A Season to Savor – Football – Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

A season to savor: Linebacker Ace Eley had an ACC-caliber senior season for Georgia Tech. What makes it even more special? For the first time in his career, he was able to share it with his father, RB coach Donald Hill-Eley

By Andy Demetra | Inside the chart

There’s never a perfect time to get fired, but Donald Hill-Eley thought he would make the most of it.

In November 2021, he was fired as Alabama State head coach, seven games into his sixth season. His son, Ayinde “As”‘ Eleywas about to conclude his senior season as a linebacker at Georgia Tech, but had already decided to return for an additional year of eligibility in 2022.

Rather than chase another job and throw yourself into a 33rd– A direct downfall from coaching at the college or pro level, Hill-Eley decided to move his family to Atlanta so he could watch Ace’s entire final season in person.

For two decades, Donald and Ace had lived a paradoxical life together, both bound and separated by football. The endless hours of a head coach, caring for hundreds of children other than his own, had prevented Donald from playing a more involved role in his own son’s career.

“It was a situation where as a coach you just prepare for it to be part of the sacrifice,” he said.

He watched tapes of Ace’s matches. He was listening to his training recaps. He offered his wisdom over the phone. But that could only fill him so much.

Hill-Eley had missed too many moments, deprived himself of too many memories, pushed away too many regrets. Ace still had one college football season left, and after all those years of sacrifice, he was determined to make up for lost time.

It turned into a more glorious downfall than either could have imagined.

In early August, Eley was added to Georgia Tech’s coaching staff as an offensive analyst. In October, he was elevated to Tech running backs coach, his first full-time assistant coaching position at the Power-5 level. And he’s watched every one of Ace’s team-leading 107 tackles, a number that ranks second in the ACC and has him vying for all-conference honors.

Ayinde Eley (2) is the first NCAA Division I FBS player since 2016 with 107 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in the 11 his team’s first games of a season.

“To be able to attend these games now as a coach, to be able to watch him every day in training, it’s a dream come true,” he said. “Just being able to be on the same bus, on the same journey, on the same route, is a blessing.”

Added Ace, who transferred to Tech in January 2021 after three seasons at the University of Maryland: “Throughout my football career, there’s never really been a time when we’re in the same building. or sometimes even in the same condition during football season. . So that’s just awesome. This is my last varsity season and it’s great to have him here throughout history.

Ace’s nickname, naturally, originated in a coach’s office. When Donald, then offensive coordinator at Hampton, proudly proclaimed to his offensive line coach John Wright that he and his wife had named their newborn son Ayinde Claude Eley – Claude after Donald’s grandfather, Ayinde for the Yoruba phrase “I prayed that he came” – Taylor knew he would be outdone.

“He was like, ‘I don’t know how to pronounce Ayinde, so we’ll just call him Ace.’ And that name has followed him since he was born,” said Hill-Eley (Donald remains one of the few resisters who still calls him Ayinde).

Thus began a relationship forged in football. When Donald was named Morgan State’s head coach in 2002, he often brought four-year-old Ace with him to the team’s pre-dawn conditioning workouts.

“I’d go to 7-Eleven and get my coffee. He’d get a donut and some juice and at 5:30, 5:15, he’d walk behind me while we had the guys running and moving them on. And that had become a regular tradition,” recalls Donald.

Ace’s mom, Dr. Barclift Songhai, works as an obstetrician and kept her own grueling hours. During the school year, Hill-Eley would sometimes get Ace out of bed, bring him to the Morgan State coaches offices, put down an air mattress, and let him go back to sleep before it was time to surrender. at school.

Ace Eley was a regular on the sidelines at Morgan State while his father, Don, was the Bears head coach from 2002 to 2013.

Surrounded by football, Ace became a solid linebacker prospect at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Maryland. When Hill-Eley was fired as head coach at Morgan State shortly after Ace’s freshman season, they quickly faced a physical separation. as well. Hill-Eley took a job coaching wide receivers at Norfolk State while Ace remained in Maryland with his mother. A year later, he was named offensive coordinator at Alabama State.

To watch Ace play, Hill-Eley had to thread a fine needle. Weeks off and the occasional game during the week were often the only times he could get out of town to catch one of Ace’s games. Even then, opportunities were few.

“I made maybe two games a year in high school. When he was in Maryland for those three years, I played three games. When he got here [to Georgia Tech]I did two games,” Hill-Eley said.

Father and son tried to connect as best they could.

“I was watching highlights and then he was calling. It’s like, ‘Hey, you lost control.’ So I watch it and write it down. I don’t know how good it was for him because then he has to go back and listen to the coach,” Hill-Eley recalled.

“I wasn’t able to just sit there as a dad and raise my hand and celebrate a good tackle or just say, ‘Good job, good hustle,'” he added.

As fate would have it, he wouldn’t have to give up either. At Georgia Tech, Hill-Eley had the chance to continue her coaching career and enjoy some long-lost quality time with her son.

“While we are both in the building, we are both working. But when you sit down and think about it, it’s a good thing to have. It’s a blessing,” Ace said.

The hours remain long, free time rare, but Donald and Ace have managed to carve out moments together. They see each other at team meetings or walk around the hotel on road trips. There are lunches for the occasional fish sandwich. Every week, Ace’s stepmother, Kelley, cooks food at home, which Donald takes with him. Ace knows how to skip the practice table that day.

“He will bring some buddies here to the office. We’ll just sit down and have lunch and talk about anything other than football,” Donald said.

The interaction can be as brief as a fist bump when they pass each other in the hallway. But after so many years apart, Ace and Donald have learned that just being around each other is its own reward. Even mundane subjects are cherished.

“I even find joy when he asks me, ‘Hey Dad, how many miles until I have to do an oil change?’ Even that little chat – you’re becoming a dad. All those things, when you make certain sacrifices like I had to coach and be in different places, I didn’t get that opportunity. I had to send someone to he needed help going to see my son. And now I can do it myself,” Donald explained.

But both father and son know when to end the relationship. When Hill-Eley drags the running backs into practice, he’s aware he’s leading them against an Ace-led linebacker corps.

“I tell the running backs this kid is mine, hit him as hard as you hit other people. We have to keep him on our side of the ball. Once on the field, he is a defensive player. I’m an offensive coach,” Hill-Eley said.

He and Ace will get another chance to make memories in Georgia Tech’s regular season finale against Georgia (12:00 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network by Legends Sports). Time may be running out for their only season together, but the longtime coach and his linebacker son are confident they’ve made the most of it.

“As a coach, I’m proud of him,” Hill-Eley said.

“As a parent, my heart is racing for him.”

Competitive Training Initiative

In a unified effort, Georgia Tech, the Georgia Tech Foundation, Georgia Tech Athletics, and the Alexander-Tharpe Fund have come together to accelerate funding for student-athlete scholarships with the launch of the Competitive Drive Initiative. The initiative kicks off with the Accelerate GT Match program, where any new donation to the AT Fund’s athletic scholarship fund made through Dec. 31 will be matched dollar-for-dollar by the Georgia Tech Foundation, up to $2.5 million. of dollars. If Accelerate GT reaches its fundraising goal of $2.5 million, the matching donation would impact Georgia Tech Athletics by $5 million. To learn more and to contribute online, visit atfund.org/accelerate.

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