By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Growing up as a female athlete in a male-dominated world in highly competitive Harrison was nothing in comparison to what Jody Hill had to endure last week. Serving as a teacher and a high school girls’ basketball coach for the last decade was a walk in the park next to saying goodbye to the most influential man in Hill’s life, namely her father, Anthony, who died after a 15-month battle with brain cancer.
Anthony Hill was 67 years old.
“To me, he was the greatest person in the world,” Hill said, choking back tears three days after her father’s funeral. “He ended up with three daughters, but I was the next best thing to him having a little boy. Just having him as a Dad was the greatest experience in the world.”
Lee-Ann Hill is two years older than Jody. Melissa came 13 years after Jody. All three Hill girls had sports as a part of their lives – Lee-Ann running cross country, Melissa playing softball and soccer – but it was Jody who took athletics to a new level as one of the finest girls’ basketball players in Harrison High School and Hudson County history.
Growing up in Harrison, Hill always played with and against the boys. She was a standout Little League baseball player and was constantly holding her own, playing with some of the best athletes in the town, including long-time friend and classmate Ray Lucas.
But the inspiration to compete came from her father.
“Growing up, my father worked two full-time jobs,” Hill recalled. “He worked for an oil company, repairing heating systems and then came home and went back out to work as a teller at the Meadowlands Race Track. He took the bets. He enjoyed that, because he really loved the horses.
Added Hill, “But between jobs, for that 30-to-45 minutes, Dad would always play Whiffle ball or football in the yard, pitch baseballs to me even when it was raining – we would be doing dive plays in football in the living room. “My Dad was a volunteer coach in Little League. He had a unique way about him in that he didn’t push us to do anything we didn’t want to do. He didn’t push me into sports. But he encouraged me and supported me. He made me feel like I could accomplish anything. He made me feel like I was on the top of the world.”
Most of the time, Hill was indeed that.
Throughout her brilliant All-State career at Harrison and later Pace University, Hill was a dominant basketball player, scoring 2,000 points in high school and 1,000 more in college, eventually earning induction into the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame.
And Anthony Hill was there every step of the way.
“He was loving and caring and pulled the most out of me,” Hill said. “He was constantly complimenting me and praising me.”
Anthony Hill was a fine athlete in his days growing up in Harrison, especially in baseball. He passed the athletic gene on to his middle daughter.
“I was shy about playing baseball with the boys, but it was comforting to me to have him there,” Hill said. “I can’t even explain the impact he had on me. I knew back then that if I could play with the boys, I could play anywhere. I wanted to surround myself with the best competition. Dad never tried to steer me away from it. He just always wanted me to be happy. He wanted my sisters to be happy. He energized me and encouraged me to let it all happen.” Anthony Hill lived for his wife, Kathy, and his three daughters and eventually his grandchildren.
“He worked so hard his whole life,” Jody Hill said.
Anthony Hill finally retired last year and was given a fond sendoff by his friends and co-workers. A month after his retirement, he was diagnosed with brain cancer.
“He always put everyone before himself,” Jody Hill said. “We all wanted him to finally enjoy his time and he never really got the chance.”
Going through the rigors of chemotherapy and radiation took its toll.
“Especially over the last three weeks, it got real hard,” Hill said. “He lost his ability to speak. It was hard seeing him like that. He never once raised his voice to any of us. He was giving, loving and mentoring. Every person I bump into all say, ‘You have the greatest Dad.’ And I did. I was very lucky for a long time.”
Last week, as the end drew near, Jody Hill had to make arrangements for her assistant coaches to take over her team. Anthony Hill died Monday night and the Kardinals faced Hudson Catholic a day later. Hill turned the reins over to assistant coaches Jeanine Wallace and Vicky Zicopolous to coach that game.
The Kardinals won the game and dedicated it in memory of their top fan.
Two days later, while services for Anthony Hill were being held, the Kardinals were scheduled to face North Bergen in a crucial game. But the Kardinals knew they couldn’t try to play without their leader.
“They all texted me and said that they wanted to postpone the game so they could be there for me,” Hill said. “At 4:30 p.m., the whole team walked in single file and wanted to be there for me. I thought they were going to play without me. I hadn’t missed a game for anything in 12 years.”
Saturday morning, Jody Hill returned to coach her team against Clifton after enduring those tough four days. But she was moved to tears again when she saw her team go through pre-game warm-ups.
“They pulled off their shooting shirts and underneath, they all wore a T-shirt that said, ‘Kearny Basketball,’ on the front and ‘In loving memory of A. Hill’ on the back with a grey ribbon for brain cancer,” Hill said. “It would have been a perfect ending if we would have won the game.”
Sometimes, Hollywood endings don’t always take place. The Kardinals lost to Clifton.
“But I feel so blessed to have those girls in my life,” Hill said. “They gave me strength. You think that you’re the adult and you’re the one who is supposed to lead them. Well, Saturday, they led me. I found my strength in them. I felt really lucky to be coaching those girls. They showed such maturity, thoughtfulness and a great understanding of family.”
And Jody Hill finally had a sense of serenity after the months and weeks of turmoil going through her father’s illness and subsequent demise.
“I knew somewhere my Dad was smiling,” Hill said. “He was their No. 1 fan. One of his favorite things to do was to come watch us play. He was just enjoying his life in retirement with his grandchildren. It’s sad that it all ended that way.”
Anthony Hill may be gone, but certainly not in spirit.
“It was amazing to see those kids come the way they did,” Hill said of her father’s wake. “Finally, I had something that uplifted me and got me through it.”
And the season will resume this week, with the Kards’ No. 1 fan looking down and offering support to his daughter, the coach.