It doesn’t take long for Bradley Hill’s mum, Stephanie, to open up the family photo album and produce photo after photo of her now grown-up son.
The tattoos are nowhere to be seen, nor the Saints colours he’ll wear in game 200 tonight at Adelaide Oval, but the mischievous twinkle in his eye and cheeky smirk are unmistakable.
“He was just the happy-go-lucky, cheeky kid – always out with his friends, very social and always wanted to be chased by everyone,” Hill’s mum, Stephanie Gray told saints.com.au.
“He was just always very caring and kind and happy all the time. He never caused me… well, a few little things, but nothing really! He would get up to a bit of mischief, but he was always so caring above all.”
Almost twenty years later, the colours of his guernsey have changed a few times, but those all-important traits haven’t faded. His cackle still reverberates around RSEA Park most days – Ben Long’s not far behind – and there’s almost an aura in the air when he’s scheming ways to stitch up his unsuspecting teammates or coaches, Brett Ratten chief among them.
Those closest to Hill say he’s had that same playful charm since day one.
In many ways, Hill, the fourth of seven children, is your typical middle child: an eyes-wide-open type around his protective older siblings, who also harbours the desire to extend that same feeling of guardianship and care towards his younger relations.
Born in Girrawheen, Western Australia, Hill’s family relocated to Balcatta before eventually settling in the outer northern suburb of Clarkson when he was a toddler.
It depends on who you ask as to where he spent the most time, however.
The nearby borough of Ridgewood – just a five-minute drive from Clarkson – was home to his cousins, the Ryders, and it was rare to find the young Hill without Paddy Ryder’s brothers, James and Kyle, by his side.
James’ initials are even tattooed onto Hill’s left forearm as part of an artwork depicting his journey and those who have helped shape him into the man he is today. Jarryd Roughead, Cyril Rioli, brother Stephen Hill and Shaun Burgoyne are also inked into his skin alongside accompanying footprints to signify his movement forward.
While his cousin and teammate Paddy – more than five years Hill’s senior – didn’t spend as much time with him as his two younger brothers, the brotherly bond has only grown stronger since both arriving at St Kilda as part of its 2019 list blitz.
“He’s always been a little brother to me,” Ryder told saints.com.au.
“Hilly was always camping around my place and it was always fun having him around. I didn’t spend a heap of time with him because he was a few years younger, but he’d always be at mine having a laugh and cruising around with the young boys.”
As to whether Hill has changed much from the days of bodyboarding down at the beach, running around with the Sherrin at Quinns Districts or cheerfully gallivanting between Clarkson and Ridgewood to present day, the answer isn’t at all surprising.
“He’s still exactly the same now!” Ryder said with a big laugh.
“He’s full of beans, full of energy, full of life… nothing will ever change with him I reckon.”
A ‘softie’ at heart
For all the laughs, bouncing-off-the-wall antics and humorous – at least for Ryder – penchant for shadowboxing, there’s far more to Hill beyond the charismatic personality.
Beneath the exuberant outer is a man whose decisions in life have been guided by his heart, particularly when helping those nearest and dearest to him.
A large tattoo of the words Familia Para Siempre – translated to ‘Family Forever’ – across his chest and over his heart only reinforce that sentiment.
His mum doesn’t hesitate to highlight his caring nature which has become so entwined with his identity between friends and family. A little Hill would always take care of his two younger sisters, would babysit or be with his friends’ younger children when they were sick in later years, and as a teenager even took in a friend off his own bat to help get them back on their feet.
He’d be the first to jump in to break up scuffles, would walk female friends home after nights out and always put his family before anything else. Even after winning his first of three Premierships at Hawthorn in 2013, Hill confided in his mum that “he almost wanted to cry” because his older brother, Stephen – playing for the opposing side, Fremantle – had missed out on the ultimate success.
After being recruited by St Kilda in 2019, the triple-Premiership Hawk and fiancé Sammy also brought in Ben Long and Paddy Ryder as housemates on separate occasions.
“Even though he’s bouncing around all the time, he does have a very soft side to him which all his family and his friends love,” Ryder said.
“He’s a softie at heart. When things aren’t going well he can get down because he’s such a caring person and he never wants to let anyone down.”
‘Softie’ often doesn’t pair well in the often burly and unapologetic world of football, but the vulnerability and compassion shown by Hill has been embraced by those around him.
The transition from the fresh-faced Hawthorn draftee to an older and wiser leader at St Kilda, particularly for the club’s Indigenous contingent, hasn’t gone by unnoticed, with the proud Noongar man evolving into more of the “Big Brother” mantle currently held by Ryder.
St Kilda features a club-record nine Indigenous players on its list this season, with seven – Hill, Ryder, Long, Jade Gresham, Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera, Jarrod Lienert and debutant Marcus Windhager – lining up together in Round 4 against Hawthorn.
“He’s a big role model now for young blokes here now. He’s grown a lot and when he speaks up, people really listen to him,” Ryder said.
“Even though he’s a bit of a ‘life of the party’ type and jokes around a lot, his words when he speaks are very powerful.”
Born to be a dad
Hill was born to be a footballer. His immense running power – irrespective of where he plays – and work-rate is in a league of its own, and when he’s in top gear, his precise field kicking is one of the most damaging assets across the entire competition.
There’s no shortage of highlights to pluck across the 199 games he’s played so far, nor is there an empty silverware cabinet following the historic Premiership three-peat at Hawthorn (2013-2015) and Best & Fairest campaign from his first season out west in 2017.
Hill’s talent and aptitude for the game were obviously apparent early, but for many who were beside him day after day, as was his natural inclination to be a loving parent.
The 28-year-old became a first-time father in late 2021 after he and fiancé Sammy welcomed baby Harriet to the world after two challenging years impacted heavily by COVID-19.
“He was always going to be a good dad, just the way he connects with children. You see that now the way he is with Harriet,” Ryder said.
“He’s always been such a caring bloke. Everyone that knows him knows he’d do anything for anyone that he loves.
Harriet is grandchild number eight for the Hill family. Stephen Hill and wife Chantala made it nine with baby Darcy in April, with another three grandchildren on the way by the end of the year.
Hill’s mum has only met the Victorian-born bub once after Western Australian border restrictions were lifted in March, but makes sure to pencil in regular FaceTime calls with Bradley and Sammy so she can see her niece.
“He’s just so natural as a dad, he just takes it on as if he were the mother, sometimes” she said with a little chuckle.
“He’s so good with Harriet and he’s a very good man. I’ve always thought that.”
A fitting occasion
Game 200 is always a momentous occasion, but it’s even more significant for Hill with his milestone match coinciding with this year’s Sir Doug Nicholls Round.
Hill has achieved what thousands can only dream of. He’s tasted the ultimate glory three times as part of Hawthorn’s legendary Premiership three-peat, has played in his home state alongside his brother, Stephen, with a Best & Fairest season to boot, and has eyes on carving out new successes while at St Kilda.
His mum and younger brother, Corey, will be in attendance at the game tonight, jetting over from Perth to see the under-lights match on Kaurna Country. Daughter Harriet will also be in Hill's arms when he runs out onto the ground.
“I’m just so proud of him,” Ms Gray said.
“To be drafted was one thing, but then to play 200 games and still be playing is unbelievable. I hope he’s got many more left.”
Hill is yet to miss a game while in St Kilda colours after two-and-a-half seasons, with the No. 8 celebrating his 50th club game in last week’s stirring win over Geelong.
While there have been bumps in the road in that time through dips in on-field impact, extensive media attention plus debates around where he’s best suited, Ryder is adamant there will be many more memorable chapters added to his legacy while in red, white and black.
And it’s a career which won’t soon be forgotten once the final entry is eventually written.
“Just to see all the hard work he’s put in to get to 200 has been massive,” Ryder said.
“I’ve always seen the work that he does and puts in to his footy, especially his work rate. To me, that’s second to none. He’s the best runner I’ve ever seen.
“This is just such a massive milestone for him. In those 200 games, he’s achieved so much – club B&Fs, three Premierships – and that’s incredible in of itself.
“He’s one of the best to do it. When his career is all said and done, for everything he has achieved, I think he’ll be spoken about with some of the greatest Indigenous players to play the game.”