There’s never a good time to get fired, though Donald Hill-Eley thought he would make the best of it.
In November 2021, he was released as Alabama State head coach after seven games in his sixth season. His son, Ayinde “Ace” EleyHe was nearing the conclusion of his senior season as a linebacker at Georgia Tech but had already made the decision to return in 2022 for another year of playing eligibility.
Instead of chasing another job and throwing yourself into a 33approxAfter his career as a collegiate or professional coach ended, Hill-Eley decided to move to Atlanta with his family so he could watch the entire final season of Ace in person.
For two decades, Donald and Ace had led a paradoxical life together, both connected and separated by football. The endless hours of a head coach ministering to hundreds of children alongside his own had prevented Donald from taking a more involved role in his own son’s career.
“It was a situation where, as a coach, you just prepare yourself that that’s part of the sacrifice,” he said.
He watched footage of Ace’s games. He listened to his exercise reviews. He offered his wisdom over the phone. But it could only fulfill him so much.
Hill-Eley had missed too many moments, bereft of too many memories, staved off too many feelings of regret. Ace still had one college football season ahead of him, and after all those years of sacrifice, he was determined to make up for lost time.
It was a more glorious fall than they could ever have imagined.
In early August, Eley joined Georgia Tech’s coaching staff as an offensive analyst. In October, he was named Tech’s running backs coach, his first full-time position as an assistant coach at the Power 5 level. And he’s watched every one of Ace’s team-leading 107 tackles, a figure that ranks second in the ACC and has him in contention for all-conference honors.
Ayinde Eley (2) is the first NCAA Division I FBS player since 2016 with 107 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in his team’s first 11 games of a season .
“Coming to these games as a coach now, being able to watch him train every day, that’s a dream come true,” he said. “It’s just a blessing to be on the same bus, on the same journey, on the same itinerary.”
Ace, who joined Tech in January 2021 after three seasons at the University of Maryland, added, “Throughout my entire football career, there has never really been a time where we were in the same building or sometimes even in the same state during the football season . So just great. It’s my final season of college and it’s great to have him here all the time.”
Ace’s nickname, of course, comes from a coach’s office. When Donald, then offensive coordinator at Hampton, proudly announced to his offensive line coach John Wright that he and his wife had named their newborn son Ayinde Claude Eley – Claude in honor of Donald’s grandfather, Ayinde for the Yoruba phrase “I prayed, that he was coming” – Taylor knew he would be overwhelmed.
“He said, ‘I don’t know how to pronounce Ayinde, so let’s just call him Ace.’ And that name has followed him since birth,” said Hill-Eley (Donald remains one of the few holdouts who still calls him Ayinde).
Thus began a relationship forged in football. When Donald became Morgan State’s head coach in 2002, he often brought four-year-old Ace to the team’s morning conditioning sessions.
“I would go to the 7-Eleven and get my coffee. He got a donut and some juice and at 5:30, 5:15 he walked behind me while we ran the boys and got them going. And that had become a tradition,” Donald recalled.
Ace’s mother, dr Songhai BarcliftShe works as a midwife and held her own grueling hours. Occasionally during the school year, Hill-Eley would get Ace out of bed, take him to the Morgan State coaches’ offices, put down an air mattress, and put him back to sleep before it was time for school.
Ace Eley was a regular on the Morgan State touchline while his father Don was the Bears head coach from 2002-2013.
Surrounded by football, Ace developed into a strong linebacker at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Maryland. When Hill-Eley was fired as Morgan State’s head coach shortly after Ace’s freshman year, they soon had to deal with a physical breakup as well. Hill-Eley took a job coaching wide receivers at Norfolk State while Ace stayed behind in Maryland with his mother. A year later, he was named offensive coordinator for the state of Alabama.
To see Ace play, Hill-Eley had to thread a fine needle. Farewell weeks and the occasional midweek game were often the only times he could leave town to see one of Ace’s games. Even then, opportunities were rare.
“I did maybe two games a year in high school. When he was in Maryland for those three years, I did three games. When he got here [to Georgia Tech]I did two games,” estimated Hill-Eley.
Father and son tried to bond as best as possible.
“I watched the highlights and then he called. It’s like, ‘Hey, you lost containment.’ So I watch him and rate him. I don’t know how much fun he had because then he has to go back and listen to the coach,” Hill-Eley recalled.
“I couldn’t just sit there as a dad and just raise my hand and celebrate a good tackle or just say, ‘Nice job, good hustle,'” he added.
As fate would have it, he didn’t have to do without one or the other. At Georgia Tech, Hill-Eley had a chance to both continue his coaching career and enjoy a long-lost time with his son.
“While we’re both in the building, we’re both working. But if you sit back and think about it, it’s a great thing to have. It’s a blessing,” Ace said.
The hours are long and free time is scarce, but Donald and Ace made sure to enjoy their moments together. They see each other at team meetings or on road trips at the hotel. There are the lunch breaks to snag the occasional fish sandwich. Ace’s stepmother, Kelley, prepares food from home every week for Donald to take away. Ace knows he has to skip the training table that day.
‘He’s bringing some buddies over here to the office. We just sit together, have lunch and talk about anything but football,” Donald said.
The interaction might be as brief as a punch as they pass each other in the hallway. But after so many years apart, Ace and Donald have learned that just being together is their own reward. Even profane topics are cultivated.
“I’m even happy when he asks me, ‘Hey Dad, how many kilometers do I have to change the oil?’ Even that little conversation – you’re going to be a father. All those things, when you make certain sacrifices, like I’ve had to be a coach and been to different places, I didn’t get that opportunity. I had to send someone if they needed help to check on my son. And now I can do it myself,” Donald explained.
But father and son both know when to end the relationship. As Hill-Eley coaches the running backs at practice, he is aware that he is leading them against a linebacking corps led by Ace.
“I tell the running backs the kid is mine, hit him as hard as you hit the rest of them. We have to keep him off our side of the ball. As soon as he enters the field, he is a defensive player. I’m an offense coach,” Hill-Eley said.
He and Ace will have another chance to make memories in Georgia Tech vs. Georgia (12:00 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network by Legends Sports) regular season finale. Time may be running out for their lonely season together, but the longtime coach and his linebacker son are confident they made the best of it.
“As a coach, I’m proud of him,” said Hill-Eley.
“As a parent, my heart overflows for him.”