If Chris Hemphill’s college career could be likened to a game of craps, he definitely rolled snake eyes. The former Washington Husky played during the years that Tyrone Willingham coached in Seattle. And that proved to be a dose of terrible misfortune.
As a safety, Hemphill was rangy, fast and powerful. He consistently awed his teammates in practice. During his sophomore season, he earned a spot on the Pac-10 All-Academic team. His future seemed as bright as Caesar’s Palace at night.
But Hemphill played for a UW football program so horrifically mismanaged that his career never got off the ground. He only made two starts. And with two weeks left in his junior season of 2006, Willingham took away his senior season, along with a handful of other players.
As I interviewed dozens of UW players in order to write Bow Down to Willingham, one player after another sang Hemphill’s praises.
“Chris was a great athlete,” said former teammate and NFL veteran C.J. Wallace. “There were things he could do athletically that even I couldn’t do. It was like Willingham wanted to hide him. It was like he didn’t want to let Chris shine.”
Ex-Husky and current Denver Bronco Stanley Daniels was just as adamant.
Hemphill was so talented… He was a great teammate and a great guy. He was 6’5” and 230 pounds and ballin’. Willingham takes away his scholarship because he didn’t like him. We were all so upset at Willingham… You don’t take away a kid’s fifth year because you don’t like him. You can’t expect the remaining players to be okay with that. I will never be okay with that. And it’s hard for me as a black man to say that because I am a Willingham supporter.
Hemphill transferred to Central Washington University for his senior season in 2007. He was a Division II All-American and helped Central reach the third round in the playoffs.
The next three years proved bumpy. For starters, he never got an invite to the NFL combine. According to his agent, Chris Cates, the word from the Washington coaches was that Hemphill was un-coachable and to be avoided.
The 2008 NFL draft came and went without his name being mentioned, which wasn’t a surprise. But Hemphill was taken aback by the lack of a free-agent offer.
“The phone never rang,” Hemphill said recently. “It was a disappointment. I thought for sure that someone would sign me to a free-agent contract. I was pretty bummed about that.”
In May of 2008, the Buffalo Bills invited him to mini-camp. This was to be his big chance.
“On the second day I ended up tearing my groin in one-on-one drills," Hemphill said. "I was having a good workout, doing good ball drills, jumping high, showing good hands, showing good hip movement. But just like that it was back to square one.”
For the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Hemphill toiled in the Arena League. He played for Orlando, Spokane, Tri-Cities and Utah. Injuries plagued him. At one point he re-injured his groin, causing him to miss valuable time. While at Utah, he tore his quad in the second quarter of his first game. He returned home, moped around the house a bit, and tried to stay positive.
Now, with the 2011 season in the offing, Hemphill is back to full strength. Every time the phone rings he is on it like Deion Sanders covering a wide receiver. He has sent video to a prospective scout of his two Washington starts. The video is of those games in which he had 24 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery.
His agent is putting out feelers and has told Hemphill to remain hopeful of signing this fall with a UFL team.
“I’m working out, staying in shape and staying ready for the call to get a workout with a UFL team,” Hemphill says.
When asked if thoughts of Willingham still occupy his mind, he says: “I’ve thought about him a couple times because I haven’t heard his name in the media. I wondered if he was retired or if he hung it up. I know he went 0-12 (in 2008) before they fired him, so I don’t know how he would get another job after going 0-12.
“I haven’t thought to contact him or wish him ill will. I wish him the best in whatever he’s involved with. I’m not a vindictive person or anything, but I felt like I got the bad end of the deal. If he regrets what happened I’ll never know, but that’s as far as it goes in terms of my thoughts toward him.”
The deck is stacked against Chris Hemphill's name ever being announced by an NFL announcer. But he refuses to surrender.
“That will be a wonderful day to step onto a NFL field,” he says. “I will have so many people to thank who have been supportive of me and helped in keeping me going through the tough times—to help me succeed and fulfill the dream.”
Derek Johnson is the author of three books including his latest, Bow Down to Willingham: How White Guilt Enabled a Secretly Malicious Coach to Destroy the Once-Mighty Washington Huskies. You can read a free excerpt at derekjohnsonbooks.com.