Shaun Hill admits he wondered about his future in football when Brad Childress took over as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings and wasn't interested in having Hill make the transition from Mike Tice's team to what would be a whole new offense for him.
That was in 2006, when Hill talked with his agent about developing a Plan B. Thankfully – because he said he didn't come up with a good Plan B – primary plan worked. Plan A called for Hill to continue to stay in shape and hope another NFL opportunity came along in San Francisco.
"There was some doubt that crept in," said Hill. "It's tough for a guy going into a season that has absolutely zero film to find a job. Fortunately, I found one out here and it worked out."
Hill is now the starting quarterback for the 49ers, who visit the Metrodome on Sunday to take on Childress' Vikings.
Fellow Maryland alum Jeff Dugan has remained friends with Hill since their days together in college and their early years with the Vikings. Hill was undrafted, Dugan a seventh-rounder. Both had to fight their way on to the Vikings' roster in the Tice era. Dugan survived the 2006 transition in Minnesota; Hill was left to look elsewhere.
"It's kind of the nature of it for everybody. It's just what everybody has to deal with," Dugan said. "He did a good job of staying positive and not letting his frustrations show and using the experience to get better."
For Hill, it was all a matter of opportunity. He spent four seasons developing in Minnesota and put together a not-so-impressive set of statistics – one game played, two kneeldowns.
Hill even remembers the circumstances. Brad Johnson was finishing up a strong season with a good game against Chicago and Tice wanted Johnson to get recognition from the crowd with a lead in hand. As Johnson left the field and Hill ran on, he joked that he thought the cheers were for him.
But even now that he's a starter, the cheers aren't coming easily for Hill. He played well last season but still had to prove himself in the offseason during a competition for the starting spot with former first-round pick Alex Smith. Hill won that battle and has the 49ers at 2-0, facing an undefeated Vikings team in the only Week 3 NFL game that matches two unbeatens.
Dugan thinks the stress of battling for a starting position doesn't compare to the stress he and Hill both faced earlier in their careers when they were uncertain if they would have NFL employment from year to year.
"To me, (the QB battle was) probably not as stressful as the situations he dealt with here, worrying about his future and whatnot. He wants to play and he's a competitor," Dugan said. "He's gotten the opportunity to play before and he knows he can play at that level."
Hill started to prove that in 2007, when he played in three games, starting two. He completed 68.4 percent of his passes for five touchdowns, one interception and a 101.3 passer rating. He got a more long-term opportunity last year and started eight games, completing 62.8 percent of his passes for 2,046 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
"I always had the same approach and that is to get better every day, go out there and give it my all and improve," Hill said. "None of that changed. I still have those same core beliefs. Those are things I was doing even as I started in high school and college. A lot of people don't know when I got to Maryland I was brought in as a spring ball arm and was able to compete my way into the starting position and have a decent career there. That has just always been what I have tried to do and continued to carry out throughout my career."
Dugan, who was two years behind Hill at Maryland, said Hill proved in college that he deserved a shot in the NFL. He got that chance with Tice, a fellow Maryland alumnus, but never curried any real playing time, so when Childress took over the Vikings program, a four-year veteran with no real experience wasn't exactly the kind of developmental guy he was looking for. Instead, Childress drafted Tarvaris Jackson as that guy and Hill was left to search for work elsewhere.
"I think it was one of those things where he didn't have any experience and was going on his fifth year. It just kind of makes sense to get a younger guy to develop – it's just kind of the nature of it," Dugan said. "He's gotten the opportunity to play since then and he's done well, so he's been able to elevate himself up. You can't be a third developmental guy forever."
Now eight years into his career, he joins the likes of Tony Romo, Kurt Warner and other undrafted quarterbacks who have been able to work their way into starters in the league. Hill isn't a star yet and may never be, but he's continuing to progress.
"He just seems more comfortable getting reps with the first team and getting to play a lot more than he did here," Dugan said. "It just seems like he feels more comfortable in different situations. He just comes out and leads his team and does what he needs to."
Said Hill: "It doesn't matter to me what people call me as long as we're winning games. You mentioned there that (I'm a) guy that makes plays whenever he needs to or gets first downs, that doesn't turn the ball over – I don't know what else there is to playing quarterback. Those are things that every quarterback that is going to win needs to do. I don't know why it's different for me, but I suppose it is. Whatever it takes to get a ‘W' that's all I care to do."
In 2009, that's all he's done so far.
Hill, like Dugan, an NFL survivor
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