by Jim Gehman
“I was just thrilled to get drafted,” says Hill, a fourth-round pick of the Eagles in the 1965 NFL Draft. “Back then you had the two leagues competing, but the American League was … Do you remember when they had the United States Football League? Would you want to play for the United States Football League or the NFL? You want to play for the NFL. And so, I didn’t even talk to (Raiders general manager and head coach) Al Davis.”
The tight end chose the Eagles over the Raiders – as well as baseball’s Boston Red Sox – but he had a setback before stepping foot on Philadelphia’s Franklin Field.
“In the College All-Star Game (against the defending NFL Champion Cleveland Browns), it was pouring down rain at (Chicago’s) Soldier Field, and Roger Staubach threw me one over my head,” Hill says. “I reached as high as I could reach and Jim Houston, their outside linebacker, was running full speed and caught me right in the ribs. I broke my ribs and missed almost my whole rookie year.
“And then the next year I started (eight games) at wide receiver, but I was the backup tight end to Pete Retzlaff. It was really hard on me in practice because I had to run with both groups. But Pete, he ran the best patterns of anybody I’ve ever seen. He taught me so much. He had unbelievable moves. I learned a lot from him.”
Starting eight games at tight end in 1968, Hill posted career highs with 30 receptions for 370 yards and three touchdowns.
“The next year I was the starting tight end and in the last preseason game, I ripped up my knee and I came home and that’s when I found out my daughter had leukemia. That was kind of the end of my football (career),” says Hill, who played through the 1971 season.
“The fans were great. The people there were so nice to us. Especially when Kim was really sick. All of our neighbors supported us so much. Here, I had this sick 3-year-old that wasn’t supposed to make it beyond five to six weeks. She made it then, but with three and a half years of chemotherapy.
“We kind of got sidetracked the last few years I played because Kim got chemo every single day. Spinal taps and bone marrow tests and chemotherapy and radiation for three and a half years. You were more worried about your daughter than playing football.”
Hill retired in 1972 and got in touch with then-Eagles owner Leonard Tose later that year about backing a fundraiser – a fashion show.
“Fran begged me to go talk to Leonard Tose,” Hill says, “and to our surprise, the entire team and Leonard showed up. And he said, ‘Next year, Fred, I want you to make 10 times this amount.’ We made $10,000 for the Leukemia Society of America and we took it to them and then we said, ‘You know what? We’d rather have the money stay right here in Philly.’ And so, the next year we did a big fashion show at the stadium and we passed the hat and raised over $100,000.”
Following that, they met with Kim’s doctor at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, Dr. Lawrence Namain, and asked how the money should be spent.
“We wanted the people of Philadelphia, if they were going to donate something; we wanted to be able to touch what they bought,” Hill says. “Because when we went to check where our $10,000 went from our first fundraiser, we couldn’t really identify where the money went. So, we were thinking whatever the hospital needs, they could say I helped pay for this.”
They were directed to Dr. Audrey Evans, head of the pediatric oncology unit at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who had a terrific suggestion.
“She said we needed a house close by where the parents could stay,” Hill says. “All the families that we’d see every day, some of them came from long distances and slept in their cars. We thought that was a great idea.”
Involved since the first fashion show, then-Eagles general manager Jim Murray had a great idea of his own. Familiar with Don Tuckerman, who worked for an advertising agency that handled the McDonald’s account, he called and asked what their next promotion was. It turned out to be a campaign to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day – the Shamrock Shake.
Murray asked if McDonald’s would be willing to donate 25 cents of each Shamrock Shake to help pay for the house. Tuckerman put him in contact with the company’s regional manager, Ed Rensi, who asked, “What if we give you all the money? Can we call it the Ronald McDonald House?”
The answer was clearly yes, and the first Ronald McDonald House opened on Spruce Street in Philadelphia on October 14, 1974. Today, there are more than 365 Ronald McDonald Houses around the world.
Kim Hill passed away on March 5, 2011. She was 44. Her parents continue to be involved with the Ronald McDonald House as ambassadors and travel to different cities for grand openings and anniversaries.
This week they’ll return to Philadelphia, where on Sunday, Fred Hill will be on the field as the Honorary Alumni Captain presented by Santander when the Eagles host the Houston Texans. It’s the second year in a row he has reunited with his former team. He visited with the Eagles last season when they stayed on the West Coast between games in Seattle and Los Angeles, where they played the Rams and Hill makes his home.
“They called and said, ‘Fred, we like to do community involvement. We have 14 rookies and we’d like to bring them to the Orange County Ronald McDonald House.’ So, they brought all 14 of them to the house. And then they asked me to come to practice. So, I went to practice and I got to meet Zach Ertz because he has my number, 86,” Hill says. “It was a great week.”