FORT WORTH, Texas -- For Kenny Hill, everything about the night America got acquainted with his talents is crystal clear.
There was the last song he heard in the locker room -- J.Cole's "Blow Up" -- before taking the field. Fittingly, the song's hook boasts "I'm about to blow up." There was the Texas A&M graduate assistant who pulled Hill aside to tell the Aggies' sophomore quarterback what he already knew: He looked good. And like any epic chapter of a life story, Darude's "Sandstorm" was involved, too
"I had never been more focused for a game in my entire life," Hill said. "Then they started playing that 'Sandstorm,' and I was like, 'OK, I'm ready.' ... I was just locked in. I think to have everything clicking like that is just the greatest feeling."
On the first night of the 2014 college football season, in Texas A&M's first game of the post-Johnny Manziel era, Hill took center stage to the tune of 511 passing yards and three touchdowns, shattering Johnny Football's single-game school record for passing yards and routing South Carolina 52-28.
The next Monday, A&M began classes.
"I went to walk to class and got hounded," Hill said. "I could barely walk to class, and A&M's campus is huge."
When he left class, a few campus groundskeepers shouted across campus to him, and asked for selfies.
"I've got grown men here asking for my autograph," Hill said. "I play one game and I'm being hounded like that. [Johnny] did it for two years. Crazy. I can only imagine."
Hill didn't realize his fame spread a lot further than A&M's campus. He figured it out quickly that Tuesday when he was told that the nickname "Kenny Football" was gaining steam, he said he preferred to be called "Kenny Trill." Less than an hour later, an ESPN alert buzzed his phone.
"Kenny Hill prefers nickname Kenny Trill" blared the headline.
"That was unreal," Hill said. "I did not think it was going to blow up like that."
The next day, Hill's parents sought to trademark the nickname. Trill, a term made popular in hip-hop, is a mix of "true" and "real."
"It was crazy, blowing up overnight like that," Hill said. "It was something you dream of and you always want, but at the same time, I wasn't really ready for it yet."
Four months later, Kenny Trill had been benched and suspended by coach Kevin Sumlin. At season's end, he elected to transfer.
Two years after Hill captured and squandered his first opportunity, he's back, competing for the starting job at TCU, who debuted at No. 14 in this week's preseason coaches' poll and is expected to contend for a Big 12 title. This summer, he was voted the Big 12's preseason newcomer of the year by the media.
How did he end up here?
It was one of the most rapid rises, falls and resurrections in college football history. His return could be just beginning, too.
* * *
Hill doesn't have much interest in discussing the details of his A&M exit these days, but the simplest explanation?
"It's kind of unfair," TCU offensive coordinator Doug Meacham said. "You're a young kid, you roll into a school where the Heisman Trophy winner is a guy that misses meetings and does whatever he wants to, and in your mind, you think, 'Well, that's just how you're supposed to do it.' So, I don't think that helped him a whole lot."
In March 2014, six months before the South Carolina explosion, Hill was arrested for public intoxication after police found him passed out in a planter outside a College Station bar. He told police his name was "Kennedy" and when asked who the president was answered "Bush."
By the time he carried the Aggies to a 5-0 record, Hill had thrown 17 touchdown passes and two picks with two more 300-yard outings. Through the first month of the season, he remained in the thick of the Heisman Trophy discussion.
But he threw six interceptions in the next three games, capped by an embarrassing 59-0 loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
"I had never lost three games in a row in my life," Hill said. "That's going back to anything. Baseball, nothing. You go from Heisman talk [on social media] to, 'Man, dog, you're a joke.' It was crazy."
Before Texas A&M took the field again, Hill had been hit with a two-game suspension for violating team rules. Since the Alabama debacle, Hill hasn't thrown a pass that counts. It was only the start of a painful process.
In January 2015, Hill transferred. One of his coaches back at Texas high school power Southlake Carroll, Clayton George, reached out to TCU co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie, who unsuccessfully attempted to recruit Hill to Texas Tech out of high school. Cumbie was "fired up" at the prospect of bringing aboard Hill and brought the idea to TCU's staff.
"My initial thought was I'm all for it, because I watched the South Carolina game," Meacham said. "Sonny did a very thorough investigation of his background and what took place and his side of it. Talked to teachers, parents, coaches on his behalf to assess what we thought in terms of some of the issues he had, and in his case, moving away was probably the best thing that ever happened to him."
He liked what he heard in the initial conversation and moved ahead to the hardest part of bringing Hill aboard: Getting the OK from TCU head coach Gary Patterson.
Hill has a right to shrug off questions about what exactly happened at A&M with reporters, but Patterson, faced with the prospect of staking his and his program's reputation on Hill's future behavior, couldn't offer the same luxury. He needed the ugly truth, and Cumbie gave Hill a warning before the meeting.
"Going into it, Cumbie said, 'Man, he already knows everything that happened. So just tell him straight up what happened.' That's what I did," Hill said. "That was tough. I didn't really want to talk about it. I didn't want to think about it."
Patterson developed a unique plan, telling Hill about how he handled quarterback Casey Pachall's midseason drunk driving arrest in 2012. For Patterson the simplest solution to that issue would be either suspend him a game or kick him out of the program.
"Then nobody wins and he doesn't change and you don't help him with his life," Patterson said. "Again, I've been here for the long haul, and usually when you can make decisions for the long haul and for the right reasons, it'll have a chance to turn out a lot better than it does if you try to get a quick fix. This university wants us to be like that and so that's what we do."
Patterson elected a more complex, hands-on approach.
Rather than boot Pachall off the team permanently or suspend him for a game or two like many coaches do for drunk driving arrests, Patterson laid out a year-long plan for Pachall to "disenroll" from the university, enter treatment for substance abuse and meet guidelines for him to return to the team. He eventually met them and did exactly that.
During a campus drug raid on February 2012, Pachall told police he had used cocaine and ecstasy. That was eight months before the drunk driving arrest. This week, Pachall came back to campus to visit Patterson, boasting of full-time employment, a fiancée and plans for one last shot to chase an NFL roster spot.
"[Kenny] needed to get out of the limelight," Patterson said. "He needed to get back to just being Kenny Hill, the kid I recruited out of high school."
The plan for Hill was to ease into team membership. He'd enroll at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth for the 2015 spring semester and prove he could manage the dual task of completing academic requirements while staying out of trouble.
To get his football fix, Hill came to nearly every TCU spring practice. He also teamed up with a group called The Quarterback Ranch, which moves around to different schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and teaches young kids the basics of quarterbacking and playing receiver.
"That was invaluable, because he had a lot of time on his hands," Cumbie said. "When you have a lot of time on your hands, you can think yourself into a big hole or think of a lot of different things and situations and scenarios. What better way for him to go coach and teach young kids, young quarterbacks and get it out of his system and get himself back going again. When you're around young kids at our camps, that's as pure as football is."
Hill officially joined the team last summer, still anxious about his new teammates.
"I was like, 'Man, these guys just know me as Kenny Trill, they probably think this this and that,' Hill said. "So I came in and just had my head down, didn't say much to anybody and just wanted to prove I deserve to be here."
So far, he's done exactly that. Patterson bragged on Wednesday that Hill's made all A's and B's with the exception of a single C. Cumbie and Meacham backed him up, lauding Hill for a changed approach and maturity that seemed absent in College Station, especially when he either had too much time on his hands or didn't have a starting job.
"It's kind of weird," Meacham said. "Early on, you kind of cross your fingers. Then you're kind of holding your breath, then you wonder if he's fooling you, and then through the long haul, you figure it out: He just learned."
He spent last season learning behind Trevone Boykin, relaying reads from the sideline during practices and on game days and leading the scout team. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Kenny Hill-centric headline since he came aboard the program. In other words, exactly what Patterson hoped.
"He's got back on the same track as he was when he came out," Patterson said. ... "For him, we all get into situations, we all make mistakes. he's a good enough kid. If he'd have come right here, there always would have been somebody asking about him. It didn't need to be about him; it needed to be about he needed to get away from it, take a deep breath."
Moving back closer to home in Southlake meant more time watching his younger brother, Marcus, play baseball. It meant more time with family and less time for activities that can prove difficult to remember afterward. Hill went back to his home church, too. These days, if he's not in the football facilities or studying, he's with his longtime girlfriend, Blair.
It's part of a newfound strategy he didn't have at A&M. Put simply: Shut out everyone who's not part of TCU's program or a tight circle of friends.
"Even when we were losing, I'd read every single comment on anything," Hill said. "My Instagram, my mentions. I read all of it, good and bad. You can't do that."
He took nutrition more seriously, refining his body. His playing weight now is 205-208 pounds, instead of the 215 he suited up with at Texas A&M.
Kenny Trill? He's not really dead. He's still likely to hear a "What's up Trill?" when he encounters a teammate, even if the nickname is half in jest. He's not fighting or encouraging his moniker's revival.
"I don't really need a nickname," Hill said. "It's whatever. I'm just trying to play."
He's not the starter yet. Patterson plans on naming one 9-10 days before TCU opens the season against South Dakota State. In Week 2, the Frogs host Arkansas. If Hill wins, he'll have two years to redeem the ugly end to his time in College Station. He still feels the confidence he felt that first night in South Carolina, a deep belief that he's the best player on any field he occupies. Patterson maintains the race is close for now, but that he also doesn't judge his quarterbacks until Saturdays.
Hill's competition, Foster Sawyer, struggled in limited opportunities behind Boykin last season. He went 1-for-7 in a near-upset loss to Kansas and threw three interceptions before being benched in a loss to Oklahoma.
"Kenny one of those kids when the lights come on, he's pretty good," Cumbie said. "He's good in practice, but I think when you put him in a competitive situation in front of a lot of people, I think he's a kid who tends to elevate his game."
In just two years on the field, Hill's seen the grandest and ugliest sides of college football. Then, he saw a semester away from it and a season stuck on the sidelines.
"Without that I wouldn't be where I am now. Everything happens for a reason," Hill said. "Me going through that is what I needed to be where I am now."