Hill Trophy celebrates 30th anniversary

Ronald McKinnon’s Harlon Hill Trophy on display on the campus of North Alabama at Flowers Hall. The trophy commemorates the most valuable football player in Division II annually, and is named for former NFL star and UNA great, Harlon Hill.

Players like Cam Newton, Derrick Henry and countless others that willed their teams to success on the gridiron were forever memorialized in the annals of greatness with their induction in the Heisman fraternity.

But, that award is limited to players at the highest level of college football, while the best players at smaller schools are often overlooked.

Enter the Harlon Hill Trophy.

This trophy was first awarded in 1986 to bring notoriety to the most outstanding college football athlete at the NCAA’s Division II level.

Harlon Hill starred as a wide receiver for North Alabama in the early 1950’s before being drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1954. Hill enjoyed an illustrious career with the Bears, earning Pro-Bowl selections 1954-56 and was named the NFL Most Valuable Player in 1955.

Jerry Hill, Harlon Hill’s son, said the award meant a great deal to his father, who passed away in 2013.

“He was very humble about the trophy being named after him, but he was also very appreciative,” he said. “He had a deep love for UNA. He always told me, ‘Without UNA, I would’ve never gotten where I did in life.’”

This year, UNA has a finalist for the award in dual-threat quarterback Jacob Tucker.

“It’s definitely an honor,” Tucker said. “But, the fact of it is that it’s a team award, especially when a quarterback is involved because there’s so many factors that go in (an offense.)”

Tucker not only leads the team in passing with 2,483 yards and 20 touchdowns, but also rushing with 789 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Jeff Hodges, UNA’s Sports Information Director and chairman of the trophy, said the idea began with Florence’s bid to host the Division II national championship game.

After playing in the 1985 national championship game, UNA fans returned to Florence determined they could do a better job of hosting the event, he said.

Grady Lyles, who was head of the UNA sportsman’s club spearheaded the project with ambition, Hodges said.

Lyles not only wanted to bring the championship game to the Shoals, but also wanted to have community events throughout the week like bowl games have, he said.

At the time, the NCAA did not sponsor individual awards. So, Hodges had to write a proposal that fit within the association’s guidelines, he said.

The trophy provided the blueprint for Division I Football Championship Subdivision’s Walter Payton Award and Division III’s Gagliardi Trophy.

Several trophy winners have gone on to enjoy careers at the professional level like Bernard Scott and Joique Bell.

Current San Diego Chargers running back Danny Woodhead won the Harlon Hill Trophy in 2006 and 2007 during his collegiate career at Chadron State. Woodhead also played professionally for the New York Jets and New England Patriots, where he was a part of the 2011 AFC championship team.

UNA has also had a pair of trophy winners in linebacker Ronald McKinnon in 1995 and quarterback Will Hall in 2003.

McKinnon went on to play in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals 1996-04 and the New Orleans Saints in 2005. He was also among the first former Division II players elected to the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame in 2008.

After Hall won the award, he became a coach at the same level he won the award, including head coaching stops at West Alabama and West Georgia, where he currently coaches.

The 30th Harlon Hill winner will be announced Dec. 16 and presented with the award Jan. 6 at UNA.