Nov. 16, 2016
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The "Hammerin' Panda" got to meet "Hammerin' Hank" recently, and they hammered out a special conversation.
Michigan fullback Khalid "Hammerin' Panda" Hill got to meet Baseball Hall of Famer Hammerin' Hank Aaron when he appeared as an honorary captain for the Wolverine football team at the Oct. 22 game with Illinois. Hill, who has scored 10 touchdowns in as many games to lead the Wolverines, was particularly thrilled because Aaron's a hero.
"Hank Aaron was always an inspiration to me because when I was a kid playing baseball I really wanted to be like him one day," said Hill. "That was something I was looking forward to hearing him speak to the team, and the motivation I got from him was: 'Take it one game at a time as a team and keep working hard.' That was great to hear coming from someone like Hank Aaron. That meant a lot to me. It was pretty cool to get to see him."
Aaron, whose 755 homers were eclipsed by Barry Bonds, still reigns as the game's career leader with an amazing 2,297 runs batted in.
Still, the "Hammerin'" part of Hill's nickname didn't come from Aaron. It was a combo effort from two teammates and a broadcaster that evolved over recent months.
Wolverines linebacker Mike McCray got the nickname rolling.
"The whole Panda part came from Mike McCray," said Hill. "He was listening to the song, 'Panda,' and said, 'You're Panda.' I was like, 'Cool,' and everyone liked it. And as the season went on, I got the nickname 'The Hammer.'"
That came from Jim Brandstatter, the long-time radio voice of both the Wolverines and Detroit Lions. He said the nickname came to him after doing a pre-game show with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who said, "It's better to be the hammer than the nail."
"I thought about that, and Khalid was pounding one-yard TDs all the time, and it just fit to me that he's Michigan's hammer," said Brandstatter. "So, I used 'Hammer,' and will continue."
Michigan senior offensive lineman David Dawson put the two nicknames together.
Hill recalled: "My roommate, David Dawson, said, 'Hammerin' Panda, huh?' And I was like, 'Yeahhh! Hammerin' Panda.' That was just a name that turned him on, and I liked it."
Third baseman Pablo Sandoval was nicknamed "Kung Fu Panda" by his San Francisco Giants teammate, pitcher Barry Zito, who thought Sandoval looked like the title character from the computer-animated action comedy of the same name. Do people think Hill, 6-foot-2 and 263 pounds and round with facial hair, looks like a panda bear?
"Somewhat," said Hill. "Somebody actually put a picture of me next to 'Kung Fu Panda.' It was sweet, man, it was cool."
The song that inspired McCray, "Panda," was a hit earlier this year by Brooklyn rapper Desiigner, and the refrain to the song repeats "Panda" seven times.
It all came together to give Hill the best nickname given to a college football player while in school since LSU's Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu, now a safety with the Arizona Cardinals.
The Wolverines' two best recent nicknames, Denard "Shoelace" Robinson and current defensive end Vidauntae "Taco" Charlton, were bestowed on them in pee-wee football and infancy, respectively.
Hill probably would be merely "Panda" if Brandstatter hadn't admired how he hammered into the end zone, game after game.
When Chris Evans was ruled out of bounds at the one-yard line against Maryland after taking a screen pass 56 yards, Michigan radio sideline analyst Doug Karsch joked that only one Wolverine was pleased to have the ball there, referring to Hill, whose secondary nickname of "Vulture" is derived from all of his short runs at the end of long drives.
"The guys say that when we get up there close they're going to call my number," said Hill. "I think any of us can get it in there, to be honest. But I'm grateful to Coach Harbaugh to trust in me and believe in me to get the touchdown or short-yardage situations. There's nothing like having a coach trust you like that, and it's special."
Harbaugh, in an effort to get talented players on the field, switched Hill and Henry Poggi to fullback after they got caught in the log-jam at tight end, where All-American Jake Butt starts and has several highly recruited players still behind him.
"He's given us really solid play and is getting better and better as a fullback," Harbaugh said Monday (Nov. 14). "And that's in all the aspects of running the ball, blocking and catching the ball in the backfield.
"Khalid's also a good guy and a good teammate."
Hill has a team-high nine rushing touchdowns on 22 carries, which have produced 36 yards and nothing longer than four yards.
Hill, who has one season of eligibility remaining after this one, didn't score a touchdown in two previous seasons. Now, he leads the team with 10.
When I pointed out that Hill was fourth in conference rushing touchdowns behind Minnesota's Rodney Smith (14 touchdowns in 194 carries), Penn State's Saquon Barkley (13 in 200 carries) and Wisconsin's Corey Clement (10 in 218 carries), he giggled and then laughed heartily.
"I mean a shout-out to those guys," said Hill, who scores nearly every other time he carries the ball. "They do a lot of hard work to score. But a shout-out to my running backs -- De'Veon (Smith), Chris (Evans) and Karan (Higdon) -- all those guys have to do all the running to get to the one-yard line. I'm just called on there.
"And the offensive line does a great job of giving me that push to get into the end zone. Without all those guys, I wouldn't have the touchdowns I have."
Hill's touchdown celebration has evolved to include everyone.
"On my first couple touchdowns," said Hill, "I just kind of celebrated by myself. But now I celebrate with everybody, and I learned to involve my teammates."
When his number gets called on a play, it's still No. 80 lugging the ball. He kept the number he wore as a tight end on the advice of running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley.
"I talked to Coach Wheatley about whether I should change," said Hill. "But he said, 'Be your own person. What's wrong with 80 as a fullback? That's you!' I took what he said and decided to be my own self."
He added that Wheatley has become "a life coach to me" as well as his position coach.
Hill has become more than a guy who scores touchdowns and has a funny nickname. His ability to catch the ball on pass patterns, block effectively and run dependably in short-yardage situations makes him an NFL prospect.
"It's there, you know what I mean," said Hill. "But to be versatile is something that you need going into the NFL. Coach Harbaugh also does a great job of getting all of us to our best and sharpen our talents. I just hope he keeps putting me in positions (like this), and I owe him a lot."
Hill scored three touchdowns in the 78-0 rout of Rutgers, but the one he scored from the one-yard line to open the scoring in a 14-7 win over Wisconsin meant the most.
"That was my favorite touchdown," said Hill. "They loaded the box with linebackers and linemen up there, and our whole team got me in there."
There are likely plenty of touchdowns ahead for Hill, but when football is over, the fullback who says he's been given so much support and confidence to succeed, says it's his aim to give back to youngsters in his hometown of Detroit.
"I want to go back to the city and give back to Detroit and Highland Park," said Hill. "I want to go around to the schools, work with the Little League teams, and get kids started in football."
The "Hammerin' Panda" is sure to continue scoring big with that plan.