Some young professional athletes struggle with the transition from star to role player. They have been in the spotlight for as long as they can remember: grade school, high school and college. And then suddenly, they’re battling just to make the team.
But Lex Hilliard has taken the transition in stride, counting his blessings as a Montana boy playing in the National Football League and constantly striving to help his team – the Miami Dolphins – in any way he can. That’s how a player rises from the practice squad to second string. That’s how a young man proves himself to coaches.
When Hilliard ran onto the field in Atlanta on Sept. 13 last year, it was the fulfillment of a dream. He had made the 53-man roster of an NFL team.
“You work so hard your whole life and finally you make the 53,” Hilliard said last week – he was back in the Flathead to participate in the Whitefish Winter Classic.
Hilliard is a Kalispell native who broke records as a running back at both Flathead High School and the University of Montana. He was somewhat of a prodigy as a boy, simply bigger, stronger and faster than the other kids, with an innate ability to find a defense’s gaps on the football field.
Even in college, Hilliard lowered his head when linebackers came at him and, more often than not, he was the last man standing. Even then, he appeared to be a man among boys at times. But in the NFL, all players were once men among boys.
After being drafted in the sixth round, 204th overall, by the Miami Dolphins in the 2008 NFL Draft, Hilliard spent his rookie season on the practice squad. He figured out his role and pursued it vigorously – making the first-string defense better in practice, flying down the field on special teams and hovering in the rear-view mirror of starting running backs Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown.
“You can’t play the depth chart game, the roster game,” Hilliard said. “If you try to do that it will drive you nuts. You just go out and play.”
He added: “I prided myself in going out there and making the first-string guys better.”
Hilliard may not consciously play the depth chart game, but he was very much involved in it this season. In preseason, he was the fourth-string running back, behind Patrick Cobbs, Williams and Brown. As he got more snaps in preseason games, though, he became a crowd favorite and media darling down in South Florida.
Against the Carolina Panthers in an Aug. 22 preseason game, Hilliard tore loose for a 39-yard touchdown run. In the following days, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Palm Beach Post and other publications praised and analyzed Hilliard’s game. The Palm Beach Post called him a “folk hero.”
The Miami Dolphins, clearly pleased with Hilliard’s efforts, made the unusual move of keeping four running backs on their 53-man regular season roster, a move that paid dividends later. Hilliard didn’t play in the Dolphins’ first nine regular season games, but after Cobbs and Brown went down with injuries, he found himself in the backup running back position behind Williams against Carolina on Nov. 19.
In the Carolina game, Hilliard had four carries for 24 yards and caught two passes for seven yards. The following week against Buffalo he ran for 22 yards on five carries and gained 15 yards on two receptions.
He finished the season with 89 yards rushing on 23 carries and 158 yards on 20 receptions, including a game against Houston on Dec. 27 in which he had nine catches for 74 yards. For the season, Hilliard scored three touchdowns, one rushing and two receiving. He didn’t fumble.
While Hilliard’s preseason rushing garnered attention, he said it was his efforts on special teams that really helped make a name for himself. Throughout the preseason and regular season, even when he was playing backup running back, Hilliard was a mainstay on special teams. Before turning pro, he had never done special teams.
“Not in high school, not in college, never did it,” he said.
Hilliard, who is 5-11 and 235 pounds right now, said he was playing at 226 pounds. He knows the source of the weight difference.
“It’s because I was running back and forth down the field – special teams, offense,” he said. “I was taking a lot of snaps.”
Hilliard lives in Fort Lauderdale with his wife Rebekah and their four kids. When Hilliard got married, he had a son – Lex Jr. – and his wife had three kids. Lex Jr. turns 5 in May and the other three kids are 9, 11 and 13, Hilliard said. The 9-year-old is a boy and the older kids are girls.
The Florida sunshine is nice, but Hilliard misses his Montana home. He keeps in frequent contact with his parents and his childhood friend Adam Bryer. In the offseason, he spends as much time in the Big Sky state as possible.
“I love Montana,” he said.
On Sundays before each game, he talks to his father Elvis on the phone, who repeats a three-pronged mantra: “Don’t be touched, make them pay to hit you and be relentless.”
“It’s kind of cool because sometimes I get kind of frazzled on game day – I’ve got so much going on,” Hilliard said. “It’s good to hear that from your dad.”
Looking ahead, Hilliard said he will continue the same philosophy – work hard in practice, fly down the field on special teams and do everything he can to help the team. When he’s called on, he’ll be ready.
“All the hard work being on the practice squad the year before,” Hilliard said, “working your tail off day in and day out, playing the cards as they lay – it’s paid off.”
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