COLUMBUS, Miss. — Until the knock on his bedroom door, Kylin Hill hadn’t heard the news. He was famous, even more famous than he previously had been.
Standing in the doorway, one of his Mississippi State teammates gestured toward his phone, where on the screen was a tweet Hill published more than an hour ago. The post drew enough attention that its activity indicators—retweets and likes—were spinning like an uncontrollable mileage meter.
“Bruh,” the teammate said, “you’re everywhere.”
Hill wondered why this particular tweet had caused such a firestorm.
All he had done, as one of college football’s elite running backs and the best player in his own state, was directly reply to a tweet from the governor of Mississippi with a threat to sit out the 2020 football season if the 126-year-old state flag, one of the more divisive issues here, was not changed.
What’s all the fuss about?
To him, the tweet was a snapshot of his own life experiences as a Black man living in Mississippi. Not planned but also not spontaneous, the tweet revealed only a fraction of his true feelings, an abbreviated message of 97 characters, 18 words and his patented “100” emoji, to show he wasn’t messing around.
The unabridged story is much deeper.
Hill has been called the n-word. In fact, he’s been called the n-word a half-mile from where, in front of a mostly white crowd, he gallops across a field on fall Saturdays. His mother has been called the n-word, too. For no obvious reason, Hill has been made to pull his vehicle off the road, exit it and then, only when the white officer completed his fruitless search, been told to be on his way.
“When you’ve been through the situation, you get frustrated,” Hill explains. “You get tired of the situation. I said, ‘I need to speak up.’”
So, while lying in bed at 1:09 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, he fired his tweet into the ether. And then, like a person truly unimpressed by his own work, he rolled over on his side, buried himself in covers and took a nap.
College football usually spends its summers hosting crowded media events, lavish conference meetings and extravagant recruiting weekends. This year, the sport’s leaders explored ways to play amid a pandemic, watched Congress monopolize the debate over athlete compensation and encountered a player empowerment movement over social unrest. The wild confluence of developments could change the sport forever.
In a localized version of America’s Black Lives Matter campaign, college athletes marched across college towns, demanded universities scrub racist imagery from campuses and exposed inequality within their own programs through social media. The engines behind college football’s billion-dollar industry—the players—uncovered their power, loudly wielding influence and capturing national headlines, even resulting in coaching suspensions and firings.
At Oklahoma State, coach Mike Gundy’s embrace of a right-leaning television network triggered discord within his team’s ranks, as well as a change to his contract with the school. At Iowa, abuse claims emerged that led to a mutual parting with long-time strength coach Chris Doyle, who denied the allegations. At Kansas State, players sat out activities until the school responded adequately to a racist tweet that a fellow student posted.
And on June 22, in the sleepy town of Starkville, Kylin Hill called for the state of Mississippi to remove from its flag poles a chilling reminder of the Old South. Mississippi was the last remaining U.S. state to feature the Confederate battle flag cross on such a celebrated symbol, all the while holding a larger proportion of Black residents (38%) than any other state.
“Either change the flag,” Hill’s tweet read, “or I won’t be representing this State anymore 💯 & I mean that .. I’m tired.”
Hill told no one of his plan before tweeting that message. Those close to him feared ugly backlash, potentially even retribution from a vocal, flag-defending segment of the state. Hill’s best friend and high school teammate, CJ Gholar, thought the remark would end his buddy’s football career, his fate similar to that of Colin Kaepernick.
Hill’s mother, Korenda, called her son, angry, frustrated and scared. What are you doing?! Hill’s older brother, Trey Burton, received messages from friends wanting him to intervene. Your brother is going too far.
Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen phoned Hill immediately after the tweet, offering to him the university’s full support and concerned that the negativity on Twitter would trigger Hill to reply back to detractors, exacerbating the issue.
Hill says he doesn’t read the comments. Randal Montgomery, Hill’s high school coach, does. “When things happen like the tweet, you see a part of the state that you are not proud of,” says Montgomery, a Mississippi native. “There was a lot of stuff I read that upset me.”
While the majority were supportive, some were downright ugly. Several are still there, posted under the tweet as a reminder of hate. Others have been removed by the original publisher, likely embarrassed and ashamed.
Give back your scholarship!
The hate extended beyond the internet. A few days after Hill’s tweet, his grandmother, Glenda, received a handwritten note in her mailbox from a supporter of the flag who angrily wanted answers from Hill. At the top of the letter, the author referred to Kylin as a “dickhead,” his mother says. “Feel free to share on your social media,” the author concluded. Korenda sent the letter to the police. In a separate incident, she also reported to police a midnight call she received from an unidentified number.
“Is this Kylin’s mom?” the caller asked.
“Yes,” she responded.
“Well, Kylin Hill, he’s a n—–. N—–. N—–. N—–. N—–. N—–. N—–.”
Told this story, Cohen, State’s AD, recoils. “It’s embarrassing.”
People think the letters N-F-L along Kylin Hill’s right forearm stand for the National Football League. And while that’s the end goal of his career, it’s not the meaning behind the ink. “Never Forget Loyalty,” Hill says.
He’s got another on his upper arm, H-O-H, that stands for Humble Over Hype. Near his shoulder, there is S-E-C, a reference to the conference in which he competes. His mother’s name stretches long ways down the opposite arm: KORENDA.
And along his right inner biceps are two important words: Sandfield Baby.
Sandfield is the community in which he was raised, an impoverished, historically black neighborhood in south Columbus, a city of 24,000 that sits about 25 miles west of Mississippi State’s campus. Hill grew up here before his mother and grandmother moved out of the neighborhood.
Sandfield has historical significance, especially given Hill’s involvement with the Mississippi flag. In the late 1800s, freed enslaved people in Columbus settled here, and several are buried in what is the most prominent feature of the community: the cemetery that bears the same name.
For years, Sandfield was a proud rebuke of a segregated city, describes the local newspaper, The Dispatch. It was a thriving Black community of Black-owned businesses and homes, a communal environment that old-timers speak of with pride and affection.
Over the last several decades, it’s fallen into neglect.
According to city-data.com and based on 2000–2020 data, 54% of Sandfield’s residents live below the poverty level, and one-fifth are unemployed. Just two years ago, 24 abandoned and dilapidated homes in the neighborhood were burned to make way for new development that locals hope will revive this place. Because of the poverty, there is crime, says Scott Colom, a Columbus native and Mississippi’s first Black district attorney of a majority white district. “It’s not the easiest place to grow up,” he says.
Hill believes he’s the first Sandfield athlete to reach this level of national notoriety. He’s a celebrity here. In fact, a mural of Hill graces a brick wall in the neighborhood. “Friendly City Hero,” the mural says. “Kylin Hill—Sandfield Made.”
In the depiction of Hill, he’s wearing a football uniform, has a helmet on and is carrying a ball. That’s fitting. High school ball here kept Hill from finding trouble in Sandfield, violent enough that Hill’s mother wouldn’t allow him to walk alone down the street, he says. Hill’s cousin KJ was murdered, shot in the head on homecoming night. His brother’s best friend, a kid they called Gump, was shot in the head and killed at age 15, he says.
Trey, his older brother, spent time, as he says, “running the streets” of Columbus. He encouraged his little brother to stay away. The two are separated by only a few months and share a father who moved to Atlanta when they were young (They used to take trips there to visit as children and they still have a relationship with him).
Trey is now a father himself to a 3-year-old girl. He no longer “runs the streets,” he says.
“The streets ain’t got no love for you,” Trey says he used to tell his brother. “One mistake, the streets will burn you down. They will kill you out here. When you run that ball, think about the end, where you’re heading, keep running, keep running, to get out of Columbus.”
On the field, Hill takes after his father, a former high school running back himself. He gets his power from his trunk. As a high schooler, he squatted 500 pounds and cleaned 315. “You’ve got kids in pro football that can’t do that stuff,” Montgomery says.
One NFL scout describes Hill as having the characteristics—size, speed and power—to be a prototypical starting tailback at the next level. This particular scout projects him as a second- to third-round selection. As a junior at Mississippi State last season, he was within 45 yards of breaking the school’s single-season rushing record when he twisted his ankle in the first quarter of the Bulldogs’ bowl game.
Columbus still buzzes about Hill’s high school performances, especially the one in which he ran for 382 yards and scored five touchdowns. As a senior at Columbus High, he rushed for at least 200 yards in five games, helping revive a downtrodden program by leading the Falcons to consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in nearly 20 years.
There were hiccups, though. After a four-win sophomore season, Montgomery’s first year as coach, Hill wanted to quit. He skipped classes and missed practices, and his grades dipped. He barreled toward a life on the streets. One day, frustrated with his starting running back’s attitude, Montgomery yanked him out of class, drove off campus and pulled the car to the side of the road. He describes it as one of the most emotional and intense conversations he’s ever had with a football player, a “heart to heart” that the coach still can recite almost word for word.
Without Montgomery’s hard love, Trey’s encouragement and the sport of football, Hill isn’t here right now, sitting inside Davis Wade Stadium as one of the nation’s premier running backs and discussing his role in helping change racist symbolism in Mississippi.
Of all the people to take such a hard public stance about the flag, Korenda didn’t expect it to be her son. Kylin evades interviews. He’s quiet and shy. He expresses himself on the field and on Twitter, a place he uses as an outlet to the world, against his mother’s wishes.
Hill is somewhat indecisive. He’s a bit spontaneous and emotional. Take for instance last December, when he announced in a tweet—unbeknownst to his mother—that he’d be bypassing his senior season to enter the NFL draft. Then, a month later, he tweeted that he’d be returning to school.
Hill plans to use his eventual NFL paychecks to bail his grandmother out of her graveyard shift at Walmart. He plans to pour resources into Sandfield, too.
But there’s time for all of that. Korenda wants her son—a member of the SEC academic honor roll—to graduate from college (he’s scheduled to do that in December). She allows herself to imagine if Kylin had followed through and left for the NFL.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Korenda says. “If he would have went pro, this with the flag probably would have never happened.”
A white Republican man from small-town Mississippi, Philip Gunn does not necessarily fit the description of someone who believes in changing a piece of history in the Deep South.
Since 2015, he’s publicly fought for the state to replace its flag with one that does not include the image of the Confederate battle emblem. For five years, and despite his powerful platform as Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, his efforts have failed.
Then came June 30, when the state legislature achieved the requisite votes to retire the old flag. The historic day was a culmination of a week’s worth of support that washed over the state and finally swayed mostly white Republicans to make the change.
In a statewide election in November, the people of Mississippi will vote, yes or no, to adopt a new flag design featuring the state’s flower, a magnolia, surrounded by a ring of stars. The new flag, in fact, is already flying outside of the old state capitol in downtown Jackson.
“When the rest of the world is having political unrest and protests,” Gunn touts, “Mississipians are uniting together and bonding under a new banner.”
Retiring the old flag wasn’t easy. The odds were so steep that many interviewed for this story say they would have strongly encouraged Hill not to tweet his message if he had consulted them beforehand. That includes Colom, the D.A. “The odds they won’t change the flag were too high,” he says, “and Kylin would be in a tight spot.”
For years, Mississippi attempted to scrub a racial symbol from its flag that its own lawmakers embedded in its upper left corner in 1894 as retaliation against political power Black people had gained during Reconstruction. A 2001 statewide vote failed by a near 2-to-1 margin. Multiple proposals in the state legislature never advanced through even the first phase of the legislative process.
The video of the police killing of George Floyd in May reignited conversation. However, discussions quickly slowed as opposition grew. Then on June 19, the SEC and NCAA got involved, announcing a ban on Mississippi colleges’ hosting postseason championships, such as NCAA baseball regionals and conference softball tournaments—an economic blow to college towns and a potential disadvantage for the state’s athletic teams—until the flag was taken down. Over the next few days, some of Mississippi’s biggest businesses publicly expressed support to change the flag. Religious groups, too. The state’s public universities, which years ago removed the flag from its campuses, stumped for the change by sending high-profile athletic leaders, like Ole Miss’s Lane Kiffin and Mississippi State’s Mike Leach, to the state capitol for a full day of discussions and photo ops.
Amid all this, Hill posted that tweet from his bed. How significant of a role was it in the legislature’s decision? That’s up for debate. Black leaders in the state champion the tweet as a primary motivator. One even created a motion to name the flag bill after Hill (it was defeated).
“It did not have any impact on what we did at all,” Gunn says, “but I do think it reflects how many feel across the nation.”
Colom believes Hill’s tweet came at a time, three days after the NCAA’s announcement of the postseason ban, when opposition started to slow progress. “It kept the momentum going,” Colom says.
Hob Bryan, a white Democratic state senator, feels Hill’s actions were symbolic of what ultimately swayed white Republicans to vote for the change: Their Black friends conveyed to them how offensive the flag was.
“There are enough friendships between Black and white people in the legislature that my theory was, what will put it over the top, is Black members of the legislature saying to white members, ‘This means something to me. It hurts me,’” says Bryan, a 36-year member of the state legislature. “That’s the role [Hill] played and other athletes. The notion of someone people know or someone they think they know, like an athlete or celebrity, speaking against the flag is a variation of that theme.”
The fight, though, is not over. The opposition to a new flag remains strong. In fact, one-fifth of the state legislature voted against the bill to retire the flag.
Backed by high-profile Republican politicians, a group called Let Mississippi Vote is hoping to gain enough signatures—they need more than 100,000—for a referendum on the flag that will put four flag designs on a future ballot, regardless of the outcome in November. One of the four flags they plan to put on the ballot: the old state flag.
The old flag, while eschewed by many business and commercial properties in the state, still waves at passersby along Mississippi’s most prominent thoroughfares—interstates 55, 59 and 20. It is often the main feature at roadside stands, usually adjacent to other Confederate-themed merchandise, including the traditional battle flag.
New flag supporters are concerned that the people of Mississippi will not accept the new flag design during November’s vote. The 2001 referendum that asked voters whether a new flag design should be adopted was defeated in a vote of 64%–36%. If defeated in November, the commission that chose the Magnolia flag design would create another. The legislature’s bill required only two things from the new flag: It must not include Confederate imagery and it must include the words “In God We Trust.”
“One of the problems with a new flag design is there are going to be complaints about the design,” says Bryan. “You’ll have people say, ‘I just don’t like that flag.’
“Here’s my idea,” Bryan continues with a chortle. “A blank flag with lettering that says ‘Flag to come soon … In God We Trust.’”
In the 1940s, the Dixiecrats, a short-lived segregationist political party prominent in Mississippi, adopted the Confederate battle flag as a rallying symbol. Their goal: hold on to white supremacy and continue segregation within schools and businesses.
Eighty years later, Mississippi’s schools are still segregated, in a way. Segregation academies appeared throughout Mississippi after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered public schools to desegregate in 1954, giving white families an alternate, pricey route for their children. Dozens of academies, privately operated in the state, remain to this day. They even compete in separate athletic divisions from public schools.
A 2012 Southern Education Foundation study found that while only 50% of school-age students in Mississippi are white, nearly 87% of private school enrollment is white.
Joe Moorhead, a white Northeasterner who had never lived in the Deep South, was hired in December 2017 to replace Dan Mullen as Mississippi State’s head coach. He enrolled all three of his children in the Starkville public school system. His youngest son was the only white kid on the football team.
“I feel like we were embraced by the community by how much my wife, myself and kids didn’t look at it along racial lines,” says Moorhead, who was fired in January after two seasons and is now the offensive coordinator at Oregon. “We wanted to be part of the community, and the Starkville community is very diverse.”
In Hill’s hometown of Columbus, public school enrollment is 92% Black and 4% white, according to data from the Mississippi Department of Education.
About two miles from Columbus High School, on a hot July day, city officials presented Hill with the key to the city during a ceremony at the Columbus Municipal Complex. Marcus Hunter, a former Mississippi State football player who now works as a morning news anchor for a Jackson television station, was one of the featured speakers. He delivered a brief history of the Mississippi flag and praised Hill’s tweet.
“Kylin paved the way for the flag finally coming down,” Hunter, who is Black, told the crowd, “and he did it knowing that he was putting everything on the line, everything that he had worked so hard for.”
At the start, Hill did plan to sit out the 2020 season in protest, but he never planned to transfer, he says. Spending his senior season at another school, in another city, away from his home state, was never an option. From the time of his tweet to the time lawmakers passed the flag bill, eight days passed.
With each day, he thought less and less about following through on sitting out. He told school administrators, who helped him prepare for the worst: staying at Mississippi State and playing football under the old flag. He talked to his mom, who was concerned. What if they don’t change it?!
After enough thought, Hill acknowledges that he would have played in 2020. He didn’t want to abandon his teammates. “At that time, I wasn’t going to play. That was my mindset at first. But the more being with my teammates and seeing them push me and back me up 100% and seeing them put out tweets …” Hill says, trailing off.
The focus now is football. The Bulldogs and first-year coach Leach kick off their 10-game, conference-only season with a game Saturday at defending national champion LSU. It is the featured matchup of the SEC’s first weekend of competition, with a nationally televised audience watching on CBS.
Hill is expected to be a critical piece of Leach’s Air Raid offense, a versatile player who can tote the rock as well as catch it. He enters the season 1,517 rushing yards shy of the school’s career record held by Anthony Dixon, and his 11 100-yard games are sixth-most in school history. In a most remarkable streak, Hill has not lost a fumble since his sophomore season in high school, estimated at more than 700 touches—a testament to his Goliath-strength arms.
For all of his on-field accomplishments, his legacy in this state may be affixed not to rushing records and touchdown streaks but to a 97-character, 18-word tweet. Hill hopes that’s not the case, but deep down, he knows the truth. “I think it’s going to be more off the field, but it’s all good,” he says. “I just want to be remembered as a guy who took a stand, who wasn’t scared, who always kept it positive and kept it moving forward.”
He thinks back to that day lying in his bed. He’d seen enough, he’d heard enough, he’d had enough. So, at 1:09 p.m. on that Monday in June, Hill published his message, rolled over on his side, buried himself in covers and took a nap—only awakened by that knock on his door.
“Bruh. You’re everywhere.”