Niners' Hill proves his head's in the right place

Michael Silver
Yahoo! Sports

Follow Michael Silver at Mogotxt and Twitter.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – First Shaun Hill(notes) lost his helmet, and then he lost his head.

At least, that's the way Hill's mother, Trudy, saw things last Nov. 10 in Glendale, Ariz., as the San Francisco 49ers' newly anointed starting quarterback charged forward for a first down without the benefit of cranial protection. As she sat in the stands behind the 49ers' bench anxiously watching her vulnerable son avoid several Arizona Cardinals defenders after one had ripped off his helmet, Trudy was mad enough to make the tackle herself.


Cardinals LB Karlos Dansby(notes) (left) closes in on a helmet-less Hill.

(Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo)

Upon greeting her son following the Cardinals' 29-24 victory, the first thing Trudy did was to give him a piece of her mind.

"My mom wasn't too thrilled," Hill recalled Monday from 49ers headquarters, a few hours after San Francisco coach Mike Singletary proclaimed him the winner of a training camp competition with Alex Smith for the starting job. "She just told me how scared I made her and how she really wished I hadn't done that."

Suffice it to say Trudy's was a minority opinion. Hill, formerly an anonymous clipboard carrier, now routinely encounters fans in public who tell him how excited they were by that rollicking, nationally televised first-down run, which evoked images of a similar play by Niners Hall of Famer Steve Young 13 years earlier.

Most important, it formed an impression that carried over to this summer's assessment of the quarterbacks with Singletary, a Hall of Fame middle linebacker who was one of the toughest players of his era.

"Sure it did," Singletary says. "There's nothing pretty about Shaun. Everything's ugly: His drop … his release … all these things. But what's beautiful about him is his heart. I want to go down with a guy like that."

That Hill, an undrafted player who took only two kneel-down snaps in his first five NFL seasons, beat out the Niners' 2005 No. 1 overall pick in Smith is one of the NFL's more inspirational underdog stories in recent memory. Given where Hill was a year ago – on the wrong end of a sham of a quarterback competition; a doghouse resident who was the constant object of then-offensive coordinator Mike Martz's dismissive scorn – it's downright stunning that he's got a chance to be The Man.

Hill was too polite to discuss it publicly, but the way he was treated a year ago by Martz and Singletary's predecessor, Mike Nolan, had him feeling enraged and betrayed. After leading the 49ers to a pair of late-season victories in '07 – the first two starts of his career – Hill signed a three-year, $6 million deal and was told he'd have a chance to compete for the starting job.

Then, during training camp, Hill suddenly found himself shelved for several key practices with what coaches described as a fatigued arm. Let's just say Hill couldn't have disagreed more with that assessment. He angrily voiced his displeasure in a meeting with Nolan and prepared for the inevitable naming of since-discarded J.T. O'Sullivan(notes) as the starter.

"I was down in the dumps at times last year, without a doubt," Hill said Monday. "But I don't think I ever totally lost faith, though I was upset at the situation."

Hill's faith was rewarded last October when Nolan was fired and Singletary, then named as an interim replacement, yanked O'Sullivan at halftime of his first game. Around the time Singletary was infamously dropping trou in the locker room to register his displeasure with the Niners' first-half performance, Hill was preparing for his big chance.

He performed proficiently to secure the next week's start which, despite the notorious lost-helmet play, ended in a heartbreaking defeat to the Cardinals. Hill, however, led the Niners to five victories in their final seven games, including a dramatic comeback triumph over the Rams in which he threw a pair of touchdown passes in the final three minutes.

"During the first three quarters we were not playing well as an offense, and we got to the point with five minutes left where we were down two scores and had to get something done," veteran center Eric Heitmann(notes) recalls. "Shaun was the guy that really stepped up. The way he spoke to us was calm, but you could see the fire and determination in his eyes. He's a warrior who can definitely bring this team together."

When people speak of Hill's intangibles, it's sometimes perceived as a means of avoiding a discussion of his physical attributes … or lack thereof. There's a reason the former Maryland quarterback was ignored in the '02 draft, latching on with the Minnesota Vikings as a free agent before relocating to San Francisco in '06.

Realistically Smith, with whom Hill has a legitimate friendship, could have seized the starting job with a command performance in the summer simply by virtue of what the team has invested in him and his obvious advantage in arm strength and mobility. However, neither quarterback put up impressive stats in the preseason, and Singletary concluded that Hill, 29, is better suited to execute his run-it-down-their-throat, don't-turn-it-over philosophy.


Hill only completed 3 passes for 20 yards vs. the Raiders on Saturday.

(David Paul Morris/Getty)

"It's interesting that there were a lot of writers this offseason talking about Shaun and what he can't do," Singletary says. "He can't throw this pass or that pass. But he can win. That's the most important thing. He's already talking to me about how he needs more time – to go over the details, to work with our receivers – so I'm already excited about where this is going to go."

One of those receivers, tight end Vernon Davis(notes), sounds pumped up as well. "I like Shaun Hill, and not just because he's from Maryland," says Davis, a fellow ex-Terrapins standout. "He's a good quarterback, and he has a lot of potential."

As for the common perception that Hill's passes tend to float, Davis insists it's not a problem.

"It's fine to me," Davis says. "Every time he throws a pass, it always comes right to me. I like his balls."

So does Singletary – in more ways than one.

Sign up now for Fantasy Football '09 – now with free live scoring

What to Read Next