From Leg Braces to the Big Leagues: Rickey Hill’s Unbelievable Baseball Story Brought to Screen
From being born with a defect that required braces on his legs, to dreams of playing major league baseball.. the story of Rickey Hill is incredible. An unshakeable hope, and a drive, that beats all odds, his story comes to theatres in The Hill. His dad, played by Dennis Quaid, is a Baptist preacher and hopes Rickey will follow in his footsteps with his sharp mind for scripture… Rickey’s faith in his God-given talents is what propels him to overcome what seem to be insurmountable obstacles, and miracle after miracle, will have you on the edge of your seat as this true story unfolds.
We sat down with Rickey Hill and director Jeff Celentano to learn more about Rickey’s story, how it was actually Jeff’s brother that led him to meeting Hill and the emotional affect this script has on all those who read or watch. Plus, the significance of a cross drawn in the dirt during a ballgame!
Interviewed for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Rickey, your story is beyond amazing. So maybe just start off and set it up for us. Talk a little bit about how you were born and you needed these leg braces, but that did not stop you from pursuing your dreams.
Rickey Hill: Zero through four years old, it was really a big obstacle in my life. I can’t tell you how many surgeries, I don’t know, but there were several, because I didn’t remember any of them really, to be honest with you. And then when it became obvious that when I was five, I started going into braces and then trying to get the legs where they would move out rather than touching one another.
And back then, you didn’t have anything. No one could fix it just a deal you couldn’t fix. And plus, they were small. They were small, frail. And then as I got a little older, it didn’t stop me. I hit rocks all day long anyway. I hit rocks because it was called free. They were free to hit rocks. And so if it didn’t cost money, I got to do it, one of those deals. So I just hit a lot of rocks all day long. I mean, I would actually hit rocks sometimes 16 hours a day.
And so it actually, believe it or not, it dealt me a great hand of having an excellent baseball swing because when it come time to get them off, I was just tagging them. Because you’re hitting a little rock. And if you’re hitting a stick with a rock, that’s very hard to do. But that helped my vision, helped me making contact with the ball, even helped me with the stance, even though you’re kind of depleted with your legs. But still, learned all of it right there. It became a natural deal with me.
RM: Jeff, I know your journey began with your brother, actually, right? Years and years ago. Talk about how you even learned of Rickey’s story.
Jeff Celentano: I will, and I wanted to tell you a little bit about Rickey too. His will and determination and tenacity is unbelievable. I’ve never met anybody like him, but he does not stop. He and I have been together on this movie for 17, well, probably 20 years now, almost.
And just trying to get it made. My brother was in a lobby of a hotel and Rickey was sitting next to him and he overheard Rickey on the phone talking about trying to find a director for his movie. And when he hung up, my brother leaned over and said, “Listen, I heard … I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I think I have someone you might be interested in. My brother’s perfect for the film that you just described. He’s got a big heart and he loves this kind of movie, and you should meet him.”
And so Mark called me at eight o’clock at night and he said, “I’m sending you a script. Can you read it tonight and meet Rickey in the morning?” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah. I mean, send it to me.” So I read the script and it was a spiritual connection immediately. I got very emotional reading it. I loved Rickey’s character and what he went through. I fell in love with the movie and I fell in love with just the whole story. And I just had to get it made. It was something that just overcame me. I can’t explain it. It got inside me and it wouldn’t leave. And all my friends were like, “Jeff, it’s been years. Move on.” I said, “I’m never giving up on this story. Forrest Gump took 12 years to get made, or 15, so I got to just keep going.”
And so consequently, it’s funny, there’s a lot of similarities to Forrest Gump and this movie, and not just the leg braces, but Rickey and Forrest both had this innocence about them, this sweet kind of nature where they would just keep going. And no matter what anybody said or did, they just believed in themselves and wouldn’t listen to anything but their heart. And that’s what turned me onto this movie, because I’m kind of that way myself. I don’t take no for an answer. My glass is always half full. So that’s how it all started.
And then to abbreviate how it got made was it went through many incantations of different financiers. And I met a guy in a completely weird circumstance. I was coaching him as an actor. He was an investor on a movie. He never acted before. He asked me if I had anything. I pitched him The Hill, and he called me and said, “I’ll get the money in three weeks.” And I laughed and said, “I’ve heard that before.” And three weeks later, they called me and said, “I have an investor on the phone who wants to put a million dollars in.” I talked to him and he said, “Pitch me the movie.” And something happened again, a spiritual thing happened. I started telling this story that I’ve told 100,000 times and it just took me from inside and got… it just became very emotional. And Ron became very emotional, Ron Cundy, and he said, “Can I call you back in 20 minutes?” And I didn’t know what that meant. And I said, “Sure.” I thought maybe he’s going to be in for the million dollars. And he called me back 20 minutes later and said, “I want to fund the whole movie. I want to own it. This is an unbelievable story.” Every family member will be able to go see this movie and love it and not feel like there’s anything negative at all other than inspiration and goodness. And that’s what we all need in the world today. So that’s how it all started.
RM: I couldn’t agree more. And Rickey, I’d love for you to talk about this. One of the things that I think, while it’s your life story and it is wrapped in baseball, one of the things that I think is so universal is this idea of, and especially now, is people feel like everything’s stacked against them or an obstacle is too big that they can’t conquer it. What advice can you give or how did it work for you so that you were able to get through some of those tougher times and stay focused on a dream or have that kind of unshakeable hope?
RH: Well, you heard a while ago when he said his glass was half full? Mine was always full.
Mine’s always full, because I don’t believe in the… like said before to other people already, I don’t like losing and I don’t care what it is or what it takes, if I have to die for a fly ball and go through the wall of a baseball game, which I did and did go through the wall. Yes, I broke 38 different bones. Yes, I did. But I just don’t believe in anything halfway.
When I was speaking to these people earlier about quitting, I didn’t … There’s no such word as quit, never even heard of it. I just go full steam. And it’s what God’s given me. My father gave it to me. Same way when I was going to be a Baptist preacher, I thought I was going to be the best Baptist preacher. I was going to be the next Billy Graham.
Getting through all the obstacles was the tough part. And then to find out when you’re 16 or 17 years old that you have no disc in your spine, really a big disappointment because it changed everything, to me being in pain almost every day playing. And even though I got to sign a major league contract, it’s an absolute miracle that that happened. And even the night of the ending of the movie was an absolute miracle. It ends in a miracle. Jeff will tell you the same thing.
JC: Oh, it’s a miracle. I mean, the end of the movie is unexpected. I mean, as you know, people can’t even believe what he did. I mean, he didn’t just go out there and try out for a baseball team. He went out and did a magical thing. That was my word throughout the whole movie, magic. This movie’s magical. It’s almost fantasy.
I mean, Dennis [Quaid] read the script and said, “Did this kid actually do this? Is this a really true story?” I said, “Yeah, I validated it all. It’s all documented. And he really did it.” I have so much memorabilia of Rickey that I’ve collected over the years, just pennants and pins and all kinds of different articles on Rickey’s success and what he did, that I said to Dennis, “I have it all documented in a book if you want to see it.” He’s like, “No, I believe you.”
And then Dennis spent two hours with Rickey and he came to work the next day and Dennis said, “Holy smokes. Rickey’s quite a character, man. He’s got so much passion for what he does in life.” I said, “That’s what drove him to do what he did in the movie.” I said, “And he knows the Bible back to front.” I called his sister one day because I said, “You know what, I got to ask you about this preaching part of Rickey. Is this real? At eight years old?” And she said, “Jeff, he used to pull the little stool up and sit right in the front door and he would preach to the whole family. He had us captivated.” Rickey will tell you. He had a little pulpit that he would beat and imitate his father. And so he does one equally as good as the other.
My wife is a very devout Christian and knows the Bible. Rickey sometimes is astounded how much she knows, but when he starts speaking, she’s like, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t even … And that part I didn’t read.” Or, “That part I didn’t decipher.” And then Rickey has a whole idea of that section. So anyway.
RH: The night that it happened, I call it the big night. I stepped in there and man, these chills came up and down my body. These chills just came down my body. And for the first time, I got to feel the Holy Spirit flow through my body, my veins, and I knew it was my night.
JC: I can tell you, when he told me that the first time, the way he described it was he went through a lot of steps in that last scene in the movie. And he was still Rickey going through those steps as a person. And then when he came down to the wire, when he was facing the biggest challenge of the night, something that he could not overcome, I can’t tell you what happens, but they pitted him against something that was almost impossible to overcome. And Rickey said …
Something happened right before that you saw in the movie that’s devastating to him. He said it was like a freight train hit him. I don’t want to say what it was, but he said he stood up and he didn’t think he could go on. And so this is what he told me, and I’m just repeating the feeling I got. He said this Holy Spirit came inside of him and he stood up and he didn’t even know where he was and even who he was at that moment, and the thing overtook him. And he said, “That’s the only way I could do that last thing in the movie that I did was because I was not myself. It was in me, overtaking that moment in a really amazing way.” And he goes, “That’s when I really knew … always knew that God is controlling everything.”
RH: Plus, I drew the cross in the dirt every time.
JC: That’s right. That’s right. I love that. It’s a great scene.
RH: I drew the cross in the dirt and I always stood on the cross every time I got to bat. I’m the very last … No one has ever even done this in baseball ever. No one’s ever drawn a cross.
JC: That’s his signature.
RH: That’s my signature.
RM: That needs to be adopted. I’m going to tell my eight-year-old-son that’s going to be his new…
RH: We could start it. Just start it. Period. But I drew a cross-
JC: It would be neat.
RH: From the time I was 12 years old, 10 years old, I drew the cross. Or you’d have people do this, but I’m not Catholic. I was a Baptist and we had Baptist rules. So anyway, saying that, yeah, I drew a cross every time and I always had the faith with me the whole time of my lifetime. That’s why I thought I was so good. That’s why.