Picking up the pieces | Community, school response helps family heal in years after tragic car accident

A 2004 accident took the life of Brian Hill but at Eastside Catholic, an army of coaches, volunteers and students are making sure his memory lives on.

When Eastside Catholic wrestling coach Dennis Reddinger watched his team finish third at the annual tournament the program has held for nearly a decade in early January, he had all the expected reactions.

The Crusaders do not have quite the depth of last year’s team, perhaps the most successful in school history. But Reddinger couldn’t have been more pleased with Matt Iwicki and Alex Neale, who won the 126 and 285 pound divisions respectively, along with 170 pound runner-up Bradley Strode.

But more than building experience for the postseason or garnering a level of respect among the 18 participating schools, Reddinger knew the most important part of the tournament was its power to, at least in some small way, help a family heal.

Shaken to the core

The day was supposed to mark a new beginning.

Jean Hill was on campus at Santa Clara University with her oldest child, daughter Julie, who had just finished her final year of high school at Eastside Catholic and was beginning the collegiate rite of passage of a year in the dorms.

Then she got the call that changed her life forever.

On the other line was her husband, Harold, and the news was the worst imaginable.

Her son Brian, a 16-year-old EC sophomore, and a pair of other teens had been on a stretch near Cougar Mountain known as “Roller-coaster Road” when the car left the road and struck a tree.

“Your first reaction is, what hospital?” Hill said. “When Harold said, well, no hospital…your world has just collapsed.”

Brian and one of the passengers who was a student at another high school were killed the crash, leaving two families shaken and an entire community grieving in the wake.

The boy who was always smiling

When Ron Cole thinks about Brian Hill, all he can see is the smile.

Cole, an accomplished international wrestler and World Champion in his own right, coached Hill at Eastside Catholic and began hosting a tournament he called, “The Charging Rhino Classic,” which was meant to embody the competitive spirit and drive needed to succeed on the mat.

When the 2004-05 wrestling season began months after Hill’s death, his former teammates and coaches, decided there was no better way to honor his life than by renaming the tournament, “The Brian Hill Invitational.”

Cole said the scores of alumni and others who have been involved in the program over the years who return to volunteer for the tournament is a testament to Brian’s influence on those who knew him.

“He was always fun, always happy, always smiling,” Cole said. “They keep on coming back and fulfilling their obligation to Brian.”

For the Hills, the aftermath of Brian’s death was a blur of unimaginable heartache, inspiring community support and eventually, at least some level of solace and a manageable if not pleasant normalcy.

Helping a family heal

Coaches and others from the school who knew Brian stopped by the house to comfort the family and in many cases ended up instead gaining strength from them. For many years, Jean Hill would still see a glimpse of her son in the back or profile of another boy walking down the street or through the mall. Like a punch in the gut, the sobering reality of Brian’s death always returns in those moments.

But thanks at least in part to the dedication of his memory at Eastside Catholic, the family has continued to build memories even in the years after his death.

“In all honesty, he was not a great athlete,” Jean said. “But he loved being part of that team. Those memories were so important to Brian.”

From a summer retreat football camp to locker room banter, Jean said her son valued few things more than the camaraderie and friendship he found on Eastside Catholic athletic teams. When the family heard about the program’s desire to rename the tournament in Brian’s honor, they were immediately on-board.

Nearly 10 years later, through a coaching transition, school relocation and a staff that has only a pair of holdovers from the time her own children attended EC, the tradition has become one of the strongest ties the school keeps to its past. The family returns each year to hand out medals to tournament winners and more importantly, share in the experience of a tournament that honors their son’s life.

Reddinger said his athletes’ excitement for the tournament is rivaled only by the prospects of a trip to the Mat Classic, adding that each values the opportunity to be part of greater cause in helping the Hill family remember their son.

“We make sure everybody that is in our program understands that,” Reddinger said. “It’s nice that people recognize it and keep alive the memory.”

For Jean Hill, the sight of a gym covered in wrestling mats, filled with sprawling teenagers and the sounds of sport is a reminder of a life lost but perhaps more importantly, a pathway to new memories. While her own son is gone, the family has found reassurance knowing his memory remains active beyond the walls of their Newport Hills home.

“It’s so fabulous to be in the audience and see boys walking around with Brian Hill t-shirts,” Hill said. “Here’s this new generation of kids, it’s their tradition now.”

A display case at Eastside Catholic’s new Sammamish campus displays a memorial for Brian Hill. COURTESY PHOTO, EASTSIDE CATHOLIC SCHOOL

The family wears bracelets that read, “Deal With It,” after a poem Brian wrote in a class at Eastside Catholic. JOSH SUMAN, ISSAQUAH-SAMMAMISH REPORTER

A medal from the Brian Hill Invitational. JOSH SUMAN, ISSAQUAH-SAMMAMISH REPORTER


Jean Hill holds a t-shirt from a previous year of the tournament. JOSH SUMAN, ISSAQUAH-SAMMAMISH REPORTER

Contact and submissions: jsuman@bellevuereporter.com