Newly-acquired Tampa Bay Storm wide receiver Joe Hills sits across from his wife Raechel at a conference table inside the Storm offices and beams proudly while talking about her, his 10-year-old son JoJo and his four-year-old daughter Nelly.
Hills and his wife met while they attended middle school together.
They’ve been in a relationship ever since.
“Living the dream right now,” Hills said, smiling while locking eyes with Raechel, who returns the grin. The dream just got more manageable for the five-year Arena Football League pro.
On January 9, Hills was acquired by the Storm, returning to the team he played for from 2012-14. The 29-year-old Hills grew up in Palmetto, Fla., a straight-shot, 40-minute drive down Interstate 75 from Tampa and AMALIE Arena and starred as a prep standout at Palmetto High School.
Hills spent the past two seasons with Jacksonville, where he led the Sharks to the ArenaBowl in his first year and the American Conference Championship in his second. The move back to Tampa from Jacksonville allows Hills to spend more time with his family.
“I wanted to stay close to home,” he said. “I was in Jacksonville for two years. It’s kind of tough not being around your family. Now, we get to spend most of the nights together, and that’s always great.”
Hills began his AFL career with the Spokane Shock in 2012 and moved to Tampa Bay midway through the season, catching 39 passes for 13 touchdowns and 648 yards for the Storm. He spent two more full seasons with the Storm and put up eye-popping numbers: 133 receptions, 1,869 yards and 42 touchdowns in 2013 followed by a 100-catch, 1,252-yard, 38-touchdown season in 2014.
He joined Jacksonville prior to the 2015 season and continued his assault on the league’s offensive stats, hauling in 150 and 161 catches in back-to-back seasons.
But the allure of returning home was enough to bring Hills back to the Storm.
“Tampa Bay is a first-class organization,” he said. “I’ve been around. There’s no place like home, I can tell you that. The fans, my family, that pretty much did it for me. Once you’re away for a while, you might as well stay home if you’re going to play arena football. I feel like we can build something here.”
In Hills, the Storm are getting the AFL’s best offensive player and maybe its best overall player.
After setting career highs for receptions (161), yards (2,020) and touchdowns (58) in 2016, Hills was named the Under Armour Offensive Player of the year and the Cutters Receiver of the Year.
He’s been an All-Arena selection three of the past four seasons.
He’s caught a touchdown pass in 68-consecutive regular games, just ten shy of the league record (78) set by Damian Harrell.
With so many accolades already on his resume, is there room for Hills to get even better?
“That’s a tough one,” Hills said when posed that same question. “I really don’t look at it like that. I usually take it day by day, game by game, play by play. I really don’t too much care about those numbers. We were all sitting at home during the championship.”
Hills said he’s worked all offseason on improving his craft in hopes of returning to the ArenaBowl and coming away a winner this time.
“In the offseason, you work on yourself,” he said. “In season, it’s more about the team. You prepare yourself to help the team as far as that aspect. I really don’t care about the accolades. I’ve had them all now. At the end of the day, I’m trying to get a ring. That should be our motivation: ring.”
As he speaks, Hills is calm, measured, his answers matter-of-fact.
On the field, he’s a completely different person. He flips a switch, going from relaxed to frenzied by the opening kickoff.
“The field, man, you’ve just got to go hard,” he said. “The only way that you get the best out of each person is playing with passion. It is what it is. I’ve never seen a guy go out and kill playing calm. I’ve just never seen it. Usually it’s the loud guys, usually it’s the guy that has all the energy. And that’s how I usually try to play: more passion, the bigger the outcome.”
With the game over, Hills returns to the mild-mannered father of two who just wants to relax at home with his wife and play with his kids.
He’ll have plenty more time for that now that he’s with Tampa Bay.