Hilliard Battles for Roster Spot

By Beacon Staff

Lex Hilliard, the 232-pound former Flathead High School standout and a University of Montana record-holding running back, returns home to Montana for a reprieve this week after more than a month of practice with the Miami Dolphins.

He won’t have a break.

At the end of July, his entire body of work, 17 years of practice, culminates when Dolphins’ training camp begins. So far, he’s endured mini-camps, two-a-day practices and studying playbooks next to veterans he once watched as a kid. He is optimistic about his chances of making the roster and says he’s making the most of his time in the National Football League.

“It’s not just one thing you have to work on when you’re a professional,” Hilliard said in a phone interview from his Miami hotel room. “I’m in the same room, trying to beat out guys I watched over the years – you have to prove yourself.”

In 2007, his collegiate senior year, Hilliard was a frontrunner to receive the Walter Payton award as the most outstanding offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision. A shoulder injury derailed his chances. But at the NFL Combine Hilliard’s stock rose when he finished third in the 20-yard shuttle – proving he had overcome his injuries.

But in Miami, it’s back to square one.

Every day, he is up at 6 a.m. for breakfast, then weights or running. He eats, sleeps and breathes football, jockeying for a position in a crowded backfield.

Hilliard is one of five running backs vying for a spot on Miami’s roster. With seasoned pros Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown likely to be at the top of the depth chart, Hilliard has his work cut out for him. But the Dolphin’s sixth-round draft pick says the transition has been made easier, thanks in part, to the mentorship of Williams – a player Hilliard emulated as a kid.

“It’s a shocker to be in the same room as him,” Hilliard said. “But he’s the type of guy who is looking to help you out. He is a real team player.”

There are more than expectations in Miami. There’s the heat. There’s the humidity. The last eight years of Hilliard’s career have been spent playing football in Montana. And so far, adjusting to the Florida weather has been his biggest test. But with storm season approaching, Hilliard has found some relief. It rains nearly everyday at 4 p.m.

Hilliard was one of three UM players drafted in 2008. The Dolphins also picked Griz kicker and Helena native Dan Carpenter, while FCS national defensive player of the year and Hardin native Kroy Biermann went to the Atlanta Flacons. As for teaming with another rookie from Montana, Hilliard just laughs:

“Some of the guys don’t even know where Montana is,” he said. “They think it’s all open range.”

Hilliard’s time in Miami hasn’t been all business. He and four other rookies bought remote-control cars that travel up to 40 mph. In between practice, they hold demolition derbies and races. It keeps them sane. It reminds them that there is something besides football.

“Sometimes you have to take a deep breath,” he said. “What other job do you prepare your whole life for?”