As a local Methodist pastor, Jim Cross helps with mentorship programs in Ashdown, Arkansas. Schools sometimes ask him to share life lessons with their students, and one day, he brought a high school senior with him to talk to every fifth grade boy in the area.
Cross rarely used someone with so little experience as an example, but the 18-year-old required an exception. For years, he shined on baseball fields, basketball courts and inside football stadiums, his legend growing within a town of 4,781 people. In a place where high school sports helped determine the social calendar, he was the starting quarterback, the point guard and the best player on the baseball team by 10th grade.
Everyone knew Jaden Hill.
“From a young age, everybody expected him to do some amazing things,” Cross said, “and he always succeeded.”
When Hill walked into classrooms that day, Cross said the boys sat up straight “because of who he was and what they thought he could be.” Without notes, Hill spoke about hard work, dedication and treating others with respect, emphasizing those qualities carried him through high school and one day to LSU.
Hill talked about more than sports. He stressed the importance of education, and his athletic accomplishments helped the message resonate. Once he finished his speech, the boys asked for his autograph. They brought notebooks, strips of paper and the backs of their shirts, using anything they could find for his signature.
The boys anticipated what so many have for so long: that Hill would build on his natural athleticism to become a college star and professional athlete. They wanted a memento to keep until he became famous. This year, he finally has the chance.
After beginning his career in LSU’s weekend rotation, Hill’s freshman season ended because of elbow soreness. Multiple MRIs showed nothing structurally wrong with his elbow, but playing multiple sports throughout high school meant he never focused solely on pitching. He needed more endurance.
Hill came back as a sophomore and dominated from the bullpen, allowing one hit and zero runs over 11⅔ innings. He threw 98 mph fastballs and sauntered off the mound. Texas coach David Pierce wondered why he played in college. Hill appeared on the cusp of stardom. Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived.
The 2020 season ended after 17 games, pausing Hill’s ascent. Eleven months later, LSU begins its season Saturday at 1 p.m. against Air Force. Now the ace of the pitching staff, Hill will start for the first time since his freshman year, ready to resume his climb. Like he did that day in high school, he plans to use his success for so much more.
Everyone around Ashdown has a moment when they noticed Hill’s athleticism for the first time, and the earliest happened when he was 3 years old. While his older stepbrother, Kentrell, played a baseball game, Hill ran outside the fence with other siblings shagging foul balls. They threw the balls back to the umpire and waited for the next one.
After the game, the umpire approached Hill’s parents. He introduced himself as a t-ball coach from nearby Texarkana, a city about 20 minutes away, and handed Nikki and Kenneth Hill his business card. He wanted their son to join a league for 5- and 6-year-olds. Hill’s parents eventually agreed. He made the All-Star team.
Hill always played with older kids. When his own age group reached t-ball, he used a pitching machine. He also participated in basketball, and as a fourth grader, he joined a team full of sixth grade boys. “That wasn’t even his best sport,” said Cross, who coached Hill in youth leagues. A few years later, Hill started at point guard for the Ashdown High freshman squad. He was in seventh grade.
Though naturally athletic, Hill aimed for perfection, refusing to settle on talent alone. He wanted to win spelling contests, and when he got his first B — in middle school art — he thought the teacher made a mistake. He gathered his assignments and showed his mom.
“I called the art teacher,” Hill’s mother said, “and sure enough, she had made a mistake.”
As Matt Richardson watched Hill play football his freshman year, the varsity coach knew who Ashdown would start at quarterback the next three seasons. Hill took over the position, bringing receivers to the field while coaches watched film the day after games. He spent the weekend studying tape on the next opponent.
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His sophomore year, Hill balanced three sports — football, basketball and baseball, starring in all three. But while he dunked in a basketball game, Hill extended his left arm as he fell to the hardwood court. He broke his left wrist.
While his left hand healed inside a cast for about seven weeks, Hill used rubber armbands and threw medicine balls every day with his right hand. He joined the baseball team one month into its season and played third base, still undeveloped as a pitcher.
One day, Chase Brewster received a text message from Hill. Brewster owned and founded Sticks Baseball Academy, Hill’s travel ball team.
“I touched 87 [mph] in the JV game,” Brewster recalled Hill saying.
“No way dude,” Brewster replied.
Brewster went to Hill’s next game three days later. He watched Hill’s fastball reach 90 mph, almost 10 mph faster than he threw his freshman year.
“All of a sudden,” Brewster said, “he was the best pitcher in the program.”
Ashdown entered the fourth game of Hill’s senior football season undefeated and ranked fourth in the state. It faced its first conference opponent, No. 3 and undefeated Mena, on the road.
In their first possessions, Ashdown punted and Mena kicked a field goal. The crowd rocked the stadium bleachers as Mena pinned Ashdown inside the 5-yard line on the ensuing kickoff. Richardson looked at his offensive coordinator, who chuckled.
The second play of the drive, Ashdown called a pass. Mena blitzed. Hill backpedaled toward the end zone and stared at an oncoming defensive end. Then he calmly flipped the ball to the running back. Four plays later, Ashdown took a 7-3 lead. By halftime, it led 42-3.
“He knew what he was doing with the ball four or five seconds before that defensive end came off the edge,” Richardson said. “You couldn’t blitz him. He got so comfortable that there’s nothing you can do.”
Playing once in the second half, Hill threw 15 touchdowns and no interceptions through four games his senior year. He could toss a football 80 yards without warming up and registered an unofficial 4.5 second 40-yard dash. He became a three-star recruit with scholarship offers from Missouri, Louisiana Tech and Arkansas State. He visited Alabama twice. Ed Orgeron tried convincing him to play two sports at LSU.
Football beckoned, but Hill committed to baseball. He threw 95 mph the summer before his senior year and played in a high school All-American game at Wrigley Field. As much as he enjoyed football, he recognized his professional future rested in baseball. He played his last football season to be with his friends.
The fifth game, on homecoming night, Hill broke his right collarbone. He knew he had played his last football game. Ashdown reached the third round of the state playoffs without him, but to this day, people in town believe the team would’ve won a championship if he never got hurt.
“If he’s healthy,” Richardson said, “we go undefeated.”
The injury shortened Hill’s senior baseball season. Still, as a pitcher and infielder, he hit 12 home runs in 75 at-bats and threw nine complete games. He hopped forward one day in the outfield, threw and touched 100 mph.
“My son always says, ‘Dad, why aren’t we winning the state championship when Jaden’s throwing 100?’” Ashdown baseball coach Chuck Cross said.
Hill’s high school baseball coaches and LSU coach Paul Mainieri believe the collarbone injury harmed his draft stock, scaring teams from selecting him high enough to meet his asking price. If the injury never happened, they think Hill would’ve never gone to LSU.
Instead, undrafted midway through Day 2, he realized summer classes began the next day in Baton Rouge. Hill packed a bag, hopped in his Dodge Challenger and drove six hours to campus. His mother came a week later with the rest of his clothes.
Last summer, Hill saw a tattoo artist he likes in Houston. He wanted “Chosen One” inked on the side of his left forearm. Swirling patterns and stars surrounded the thick, black letters, making them pop from his skin.
“I feel like I'm chosen to do something,” Hill said as he sat inside the LSU baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for a photoshoot Wednesday. He shifted his 6-foot-4, 234-pound body on a stool. “I don't know if that's with sports or whether it's helping kids. I know later on, if I'm blessed enough to get a lot of money, I want to build a YMCA. I feel like I'm chosen to help people.”
Throughout his life, Hill used the benefits of his athletic success on others. He anonymously gave equipment to teammates who needed cleats, telling coaches, “Make sure they have this.” He joined Jim Cross for part of an annual 30-mile walk that has raised more than $160,000 for charity. He donated the $1,000 he received for winning Arkansas Gatorade Player of the Year to a local youth basketball club. He once used his birthday money to buy a coat for one of his classmates.
“To this day,” Hill’s mother said, “I don’t know who that kid was. Jaden never would tell me.”
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His junior year of high school, Hill asked Richardson to bend a rule forbidding students from joining the team after the first game. One of Hill's classmates came from a broken home and didn't participate in extracurricular activities. He started getting in trouble. The season had already started, but Hill believed playing football could help keep the boy out of potential trouble after school. Richardson agreed.
“He cares about people more than he cares about himself,” Richardson said.
Hill’s vision for his future continues to take shape, but ultimately, he knows he wants to use opportunities that come from athletic success to help others like he always does. He plans to build that YMCA and construct a sports training facility to help inner city children who, like him, didn’t have high-tech training tools. The company would provide physical and mental health services.
“Everyone's meant to be something or somebody,” Hill said. “They just don't know it. So hopefully I can give them that extra push.”
Before he does anything else, Hill wants to complete an entire season. His freshman year ended after two starts. His sophomore year stopped after four appearances. The day the NCAA canceled the College World Series, he called former LSU pitcher Anthony Ranaudo, wanting to use the sudden offseason to his advantage.
“Let’s get to work,” Hill said.
Growing up in a small town, Hill didn’t know much about flat ground sessions, bullpens or long toss. He arrived at LSU overflowing with talent but with little knowledge about pitching, relying on his natural athleticism and feel for the game. He constantly picked the brains of his teammates, some of whom had done nothing but pitch since middle school.
Hill knew he needed to develop, so he spent the offseason training with Ranaudo, who started on LSU’s 2009 national championship team and spent parts of three seasons in the major leagues. Ranaudo taught Hill how different muscles affected his delivery, helping him gain a better understanding of his body and how it works. Using Ranaudo’s teachings, Hill formed a consistent routine between bullpen sessions, preparing himself to start.
As he readjusted to five-inning stints, Hill occasionally struggled the longer he pitched during fall practice. He learned he didn’t need to throw 98 mph every time as a starter, but he knows he can reach back for extra velocity when he needs it, making him a more complete pitcher as he enters the season. He’ll rely on all four offerings — fastball, slider, changeup and cutter — instead of pure speed.
Southeastern Conference baseball will make one of the first attempts at a typical season since the coronavirus pandemic began last March.
Opening weekend, LSU will let Hill pitch about three innings, wanting to build his endurance so he feels confident in his health and peaks in the most important games. It hopes by the end of the season, he will make 19 starts, the last coming in the College World Series. Mainieri sees no reason why Hill can’t complete the season.
"This year," Mainieri said, "there's no real holding him back."
Inside the Hall of Fame and Museum, Hill flicked a baseball into the air. Minutes earlier, LSU postponed its season opener because of inclement weather, forcing Hill to wait another day for his chance. He didn’t mind too much.
Ready to leave, Hill grabbed the ball and his teal glove. He glanced at the room, a place he hadn’t visited since recruiting. He hopes LSU recognizes him and his team there someday. Soon, though, he can display everything Ashdown saw in his childhood, all his natural athleticism, all he hopes to accomplish through baseball, all his development as a pitcher.
“I get to show the world and prove to myself that the stuff I was doing is going to be put to work,” Hill said. He smiled, giddy about all the possibilities. “I'm excited. It's going to be a good year.”