Rickey Hill 'completely blown away' by popularity of biopic on Netflix

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Rickey Hill’s phone hasn’t blown up like this in, well … ever. But he doesn’t mind too much.

All the calls — hundreds per day, he estimates — plus a bunch of accompanying texts, come with varying shades of friendly sentiment, because it’s hard to be unkind to a guy whose feel-good story was the basis for a movie currently hitting surprisingly spectacular popularity.

“The Hill,” released in theaters last year to a moderate response, has surged to a triumphant second inning since being brought to Netflix earlier this month. The film, starring Dennis Quaid, tells the uplifting tale of former baseball pro Hill, now 66, and how he remarkably overcame a degenerative hereditary spine disease to accomplish his dream of a career on the diamond.

“I’ve even been getting calls from some ladies asking if I’m (still) married,” Hill said with a laugh during one of two long phone conversations with FOX Sports Insider on Monday. (For the record, he isn’t, and he’s not looking too hard.) 

“But I have been completely blown away by the whole thing,” he continued. “I am in total shock, to be honest. Ever since the movie hit Netflix, it has been out of control to see how much interest is there. I can’t believe it — but I’m starting to believe it.”

Hill, who has lived in Fort Worth, Texas, for the past decade, has watched the movie 25 times on account of various friends and family members wishing to enjoy a viewing in his company. He already had a pretty good idea of how the finished product was going to look, after spending most filming days on set in Georgia to offer advice to cast members such as Quaid and Colin Ford, as well as director Jeff Celentano.

Part of the movie’s appeal is that it is a rare sports film where the chief character’s tale is largely unknown, with Hill’s career taking place during the 1970s and stalling after a devastating injury while playing in the minor leagues.

Rickey Hill, shown signing baseballs for fans, says “it has been out of control to see how much interest” there is in his story. (Photo courtesy of Ron Gourley)

First things first, however, and the unanimous thing that every film-watcher is left wondering after completing the biopic is centered on what life holds in store for Hill these days.

Just before the final credits roll, the epilogue states Hill was a golf instructor and Little League coach in the Fort Worth area. However, his current status is somewhat different.

Hill has found success as a financial planner, has investment interests in a pair of coal mines, and is in increasingly high demand as a jovial and entertaining motivational speaker. His golfing activities are mostly restricted to recreational rounds and charity appearances, when the daily pain caused by his spinal condition allows.

“I live with pain all the time,” he said. “It is just part of my life and always has been. I’m used to it, and I don’t let it bother me too much. It is an old friend.”

[Reuniting Rickey Hill with his ring, 37 years later]

Hill has undergone multiple surgeries since childhood and currently has screws, a steel rod and “cage” contraptions inserted into his back. As depicted on screen, he had his legs in braces for years as a kid, yet developed a powerful and accurate swing by taking cuts with a makeshift bat and hitting rocks from a bucket for hours per day.

Currently, he can’t launch into a full and unrestricted golf swing, but is hoping his condition holds out for long enough to allow him to participate in some events on an upcoming celebrity links tour.

Picking up where the film left off, Hill played six years in pro ball, not four as the epilogue suggested. He spent time in the Montreal Expos farm system from 1975 onward and was playing for the Grays Harbor Loggers (search the Loggers and Bill Murray for an awesome tangent), a co-op team affiliated with the San Diego Padres system in 1979, when his body finally failed him.

Hill believes he was close to a major-league opportunity at the time, but slid headfirst into second base during a game, and, as he puts it, “never got up,” suffering from temporary paralysis due to spinal damage.

Grueling rehabilitation followed for more than a year, and his baseball days, which had taken him to offseason leagues in Venezuela, Mexico, Italy, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and several levels of the North American minors, were over.

Thankfully, for those who enjoyed his story, which spent several days as Netflix’s No. 1 most-watched movie and sat in the 2-spot as of Monday night, the interpretation of his tale has not suffered at the hands of overzealous Hollywoodization. Hill was appreciative of the efforts of director Celentano to keep the story authentic and with minimal embellishment in the name of commercial appeal.

“I am very happy with the job they did,” Hill said. “What you see, that’s how it was, and maybe that comes through and is why people like it. I feel very fortunate to have had the life I’ve had. The film has a lot of elements, and it shows family values in a poor family. We have a lot of murder and nonsense on television these days. This is just something real.”

One small modification was made to alter Hill’s now-ex-wife’s name.

Hill talks with friend and Los Angeles Angels infield coach Benji Gil in 2023. (Photo courtesy Ron Gourley)

The plot initially came from a short story about Rickey, written by his brother in the 1970s, and at that time made its way to various studio script evaluators. However, Rickey Hill resisted involvement in a movie project for years, fearful it might be an unwelcome intrusion while his elderly parents were both battling illness.

He changed his stance around two decades ago, and the rest is a slightly unexpected slice of sports movie history. 

“The Hill” garnered some attention when it first came out, but the timing was poor — the writers’ strike meant Quaid was prohibited from doing any publicity for the movie.

The power of streaming, however, meant the last few weeks have been a whirlwind.

“It has been overwhelming for him at points but also uplifting,” said Texas businessman Ron Gourley, Hill’s close friend for the past 36 years. “I think it is hard for him to get his head around the number of people who have watched the movie and the attention and credit he is getting at last. But make no mistake, he deserves every bit of it.”

Hill, with longtime friend Ron Gourley in San Diego, no longer plays as much golf as he used to, because of his spinal condition. (Photo courtesy Ron Gourley)

Hill can almost recite the movie word for word at this point, but is looking forward to a few more viewings in the company of those close to him.

“I can see that it’s a good story, but it is strange for me to look at it that way,” he said. “To me, it is just my life, just how it is.”

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.


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