Photo courtesy of chicagobears.com
“Are you ready to become a Chicago Bear?” asked Ryan Poles.
Those were the first words that Trenton Gill heard from the Chicago Bears General Manager when he picked up the phone inside his parents’ home in Hillsborough on April 30.
“Yes, sir,” Gill said. “I’m excited to be a Chicago Bear.”
After a one-minute conversation, Gill was officially the 255th overall selection in the seventh round of the 2022 NFL Draft. He was one of four punters selected.
“Everyone got their cameras out in my home when they announced it on television,” Gill said. “They started looking at me, then they looked at the TV. Everyone knows how hard I’ve worked and all about my situation. Just to see them see how it paid off for me was very rewarding. It was a cool experience.”
By the start of May, Gill had already started in rookie mini-camp for a position that’s wide open.
Pat O’Connell, who had been the Bears’ punter for eight seasons, signed a $4 million free agent deal with the Green Bay Packers in March.
Now, Gill is competing to be the man to replace O’Connell, who was selected by the Bears in the sixth-round of the 2014 NFL Draft. In a promising sign, the Bears waived journeyman punter Ryan Winslow on May 17.
As he comes upon the five-year anniversary of his graduation from Cedar Ridge High School, Gill has already accomplished many things that no other Red Wolf has ever done.
He is the first Cedar Ridge football player to ever be selected in the NFL Draft. Though Chicago has struggled in recent years, there’s no other place he would rather be.
“Before the draft, we had a big board of the teams that we wanted to go to,” Gill told Hillsboroughsports.com the day after he was drafted. “We wanted the best opportunity. Chicago was number one the whole time. It fell in my favor they took me in the draft.”
On May 6, Gill signed a four-year contract with the Bears. Three weeks ago, Gill participated in the first of several organized team activities scheduled for this summer during a period of transition for the venerable franchise.
The tumultuous tenure of former head coach Matt Nagy ended in January after the Bears went 6-11 in 2021. It was the culmination of a total overhaul for a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2010. Poles was hired on January 25 as the new General Manager. Two days later, former Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus was named the Bears’ 17th head coach.
In February, Richard Hightower was added to Eberflus’ staff as special teams coordinator. Eberflus has spent the previous five seasons as the special teams coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers.
“I really like their special teams coordinator,” Gill said. “We got along really well when we spoke. Their philosophy matches my philosophy with the kicking game. There’s a real big opportunity there. They don’t have a real established starter right now. I think I can go in there right now and be the day 1 starter.”
Gill’s rise to NFL draft boards came after a spectacular redshirt junior season at N.C. State. He left Raleigh as the Wolfpack’s all-time leader in career punting average at 46.3 yards. During the 2020 season, Gill was third in the Atlantic Coast Conference with 44.9 yards per punt. He averaged a career-high 54.7 yards on three punts at UNC in 2020 and was named to the All-ACC Academic Team.
Gill’s career at N.C. State ended with exhilaration and disappointment. On November 26, Gill’s final home game at Carter-Finley Stadium ended with a raucous comeback as the Wolfpack stunned archrival North Carolina 34-30 after trailing 30-21 with 2:04 remaining. It was the first time the Wolfpack defeated a Mack Brown-coached UNC team since 1992.
“I love to throw that game on and watch it,” Gill said with a chuckle. “It’s always a great ending. I felt like, as a team, we knew we were going to come back and win that game. We did it at Clemson. We knew we were a better team than Carolina. We knew we could finish games and once we started scoring, it was over for them. We were just certain it was going to happen.”
Gill was supposed to conclude his career in the Holiday Bowl against UCLA. Gill and the rest of the Wolfpack traveling team had already journeyed across the country to San Diego, only to learn just hours before kickoff that the game had been canceled because of a COVID breakout among the Bruins’ players.
As he received the phone call from Poles at his home in Hillsborough with his parents, Gill didn’t necessarily reach the end of a lifelong mission. It was just the reward of plenty of sweat spilled along the way, starting as an adolescent on the playgrounds along N.C. 86.
“I’ve never really thought about being an NFL punter,” Gill said. “I’ve always tried to work really hard and let that take me wherever it’s going to take me. I’ve never thought I would make it to this point. It’s a reality now that I am an NFL punter. But I never really was like ‘This is what I have to do.’ I just kind of enjoyed doing it, enjoyed working hard and this is where it took me.”
When Gill was at Cedar Ridge, he was a three-sport athlete. He played two sports simultaneously during the fall, along with men’s tennis in the spring under head coach Lennie Corbett.
When August rolled around, Gill would play for the Red Wolves soccer team under then-head coach Chris Walker. On Friday nights, he would wear the #99 jersey (#11 in his sophomore season) under head coaches Scott Loosemore and Clay Jones to serve as the triple-threat kicker for the football team.
“Everyone was really nice at Cedar Ridge,” Gill said. “They really helped me build me up to where I was when I started at N.C. State. I wouldn’t have been the same player at N.C. State without my upbringing through Cedar Ridge and Hillsborough. At Stanback Middle School and New Hope Elementary. All of those places made me what I am today. And without that, I would be a totally different person.”
In his senior year, Gill led the Red Wolves soccer team with 16 goals, which led to Cedar Ridge making the 3A State Playoffs. He also played on the last Cedar Ridge football team to have a winning season in 2016, beating Northern Vance in the season-finale in Henderson to finish 6-5.
He hasn’t forgotten Hillsborough. During his time at N.C. State, Gill raised $12,000 for new playground equipment for New Hope Elementary School. Unbeknownst to him as a fifth-grader, it was the place where Gill started that has led him to the NFL.
“What I learned at Cedar Ridge, at Stanback and at New Hope will be instilled within me,” Gill said. “I’ll try to keep promoting Cedar Ridge, no matter where I’m at. I’d love to do some fundraising for Cedar Ridge football someday and help them out. That’s the way I started my football career and if I could help out future student-athletes at Cedar Ridge, that would be great.”