Playing sports can provide great life lessons, and former NFL and WMU quarterback Tim Hiller knows this fact as well as anyone.
Hiller has experienced some of the highest highs and lowest lows that athletics can bring and knows the lessons that remain: leadership, character, teamwork, graciousness in victory and resilience in defeat.
His desire to share these lessons with young athletes is behind the creation of Next Level Performance, a youth athletic training and development company in Portage. With the motto “Making Athletes That Make a Difference,” NLP focuses as much on leadership and character development as it does on athletic performance.
NLP’s performance training is sport-specific, focusing on speed, strength and agility for baseball, football, volleyball or soccer. Its leadership and purpose training involves classroom-style lessons to help young athletes learn the qualities that make great leaders, not only on the field but in the community as well.
Coaching leadership is more than a full-time job for Hiller. By day, he’s a manager of learning and development at Stryker Instruments, preparing employees for leadership roles. His coaching role at NLP happens at night and on weekends. But no matter whom he’s coaching — athlete or accountant — Hiller draws from the joys and the heartbreaking setbacks of his own experience.
Hiller grew up in Orrville, Ohio, a town of roughly 8,000, and was a standout in both high school basketball and football. He was the starting quarterback on his football team and by his junior year had the attention of college football programs across the country.
“My junior year it seemed like I could go anywhere,” Hiller says, “from the MAC (Mid-American Conference) level to the biggest schools in the country.” During his senior season, however, he suffered a broken collarbone at the start of the state playoffs. The calls from college coaches stopped almost immediately. “The injury killed all my opportunities,” Hiller says. “A few coaches mentioned some walk-on possibilities, and a couple Division II schools maintained some interest, but at the end of the 2004 season I had zero scholarship offers.”
It was a low point for Hiller. But he was, and still is, a man of immense religious faith, which he credits for keeping him optimistic and resilient. While the injury kept him from playing basketball, Hiller continued conditioning with his high school’s basketball team to get back into top physical shape, believing his fortune would turn around. But calls that came from college coaches only brought bad news or weak apologies.
That situation changed on Hiller’s 18th birthday. The phone rang. “My parents said it was a college coach,” Hiller recalls, “but I didn’t want to take it. I was just completely over the bad news and didn’t want to go through another tough conversation. Fortunately, my parents urged me to take the call.”
The caller was Tim Lester, WMU’s quarterback coach under head coach Bill Cubit. Before coming to WMU, Cubit was an offensive coordinator at Stanford University, one of the schools recruiting Hiller before his injury. Cubit still had film on the Orrville standout and saw Hiller’s potential. Lester invited Hiller to visit Kalamazoo, and, when Hiller did, he committed on the spot, receiving a full athletic scholarship.
Hiller’s freshman year with the Broncos in 2005, was supposed to be his “redshirt” year, when he would not play competitively but would develop his skills and adapt to the pace of college play. But midway through the season WMU’s starting quarterback, Ryan Cubit — the coach’s son — broke his leg. Hiller took the field, finishing out the season for the injured Cubit.
Hiller was on another high, playing televised games in front of thousands of fans and doing it as one of the youngest players on the field. But bad luck struck again.
“We were playing against Northern Illinois, and the game was televised on ESPN2. It was the final game of the season, and on one play I tore up my right knee — the ACL, MCL and PCL,” Hiller recalls, referring to the anterior, medial and posterior cruciate ligaments, three of the four main ligaments in the knee.
This injury could have been devastating, but Hiller was able to “redshirt” his sophomore year, giving him time to rehabilitate. When he returned in 2007 as a junior, he was WMU’s starting quarterback. During his career at WMU, he started 44 out of 45 games, but not without cost.
“I had three major surgeries. I played all of 2007 with a broken foot and played four games in 2008 with a torn ACL. This time (in 2008) it was the other knee. You could say I got through my college career on prayer and pills,” Hiller says.
“With all the injuries, there were some very tough times, but I see it as a time of maturity. It helped me build character and grew my faith. It’s a big part of who I am now.”
Hiller also stayed busy off the field, focusing on academics and volunteering with campus organizations, including WMU’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which he founded. Hiller received the 2009 Wuerffel Trophy, known as the “Humanitarian Heisman,” awarded to the collegiate football player who best combines community service with athletic and academic achievement.
At the end of the 2009 season, Hiller was invited to Indianapolis for the National Football League Combine, a conditioning camp that evaluates athletes’ potential to play pro football, and he signed with an agent. Hiller attended an eight-week intensive training camp designed to prepare athletes for the physical demands of professional football.
All of this training was leading up to the NFL Draft. Hiller describes the three-day draft as “agonizing.” It ended without his name being called. When the draft was over, however, he got calls for free agent opportunities with the Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts. At that time, Peyton Manning was the Colts’ quarterback, and Hiller wanted to learn from the best, he says, so he signed with Indianapolis.
“The difference between pro and college players is that the pros are incredibly good at the minutiae of their craft,” Hiller says. “When you think about it, they play football all day every day. In college, you’ve got classes and possibly a part-time job.”
Hiller played with the Colts through the pre-season, reveling in the new experience and acclimating to the NFL. And then, without warning, it was over.
In NFL locker rooms, team scouts commonly hang about, asking players for information about former pro or college teammates. When a scout asked Hiller into his office, the young QB assumed he’d be asked about other WMU players. Instead, a contract termination form was slid across the desk. The team had to cut down its roster. He was done.
He and his wife — Kalamazoo native Michelle DeNooyer, who had been his college girlfriend — had just moved to Indianapolis. They packed up and returned to Kalamazoo. Michelle began a teaching job and Tim volunteered to coach football at Vicksburg High School while training for another shot at the NFL.
For Hiller, the NFL was a revolving door. The Chicago Bears, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs all expressed interest, but ultimately were no-gos.
So, Hiller headed back to WMU to complete the M.B.A. he had started and took a marketing position with Gull Lake Community Schools which included coaching its high school football team. Hiller says he coached attitude, effort and leadership as much as he coached performance.
“Those were great days,” he recalls. “I loved mentoring those kids. I was teaching the practices we now teach at NLP. I just didn’t know it at the time.”
Hiller worked and coached at Gull Lake for three seasons, working alongside former WMU roommate and teammate Scott Gajos. Gajos was doing individual coaching on the side, and one of his clients, Jacob Baird, was a quarterback working through some injuries. Knowing Hiller’s background, Gajos brought him into Baird’s training. Hiller soon developed a mentoring relationship with Baird and became close to his family, including Baird’s father, Josh.
When Jacob Baird attended a training camp at IMG Academy, in Bradenton, Florida, in 2014, Hiller went along. “IMG is the training place in the U.S.,” Hiller says. “People come from all over the world to train there — not just kids, but professional athletes, too.”
Hiller and Josh Baird were impressed with IMG’s athletic conditioning programs but were put off by what they perceived to be an ego-driven, win-at-all-costs attitude that pervaded the camp.
“Josh and I felt a burden that it shouldn’t be this way,” Hiller says. “We came back to Kalamazoo, linked back up with Scott (Gajos) and went out and bought some sports equipment and a trailer.” Next Level Performance was born.
At first, Hiller and Gajos trained young athletes wherever they could find space, trailer in tow. They’d rent time at local indoor soccer complexes or head to open spaces like Ramona Park. At this point, NLP’s character and leadership coaching occurred largely on the field and in the moment. In the fall and winter, however, available indoor training space became harder to find.
With just a few mentees, the NLP founders took a leap of faith and invested in their own space. The facility, at 8100-B Angling Road, has 6,000 square feet, 40 yards of turf and two batting cages. It also has a classroom where the founders teach their character and leadership development program, “Reflect, Direct & Connect,” which focuses on identifying one’s talents, setting goals and using one’s talents to lead others.
“Every one of our products has a leadership component,” Hiller says.
The space has allowed NLP to expand into sport-specific training, coordination and coaching of travel teams, tournament participation and speaking to large groups.
“Our goal was to touch 500 lives that first year, and we reached over 1,200,” Hiller says. “Some of those are individuals who work with us regularly, and some are students we speak to in large group settings at schools. Ultimately we want to help as many youths as possible become better athletes and better leaders.”
In running NLP, each principal plays to his own strengths: Hiller oversees athlete development, Josh Baird handles business development, and Gajos directs leadership training. The company has 11 paid part-time coaches, and the founders are optimistic about the company’s continued growth.
“We’re seeing the results,” Hiller says. “The athletes we’re developing are finding success on the field as players and as leaders.”
Hiller tells of one NLP client, Aaron Rochow, a Gull Lake High School football player who wanted to play college ball but wasn’t recruited by any schools. Rochow ended up walking on to Northern Michigan University’s team. Through his first season, Rochow stayed committed and disciplined and won a starting spot and a scholarship.
Hiller and his partners believe that young athletes and their parents will see the benefits of combining leadership and character development with athletics, not only in improved performance but in the athlete’s life pursuits.
“At a certain point, competitive athletics comes to an end,” Hiller says. “The focus becomes being a good parent, spouse, employee or community member. But at that point the lessons learned from athletics can still have an impact.”