By: Mike Still (@mikestill94)
Feature photo by: Matthew Hamilton
Growing up, it’d be safe that say that Donovan Hillary’s life was dictated by football.
“In high school, football just totally took over my life,” the linebacker says.
“I was hitting the gym at the night at Acceleration Performance, and just trying to do
any camp that I could. I was just so determined to be good at this sport. I loved
football so much.”
Originally picking up the sport at age 12, Hillary quickly developed into one of the
province’s best defensive prospects. He was a member of Team Manitoba’s U16
roster in 2011, as well as the U18 roster in both 2012 and 2013.
Interestingly, during the provincial team process, Hillary was always moved from
his natural linebacker spot to defensive end – and in one instance to defensive tackle
– which he feels made him a more well-rounded and versatile player.
At the high school level, Hillary was nothing short of spectacular. He won a junior
varsity title with the River East Kodiaks in grade 10, and was also named the JV
Defensive Player of the Year. Two years later, he would receive the same
recognition, but at the AAA level after amassing 96 tackles in a season – a record
that still holds to this day in the Winnipeg High School Football League.
“Being a middle linebacker, it’s easy to see those inflated stats,” he says. “You’re
really in the middle of the action all the time. I like to treat [the accolades] as team
awards, but at the same time, I think they are kind of a testament to the hard work
that I put in.”
Beginning at age 16, Hillary also started participating in the Winnipeg Rifles spring
camps, in order to up his game even further.
“I wanted to be against the best competition, just to get that experience,” he says. “I
was pretty driven in terms of elevating my game.”
Hillary’s hard work didn’t go unnoticed, as entering grade 12 he was garnering
attention from universities all across Canada. He ultimately chose to attend Queen’s
University in Kingston, Ontario.
“For me, I wanted to be in the most competitive conference, and that’s in Ontario,”
he says. “I find Ontario is where you see the greatest athletes coming out of.”
Hillary’s first training camp in 2014 was one of “the most grueling experiences”
he’d ever taken part in. It was two weeks full of nonstop film and practice, and after
just two days, he’d already lost 14 pounds of water weight.
Because of his time with various provincial teams however, Hillary got used to the
up-tempo practices relatively quickly. He also began to hone his game even more,
thanks to in-depth film study and an increased emphasis on the mental side of sport.
“You just go over every single detail – every single rep you watch in film,” he says. “It
was the most interesting thing, seeing how much I was growing as an athlete
through the Queen’s program.”
Despite his improvement on the gridiron, Hillary was having significant issues
off of it.
For example, he had trouble finding a job for the summer when he came back home,
as employers didn’t want to hire someone that they knew was going to be leaving
halfway through August.
In his second year, his grades were also affected by his rigorous football schedule. It
was this discovery that helped prompt his decision to come home for 2016, as he
was at the stage in his life where he was trying to put an increased emphasis on his
future career goal of being a high school teacher.
“For me, I dedicated so many hours to football throughout high school and at
Queen’s. I think one of the driving factors for me coming back was actually just
scaling that back a little bit.”
When Hillary returned home, he knew that he still wanted to play football, but also
needed to have more time for school and work. Cue the Winnipeg Rifles, the same
team that he’d practiced against when he was in high school. With the junior football
schedule being a bit less demanding, Hillary was able to balance his life more
The 2016 season didn’t go quite as planned for the Rifles, as turmoil within the club
hindered their progress. The following year however, the squad rallied around each
other. They finished the regular season with four wins, and went blow-for- blow
with the eventual national champion Saskatoon Hilltops in the conference semi-
“Coming into that playoff game, we were determined to not let [Saskatoon] have
anything. I think you saw that. We definitely gave Saskatoon the best competition
throughout that entire playoff process,” Hillary says.
“It’s too bad that we couldn’t pull out the win, but I think, towards the end, you
definitely saw what Rifles football was all about.”
Individually, Hillary was nothing short of dominant. He finished 2017 with 78 total
tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. With this coming season
being his last year of junior football eligibility, he’s hoping to end things in style with his teammates.
“As a team, I think we definitely feel that we’ve got a shot this upcoming year. “We’re
really excited for what’s to come.”