Scholar-athletes Grant Rivers and Steffon Hill are longtime friends, playing for rival high school football teams with zest for life, teamwork, Christian fellowship and community service.
Hill’s East Henderson and Rivers’ Hendersonville High are their respective conference’s frontrunner, with prospects for deep playoff runs. East looks for its first state title in football, coming closest in 2008 when reaching 2-AA title semifinals. HHS last won it all in 1968 and ’69. East is in larger 3-A, HHS in 1-A.
Hill sees the Eagles as conference champions, and much more. “We have a state champion team. We have to work for it. We share a common goal to do what it takes to win.” Rivers is eager to “earn” a state crown. A good omen is the state title game is Dec. 1, the birthday of his father Gary Rivers. Father’s birthday gift request is in. “I’m prepared to go to (defending 1-AA champ and top-ranked) Swain and kick some butt” in playoffs, Grant Rivers said.
Last fall, HHS missed that matchup when upset by upstart Mitchell. East also lost twice to a conference rival (Franklin), including in a road playoff.
But this year Hendersonville beat 3-A power Asheville in week two, making true River’s preseason pledge to “prove people wrong” and beat other area elites.
East’s biggest victory was at HHS in week three, in the titanic clash for Henderson County supremacy. Hendersonville led until the final quarter, when East scored three unanswered touchdowns to win 43-33. It was Eagle seniors’ first win against HHS. Rivers and Hill each made dynamic, zigzagging long runs.
These two stars are among their teams’ leaders. Rivers is Hendersonville High School Student Body president, band clarinet player, two-time reigning state high jump champion, and standout on basketball Cats who went unbeaten into the third round of 2012 playoffs. He has Ivy league (Columbia et al) invitations.
Quarterback Rivers threw for 777 yards and six touchdowns in his first four games. He is 50 yards ahead of his pace in 2011, when he threw for 1,884 yards. He ranked third in passer rating in 1-A, and best among incoming seniors.
East’s Hill is also a senior with fine grades getting college looks, in his case including Georgia Tech also Wake Forest — which Rivers is considering. Hill’s dream is to “do whatever it takes” to play in college, then professionally. He is a superstar receiver and kick returner, and ferocious-hitting safety. He topped 1,000 all-purpose yards in ’11. He caught 43 passes for 814 yards (19 ypc.), and eight touchdowns.
He often darts through defenses, off of screens. “I take pride in making the first guy miss,” he said. “Adrenalin flows extra. It’s really fun.” Hill is sure-handed, and a game-breaker, Coach Chappell said. “He leaps. He’s fast. He’s strong, a very physical runner and blocker. He gets into the end zone.”
Rivers is composed with improved arm strength and accuracy, head coach B.J. Laughter said. East’s Hill said “if you blitz him, Grant makes you pay.” Rivers values calmness in sports. In approaching the high jump bar, nerves are “controlled adrenalin, with absolute focus” on timing and technique. And as a QB, he focuses on the main receiver and throwing motion “no matter if you’re getting hit at full speed. You have to give up yourself, to get the pass off.”
He “loves” game pressure. Coach Laughter said, “We count on Grant, to lead us when it’s tough. He’s steady and doesn’t panic.” Rivers said, “I have to dig deep. I remind others to focus, and avoid penalties and mistakes. They normally do … They don’t need me to be lose my cool, or the train will derail.”
Hill said of East senior lefty QB Seth Owen, “if he’s flushed out of the pocket, I know his tendencies and which route to switch to.” Similarly, Rivers often hooks up with swift, evasive flanker Shawn Rogers for long gains. Rogers and D.J. Wilson each scored twice against East. Then multi-threat Rogers tallied three scores, including a 51-yard “pick six,” versus North Henderson on Friday as senior DeSean Jackson ran for 239 yards and three TDs.
Armed with superstar passing combos, East and Hendersonville sizzled against each other then last Friday. Visiting HHS outscored North Henderson 75-49, and East demolished Robbinsville 63-42. Owen threw for an East-record five TDs. Hill scored three times, and had two other TDs nullified by penalties.
In The Game locally, East’s Matt Bishop check-mated HHS for 248 yards on 27 carries and four TDs, after Logan Jones hurt his ankle early. “I just follow the big boys, then make my cuts,” Bishop said of East’s 280-pound blockers. They wore the smaller Cats. QB Owen raced in for a key two-point conversion. He said “we were determined” to storm back. Athletic tight end Tyler Sexton said “nothing would stop us.”
Not when led by so many athletes, as both squads are. Rivers is 6-foot-1 and Hill 5-11. Both weigh 180 pounds. Hill runs the 40-yard dash in a brisk 4.5, and has quick initial burst. Rivers runs a 4.6, picking up speed. Both are majestic leapers. Rivers won the high jump state crown the last two springs. He holds the school record at 6 feet, 8 inches. This year, he won state in high jump and was fourth in 110 hurdles, and won the region in long jump. Hill was top five in 3-A state, in hop-skipping triple jump at 46 feet and 1 1/2 inches for his best ever. He does jumping aerobics.
In football, the two buddies also produce on defense. Hill likes to “pump up” teammates and fans by delivering a “‘kill shot’ on a receiver going over the middle, break up a pass or force a fumble. Or when someone goes deep on you, and you bat the ball down, or intercept it to end their hopes of a big play.”
Rivers said, as a cornerback, “I enjoy getting into the receiver’s face, messing with them, talking a little bit of trash.” He rarely covered Hill in their latest matchup but, last year, “popped him pretty good.” They congratulated each other after their contests. Hill noted Rivers gave him tips when working out together this summer, ahead of team sessions. Rivers calls Hill a “hard worker.”
Personable Role Models
“Steffon is honest, and creative with his humor,” he added. “If he sees someone feeling down, he figures what they would laugh at. He connects with people.” In turn, Hill points to faith and confidence in oft-smiling Grant Rivers. “He’s a man of God. He’s a great leader,” very “genuine” and likable. Hill said it is pivotal to shed any self-doubt and “trust in God. If that’s what he planned for me…” Tim Tebow aside, most star athletes do not profess faith. These two locals do.
They also serve as role models. Rivers advises younger students to “make the right decisions,” such as to shun peer pressure and avoid drugs and tobacco. “I love the whole idea of ‘giving back.’ If I didn’t have the people I had around me growing up, I wouldn’t be the same person.”
Hill reads to elementary youths. “After a game, a lil’ kid looks up. He wants to be like me. It makes you think, ‘am I doing the right thing, all of the time?’”
He was East team manager when Michael Angram wowed crowds, in 2005. “I’d tell him I wanted to be just like him,” Hill recalls. He follows East’s succession of athletic heroes in tailback (TB) Angram, WR-KR Michael Corbett, TB Michael Robinson, QB Chase Hill, WR Rakim Waters, then TB Shack Davis in 2010.
Hill’s parents are Grover “Boogie” Hill and Kenya Hill. Boogie starred in football for HHS and Mars Hill. Kenya ran hurdles, in Belton, S.C. Steffon’s first cousin Cam Hill was HHS team MVP in ’11. Jameson Hill, a 2008 East grad, is a starting cornerback for semi-pro Asheville Grizzlies. Athletic cousins also include senior Daphne Hill for North Henderson and Philip Hill as a middle school receiver.
The Rivers family has athletic and academic achievers. Multi-sport HHS star Gary Rivers (Class of 1975) played baseball for the University of Tennessee. He has coached HHS baseball, and served as Blue Ridge Community College athletic director. Gary’s wife Colleen ran track. Her father Collin Anderson played cricket in Bermuda.
Grant’s grandmother Ruby Jackson Rivers taught middle school, for 20 years. She and son Gary co-founded Youth Academic Enhancement in elementary schools, and Project EdGE (Education General Electric) scholarships for HHS students. Grant calls his sister Andrea, a UNC-Chapel Hill junior, a “brainiac.”
Grant Rivers wants to study law, or to be a preacher. He said his father is “always telling me that God has a plan for me. He’s going to guide and protect me. Winning a state championship has to be God-led, from beginning to end.”