Ministers of Defense: Former Stanly residents Autry, Hill to face off in NFL’s Divisional Round

Published 2:50 pm Friday, January 21, 2022

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For two families in Stanly County, more than loyalties to any one National Football League team will be involved when the Tennessee Titans host the Cincinnati Bengals in a divisional playoff game.

Former high school football standouts Denico Autry and B.J. Hill will face each other when the teams play at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in Nashville.

Ironically, both players play similar positions for their respective teams on the defensive lines, both in high school and at the top level of college football.

A Titan on the Defensive Front

Autry, an eight-year professional, is the starting right defensive end for the Titans 3-4 alignment. The former Albemarle Bulldogs standout signed a three-year, $27.1 million contract with Tennessee last August.

He has worn the jersey number 96 his entire pro career. He spent four seasons with the Raiders starting in 2014, when the team was still in Oakland.

One of his best seasons as a pro came the year he signed with the Indianapolis Colts, accounting for nine sacks and 37 tackles in just 11 games that year.

After three years with the Colts, Autry has had a big season as the Titans won the AFC South Division title and earned the No. 1 seed on the AFC side of the playoffs. He matched his total of nine sacks this season and had a career-best 17 quarterback hits, adding 25 solo tackles as well.

The Titans finished above .500 for the sixth straight season, winning a second straight divisional title as Tennessee and the Kansas City Chiefs both finished with 12-5 records.

Autry was a standout in high school for the Bulldogs, winning the Stanly News & Press’ Defensive Player of the Year while also running track and playing basketball. He spent two seasons at East Mississippi Community College, where he led the team to a NJCAA national championship before joining the Mississippi State Bulldogs of the Southeastern Conference.

From Kelly Green to Black and Orange

Hill was a multi-sport standout at West Stanly, including scoring 1,000 career points for the basketball team. He also ran sprint relays for the West track along with throwing the shotput and discus.

In college, Hill played four seasons with the N.C State Wolfpack, with the team finishing above .500 all four years (31-21 overall).

The former Colt joined the New York Giants in 2018, but the team went 15-31 in three seasons. He started 17 games for the Giants and played in 48 games, with 117 tackles and 7.5 sacks.

After going through the preseason with the Giants, Hill was traded in August to the Bengals and has 5.5 sacks this season with 50 combined tackles and a career high of 12 quarterback hits.

Hill’s mother, Mara, who still works at West Stanly High as the custodian, said he was excited to join the Bengals before the beginning of this season.

“(The Bengals) made him feel at home so he feels good about where he is now,” Mara said.

She said Hill is “still living his dream” of playing professional football, adding “regardless of where he plays, he’s going to play 100 (percent). He just thanks God for being able to live out his dream.”

Hill’s mother said her son does not do a lot of talking about his play, letting it speak for itself.

Bobby Hill, B.J.’s father, said his family has watched what his son could do on the field from the youth leagues all the way through to the NFL.

He said it has been fun for the family to visit various campuses when he was with the Wolfpack and now the pro stadiums of the NFL. At nearly every game, members of Hill’s family have been in attendance, including his girlfriend, Cassidy Barnwell.

The family waits all week for the game, Bobby said, then crowds around the TV to watch him play.

When he played in last week’s playoff win over the Raiders, Bobby said “just about all of Oakboro was into (the game)…it seemed like this little town was just shut down last week.”

B.J. represents more than Oakboro, his mother added, saying he represents all of Stanly County when he plays.

Mara said she has always tried to impress upon B.J. to encourage other children to follow their dreams.

“If you can do it from a small town like Oakboro, they can do the same thing,” Mara said.

His work ethic, she said, comes from the family’s faith in God.

“It’s a God thing. Faith was very strong in our household. Like I always tell him, keep God first.”

Being in the NFL has not changed her son, she added.

“He’s still the same. He’s approachable. He believes in talking to the kids.”

About Charles Curcio

Charles Curcio has served as the sports editor of the Stanly News & Press for more than 16 years and has written numerous news and feature storeis as well. He was awarded the NCHSAA Tim Stevens Media Representative of the Year and named CNHI Sports Editor of the Year in 2014. He has also won an award from Boone Newspapers, and has won four North Carolina Press Association awards.

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