- Associated Press - Friday, October 30, 2015

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) - Michael “Tiny” Hill Jr. boxed like he was playing chess.

He had a sense for how he might get hit, when he might get hit, and how fast the punch would come, three or four steps ahead of his opponent’s move.

“I was a defensive fighter; I didn’t like to get hit,” Hill told the Hutchinson News (https://bit.ly/1GyNtwb ). “I was small, scary in a sense. I never wanted to engage in conflict. It was the best decision ever made for me when I started boxing.”

Hill’s first passion, and the only thing he said he was good at when his mother introduced him to the sport at the age of 6, led to Golden Gloves championships, Silver Mitten champions and a chance to go to nationals.

That same intuition Hill used to stay ahead of his opponent in the boxing ring is the same skill he uses to keep his family safe from danger and to instruct life skill classes as the program director at the Reno County Correctional Facility.

But for years Hill ignored that intuition as he led a life filled with drugs and imprisonment.

“When I was using, I put myself in bad situations,” Hill said. “I knew police could come here, I could get killed, or something could go wrong. I tried to count on that to keep me safe in those areas that didn’t look right, but, you know, when you’re making choices to use and get high, and have an addiction, I just had to have it.

“I wish I would’ve paid attention to it. It makes you ignore life-threatening situations knowing you have a family that needs you.”

During high school, Hill started smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. He started hanging around with people he had no reason to be around, but he ignored his reasoning and started using cocaine. When he was 17, his drug of choice was crack cocaine, to which he admits held him addicted for 20 years.

Hill’s addiction led him to commit crimes to support a habit he couldn’t shake. He was convicted of two felonies, aggravated robbery and robbery, as well as possession of opiates, and possession of narcotics with the intent to sell. He spent eight consecutive years in prison, and four years in and out of jail for violating his probation. His time in jail destroyed family relationships; he hasn’t seen his 20-year-old son since he was a 2-year-old toddler.

Loading his body with poisonous drugs caused Hill to lose his self-respect and cast away any dream he had of a boxing career.

“When I lost that, I lost a piece of me,” Hill said of his boxing career. “I never got to mourn all I’ve done until I started getting clean. I never got the chance to sincerely apologize to all the people I’ve damaged.”

But Hill said his admission of his addiction, wrecked relationships and shattered passion has built and made him who he is today. “A lot of people ask me if I could change any of that, would you? But I don’t think I would,” he said. “God allowed me to go through some of that stuff to prepare me to help other people. Desire is no longer there because something is stronger there, the desire to help others in any capacity that I can through programs or talking to them.”

Hill’s desire to help others who were in his shoes led him to the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas (SACK) in Hutchinson. From there, he traveled to Wichita to work for Higher Ground, which is an alcohol and substance abuse program. He found himself back in Hutchinson after a past coach-like figure reached out to him.

The voice was constantly in Hill’s ear, asking, “What are you doing with your life?” ”You’re a good kid” and “You don’t need to go down this road in your life.” Most of it fell on deaf ears, but little pieces over time stuck to him. That voice was Reno County Sheriff Randy Henderson, who previously worked for the Drug Enforcement Unit.

Henderson arrested, interrogated and investigated Hill multiple times. But through Henderson’s career, he was one of the officers to whom Hill said he felt some type of connection.

“I threw him to the wolves because I had no idea how to set this up,” Henderson said of the life skills program at the correctional facility. “I needed this because I needed someone who can reach inmates. He gives what he felt like he was lacking when he was in the system.”

Hill recently graduated six male and five female inmates at the jail from life skills programs. The program is a five-week class that teaches communication, monitoring, role modeling, consistent discipline, warning signs and taking a clear stance against drugs.

Henderson hired Hill before the opening of the new jail as the program director, but officially became the director when the jail opened on Aug. 12.

“When he made that decision, he knew I wasn’t going to be that person anymore and he could trust me,” Hill said. “I’m looked at as an employee and not an ex-con. It’s earned.”

Henderson said he spoke with staff when he made the decision to hire Hill. The sheriff said he couldn’t put place Hill in the facility if the staff wasn’t going to respect him. The staff, however, said that when Hill was incarcerated, he never was disrespectful. “We’re not here to judge people,” Henderson said. “We’re just the keeper of the keys.”

As of Oct. 12, the Reno County Correctional Facility had a total of seven groups: Peer Support, Substance Abuse Program, GED, Anger Management, Seeking Safety and a mental health class.

Hill recalled a time when he was in the old jail and was asked to speak to multiple inmates in a cell. One was uninterested as he laid in his bunk. His back was turned toward Hill and the other inmates. “‘That’s where I was lying’ for eight years,” Hill told the inmate.

“I take that personal,” Hill said. “Why can’t they see what I see? I can see their future and where they are headed, and it’s like, I’m trying to help them and they don’t want it. That hurts pretty bad.”

Without hesitation, Hill will gladly pull out his criminal history and show pictures from when he was still high, uncaring, as well as his disciplinary reports from prison, to prove to inmates his story is real.

Hill knows he could find himself in the programs if he doesn’t tap into his boxing instincts that allowed him to dodge trouble in the ring.

Hill presented himself as a target long enough to make his opponents fall into a trap to counterpunch, which takes discipline. When he learned the fundamentals of boxing, he said he had to be obedient to his training, which he now uses to stay clean. His faith in his defensive style gives him the ability to think a little further on how he is supposed to carry himself to not let his children down, his wife down, or the sheriff down, and his whole family, he said.

“I’m not in a drug house,” Hill said. “My choice of friends has changed. I’ve been married a little over a year now. I knew my life had to change. Anything worth having is worth going through it. That is about as real as I can explain it.”

Hill has a 22-year-old daughter, Joslyn, and Jaylen, 20, Justice, 8, and two stepchildren, Erica and Taylor Long.

Now Hill wakes up in the morning, prepares 8-year-old Justice for school, and ponders, “Why me?”

“When I think about God, I think about when my case was going on,” he said. “I was possibly looking at 35 years in prison. Why was I found not guilty of that crime that I openly admit I played a role in? When I say why me, I think about how God saved my life, and I think about where I’ve come from and where I’m at now.”

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Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, https://www.hutchnews.com

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