ve always been that team player; if it meant bringing water onto the field, it didn’t matter,” he said. The transition was “pretty simple.”
By 1984, Hillary and the Gamecocks, after seasons of 6-6, 4-7 and 5-6, were on their third coaching staff. USC started 2-0 — Hillary caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from Allen Mitchell in a 34-27 victory against The Citadel — but few outside the team expected much when Georgia came to Williams-Brice Stadium on Sept. 29.
What they got was THE moment in USC’s Black Magic season.
In the fourth quarter, the game tied at 10, then-backup quarterback Mike Hold took the snap, rolled right and unloaded a 62-yard bomb to Hillary to the Bulldogs’ 6. Two plays later, USC had the lead for good, 17-10.
“I remember going to the line, thinking, ‘This is going to be a big play,’” Hold said. “I saw the corner come up, saw Ira go by him and thought, ‘Just get him the ball.’”
“We knew when Mike rolled one way, (Georgia) always shifted its defense,” Hillary said. “When he let it fly, I thought, ‘Dude, I hope it comes down,’ because it was so high,” the reason a Georgia defender was able to keep him from scoring.
If a single play set the tone for that 10-2 season, that one did. For Hillary, too; he caught 27 passes in 1984, the most on a run-oriented team, but averaged 20.9 yards per catch, second-best in school history. Each of his three touchdowns — 71 yards vs. East Carolina and 57 vs. Oklahoma State in the Gator Bowl, plus The Citadel — gave USC the lead in that game.
“Ira was real smart, could make adjustments on the go and read defense,” said Bill Bradshaw, another quarterback-turned-receiver for the Gamecocks and a Shrine Bowl teammate in 1980. “And everyone respected his work ethic.”
USC defensive back Otis Morris also appreciated Hillary’s teammate skills, among them compassion and common sense.
“We were having 7-on-7 drills one day, and the coaches (receivers coach Tank Black and secondary coach Tom McMahon) decided to go live,” Morris said. “The receivers were instructed to ‘cut’ (block) us downfield, and McMahon yells, ‘Y’all cut them, too.’
“I was coming off a knee injury, and Ira said, ‘I’m not going to cut you to hurt you.’ We did what we were supposed to, but we made sure we didn’t hurt each other.”
Rufus and Hattie would’ve approved.
Hillary played two seasons of Arena Football and five in the NFL. But 1988, when the Bengals reached Super Bowl XXIII, obviously stands out. “If you talk about moments in a career, the Super Bowl would have to rank No. 1,” he said.
Stanford Jennings’ kick return gave Cincinnati the lead before San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana led one of his patented late comebacks.
“Thirty-four seconds,” Hillary said, sighing. “We came that close to winning, but that’s still the highlight” of his career.
That year was significant for another reason: In the summer of 1988, Hillary’s father passed away, missing his son’s Super Bowl moment. Hattie died in 2000.
But the legacy and values they instilled continues, played out in the actions and lives of “50 or 70, I’ve lost count” descendents, cousins and nieces and nephews — especially nephews — many of whom still live in Edgefield County.
Ira, who retired from the NFL after the 1990 season, worked for Corning and 3M before taking a manager’s position about three years ago with Sumco, which produces silicon wafers for semiconductors. His wife and high school sweetheart, Cassandra — he calls her by her middle name, Jean; “we’ve been married 20 years and together for 30,” he said — is also a USC graduate and an engineer with Cincinnati’s department of water and sewers.
Their sons, Bandon, 17, and Darius, 15, hear the same messages about responsibility and politeness, hard work and perseverance, that Ira and Jean heard growing up. When told that in Johnston, residents still speak of him and his siblings in glowing terms, Ira laughed.
“I’m sure my mom and dad thought we did a lot of things wrong,” he said. “But they always instilled doing your best and treating people right. We actually hear what you’re saying (Johnston people said): ‘You have some of the most polite boys. What did you teach them?’
“That was our upbringing. That brought us to where we are now.”
That, in turn, reminds McAlister of another story. Each Thursday during football season, the Rebels would eat dinner together. “One week Ira’s mom said, ‘Coach, I want to feed the team,’” he said.
“We had 86 players on the roster. I said, ‘Mrs. Hillary, you know how many kids we have?’ And she said, ‘Coach Mac, you know how many young ’uns I’ve got?’”
He laughed. “We ate (well) that night.”
The Hillary legacy would allow nothing less.
Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.