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Two Arizona State University students are living their athletic dreams after deferring them while they served their country.
Christian Hill, an Air Force veteran, is a defensive player on the Sun Devils football team. Michael Fujimori, a Marine Corps veteran, walked onto ASU’s wrestling team last season after serving five years.
Both are thrilled to compete for ASU after fulfilling their military commitments.
Hill, who barely played football while he was in high school in Missouri, followed other family members into the military after graduation.
“I enjoyed it,” said Hill, who was stationed at McChord Air Force Base in Washington, where he worked on the equipment that goes into a jet. But he never gave up his dream of being a college football player. “I had great mentorship from my sergeant. I told him what I wanted to accomplish, and he said, ‘Hey, here’s a route for you to do this.'”
Hill was accepted into the Palace Chase program, which allowed him to transition from active duty to the Air Force Reserve. He then enrolled at Glendale Community College, where he started playing football again after several years away from the field.
“It was a challenge, but I learned as much as I could. When you see the professionals playing, they make it look easy, but I had to learn that technique,” he said.
“I started sacking the quarterbacks, and I led my conference in sacks, and that’s when the offers started to come,” Hill said.
He had visited ASU and hoped for an offer.
“I read in the Air Force Times that ASU was a military-friendly school. Then I read about Pat Tillman and his legacy, and I knew ASU was the place for me,” said Hill, who is a liberal studies major and wants to be a physical therapist.
“After a while, they found me.”
Fujimori also followed in family footsteps. He wrestled in high school in Washington and in community college, but then decided to join the Marines, signing up to be a linguist.
“A lot of my family had been in the military, and my father had been a Russian linguist in the Army during the Cold War, so I thought I knew what I was in for, but I didn’t,” he said.
Fujimori learned Korean — categorized as among the most difficult language to learn.
After more than two years of training, Fujimori became fluent and worked as an intelligence analyst at Fort Meade in Maryland. During his time in the service, he didn’t wrestle much, but he did work out and participated in a few mixed martial arts matches.
He also kept his goal of wrestling in a Division I college program. A few months before his commitment ended, he started sending emails to different programs and got a response from ASU.
“I didn’t expect, nor did I want, a handout,” he said. “They said, ‘You can earn your spot.’ ”
He came to ASU without even realizing how helpful the Tillman Center is for student veterans. He now works there.
“I was really surprised at how much they do and how much they really help you to utilize benefits,” he said.
Getting back into shape was tough.
“Taking a five-year break from any competitive sport is tough, but wrestling is not a forgiving sport,” said Fujimori, who is majoring in secondary education in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. He wants to be a high school biology teacher.
He did get onto the team, halfway through the 2016 season last spring. With the 2017 season just ahead, Fujimori is still working hard.
“Physically, being older has not helped. Something always hurts,” he said.
“But one thing that being in the military has helped with is perspective. I can step back, and I have experience doing other things. I know what it was like to wait for this chance,” he said.
Hill said his time in the Air Force instilled discipline and leadership.
“I understand that I’m part of a bigger picture, and it’s not just myself. I’ve learned that you lead by example, not by what you say.”
Top photo: Air Force veteran Christian Hill carries the flag onto the field for the Sun Devil football team. Photo by Pete Van Der Stoep/Sun Devil Athletics