MISSOULA – When Lex Hilliard was 7 years old, he shuffled out to his backyard wearing a motorcycle helmet and a chest protector. He was ready to play football. His 14-year-old brother halted the game he had going with friends and observed the strange little warrior.
“My brother could have really creamed me if he wanted,” Hilliard said. “I can’t even remember if they tried to tackle me. The football was bigger than me.”
Sixteen years later opposing linebackers look at Hilliard, a burly 235-pound running back for the University of Montana Grizzlies, with a greater understanding of what it’s like to tackle a motorcycle. And they get painful glimpses of the warrior mentality that once compelled a little boy to enter battle in the wrong helmet.
Hilliard, a Kalispell native and former Flathead High standout, begins his senior season within reach of four coveted UM records: career rushing yards, all-purpose yards, carries and touchdowns. Perhaps just as impressive as his place in the record books is the fact that he’s playing at all. One year ago he ruptured his Achilles tendon in a non-contact drill, ruining one of the Grizzlies’ most highly anticipated senior seasons ever before it even started. He remembers writhing in pain on the practice field and understanding his senior season was over.
“It felt like Barry Bonds hit me in the back of the leg with a full swing,” he said.
The injury put him up on crutches and forced surgery. He redshirted the year and spent his time away from football focusing on rehab, family and school. He completes his sociology degree in December and has a 2-year-old boy, Lex Jr.
While injured, a fan who has spent his whole life in a wheelchair approached Hilliard and told him everything would be fine. Hilliard still reflects on that conversation.
“I saw him,” Hilliard said, “and was like, ‘How can I get mad when I’ll be running in a few months?”
“You never know what’s going to happen,” he added. “You just have to live life and take the best out of everything you get.”
Hilliard is soft-spoken, with a sincerity that belies his formidable bulk. But when he extends his hand in greeting and the recipient’s hand disappears, it is clear that the man is of a different mold.
Going into this season he is one of 20 preseason candidates for the Walter Payton Award, for which he was a finalist in 2005. The Payton Award is given to the top player in the nation for the NCAA Division I Championship Subdivision. He was also listed as a top running back prospect in various 2007 NFL draft previews despite not playing a game last year. Pago Togafau, a rookie linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals, said in a pre-draft interview that Hilliard is the best player he’s ever faced.
Childhood friend Adam Bryer remembers when Lex looked decidedly less warrior-like, recalling a photo of him as a gangly prepubescent kid proudly sporting an afro and MC Hammer pants. Then puberty came and the scrawny boy who Bryer once played all sports with began the transition into the man nobody could play with.
“Probably about seventh grade he just blew up,” Bryer said. “Then, if you weren’t on his team, you were a little worried.”
Hilliard was always competitive, Bryer said, despite being an easygoing kid – the “class clown” in fact. Much of his competitiveness is innate, while some comes from his father, who taught Lex to “hate losing more than you love winning.”
“Everything’s a battle with him,” Bryer said. “He was the first one to get to the gas station when we were riding bikes.”
A couple of years ago Bryer and Hilliard were wrestling around, mostly for jokes but, as always, with a competitive edge. Hilliard got Bryer in a leg lock.
“Next thing I know I’m passed out and twitching,” Bryer said. “He doesn’t know his own strength.”
Life was always bigger and faster for Hilliard. When most kids were pedaling around on tricycles, the 4-year-old Hilliard was whipping around his parents’ horse pasture on a souped up Toro lawnmower from which his father had removed the blade deck.
“You had to get out of the way when he put that thing in gear,” his father, Elvis, said.
The next year he got a Honda 50 motorcycle, which was one of many ways he and his family tried to harness his relentless energy. He played flag football, baseball, soccer, golf and basketball. He hunted, camped, fished and rode horses until he hurt himself one time. By age 5, Elvis said, he had “worn out a pair of boxing gloves.” He wrestled, swam, built tree forts and constructed motorbike jumps. In high school he was a track star. He even tried archery for a while. Then his father, who played for the Flathead Moose rugby team, invited him to practice.
There, Lex learned how to hit.
Hilliard played his first rugby game when he was 14. Fittingly, he scored in that game. Afterwards, his dad asked him how it felt to play with grown men in his first real game.
“He said, ‘I’ve never been so scared – that’s why I ran so fast,’” Elvis said.
Playing rugby with the big boys, Elvis said, helped Lex become “a man among boys” on the football field. The U.S. Eagles national rugby team invited Hilliard to play for its under-19 team after seeing him in action. Already committed to UM, Hilliard declined.
“The (rugby) guys brought out his gifts,” Elvis said. “And they gave him a special gift.”
Hilliard was recruited by Notre Dame, Oregon State, California and a host of other schools. He chose UM for a variety of reasons, he said, but mostly because he wanted to stay in Montana.
“My parents are here,” he said. “I know what’s here.”
Long before university trainers began honing Hilliard’s strength and endurance, Elvis trained his son with more alternative methods. For example, Elvis bought a German Shepherd because “if you can shake a Shepherd, you can shake anybody.” Young Hilliard would juke down the driveway with the big dog nipping at his ankles. Later, Elvis had his boy sprint down a hill and yelled left or right at him to teach him to “think on his feet.” Today, Hilliard is a powerful but agile runner with surprising grace.
“If you can make cuts running downhill,” Hilliard said. “You can make cuts on a football field.”
The Grizzlies may have lost Hilliard to injury for a year, but they could have lost him forever if he had entered the NFL draft. Elvis said he had several conversations with Lex about the decision: go pro or return to win a national championship and cement his legacy in the record books? Though Elvis supported either decision, he reminded his son of the importance of fully realizing dreams.
“This is your life,” Elvis told Lex. “When you go after your goals and then lose sight of them, it’s hard to find them again.”
So Lex came back for his final year.
Hilliard has an ability to naturally deflect praise to others and, by instinct, doesn’t like to talk about records. But his dad does. Elvis knows records mean a lot, if for nothing else than that they are proof of success and hard work. Hilliard already owns all of Flathead High’s major rushing records and he’s focusing more on winning a national championship this season than records, though he’s spoken with his father about them.
“(Lex) told me,” Elvis said. “‘I want to leave my records for my son to get.’”
Everything he does now, Hilliard understands, is not just for himself. He has Lex Jr. and his girlfriend, who he lives with, to think about. But Bryer and Elvis say that thinking about others has always come as naturally as running for Lex.
“I’ve met a lot of men all over the place,” Elvis said. “He’s up in the top five of best men I’ve ever met. Ain’t too many fathers that can say that. I don’t say that because he’s my son – I say it because he’s just a decent human.”
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