In early 2008, I was a student journalist working voluntarily at West Perth Football Club when I conducted my first ever interview with a football player. The club had arranged for me to interview one of their colts who was being touted as an AFL prospect for the draft later that year.
I was incredibly nervous. As I waited in the room for the player to arrive, I began to breath heavily. Football players were supposed to be alphas, I thought. In walked a skinny, rangy young man wearing a hoody, ripped jeans and his hat backwards. He appeared to be anxious, and he was incredibly shy, taking long deep breaths before I’d even asked him a question. His responses were barely audible and consisted mostly of “yeah, nah”.
Stephen Hill announced his retirement this week from the AFL after 218 games for the Fremantle Dockers. Not much of what he did on the football field was quiet. In fact, owing to his explosive skillset, he’s responsible for some of the greatest on-field moments in club history. None more so than that goal in the 2013 Qualifying Final against Geelong that propelled Freo to victory and eventually a maiden AFL Grand Final berth. He was a star. And while injuries caused some of that shine to dim, the best of ‘Hilly’ was as exciting as any player the Club has seen since its inception.
But off the field, Hill was a different person to what he was on it.
Not loud, not exuberant.
Public adoration is not why the kid from Quinns Bulls Junior Football Club, who would bring his own footy and get to training early so he could sneak in extra practice, dreamt of becoming an AFL player.
Humility is important to Hill; it’s a genetic trait.
“My mum’s pretty quiet and humble,” Hill says. “I’ve definitely taken after her.”
After jumping up the media’s predicted order to be a surprise pick 3 in the 2008 AFL National Draft, Hill arrived at Fremantle Oval to begin his new career. He didn’t know what to expect, but he remembers it being a daunting experience.
“I was really nervous,” he says.
“But at the same time, I was very excited knowing that I was about to arrive at an AFL club, something I’d dreamt of since being a little kid.
“I was pretty scared, but I was looking forward to getting into footy and training.”
Highest on the list of the most daunting experiences in his new AFL world was conducting media interviews.
Hill prefers to escape spotlights that are not on an AFL playing field.
“Having to do that media stuff and talking in front of people and groups, it’s just something that I felt very uncomfortable doing,” he says.
“At the time, it was a shock having all these cameras and all these people talking to you, and I wasn’t really used to doing any of that. I was just an 18-year-old kid with no idea about any of that.
“I tried not to stress about it too much or more than I needed to, but it was always a struggle no matter what.
“It was a part of being AFL footy player, so I had to get used to it.”
Not much has changed 13 years on.
“I still feel very uncomfortable doing media interviews today,” he says.
“I used to be a lot more nervous than what I get now, but I still struggle with it.”
For most draftees, it can be a challenging transition to the AFL. Uncertainty can often set it as the player questions whether they belong at the level. Hill played all 22 games in his debut season in 2009, but he says he was still learning the game.
It was in 2010 that he started to get the first indications he was not just making up the numbers
“I started getting a bit of a run-with tag and I was thinking, maybe, I am actually ok,” Hill says.
He received a relentless tag from the Eagles’ Scott Selwood in the first Derby of 2010 that The West called “a physical buffeting”.
The unassuming Hill hadn’t considered himself a candidate for a hard tag, especially so early in his career.
“Getting more attention made me feel that perhaps I did belong,” he says. “I remember those days were pretty tough.”
During that interview at West Perth in 2008, Hill was asked what his Indigenous heritage meant to him, but he struggled to answer the question. “I guess I don’t really know,” the then 17-year-old said.
Asked the same question for this feature in 2021, Hill responded with the confidence of one of his bounding runs down the wing.
“Freo have had such a rich history of Indigenous players, and for me when I arrived, there was Antoni Grover, Roger Hayden, Des Headland and Michael Johnson at the club, so I had a lot of Indigenous guys to look up to and who looked after me and guided me,” he says.
“Being an Indigenous player and representing the club, having young Indigenous kids look up to me, made me feel really proud.
“One game we played, we had the most Indigenous players to play in a single game, which was pretty special to be a part of and a highlight of my career.”
Hill’s confidence and eloquence in answering a question that he’d been unable to in the past highlighted how much that young man from Clarkson had grown during his time in the AFL.
The adulation that comes with sporting hero status, especially in a football-mad city such as Perth, can change a person. But Hill says he never allowed the distractions of celebrity to change who he was.
“I just stayed myself,” he says. “I didn’t really change too much.
“I guess I had people looking up to me and being able to be a role model for young kids, I felt proud. I just wanted to be someone that they looked up to.
“But I don’t think I’ve changed too much from when I came here as a young player.
“I just tried to be myself.”
Stephen Hill entered the room at Freo headquarters on 10 August to face the media for one final time.
He wasn’t wearing a hoody or ripped jeans, and his hat was facing frontwards. He was still nervous, still shy, and he still needed to take deep breaths throughout. But his responses now had the experience of 13 years at the elite level built into them.
As a final question for this piece, I asked Hill what the biggest change he’d seen in himself in the past 13 years was.
“I definitely have come out of my shell over the journey,” he says.
“I still am shy, but I think I’ve grown as a person.
“Footy and Fremantle have helped me do things I couldn’t have ever dreamed of.”
But you did dream of them Hilly, and you achieved those dreams, all the while never losing sight of who you always were – a humble, down-to-Earth person who epitomised the values of the Fremantle Dockers. The club’s supporters will never forget the excitement you generated on game day when you took off for a long run, or your scything left foot kicks, and we’re all proud to have watched you grow from that skinny, shy kid, into a man and a champion, both on and off the field.