About the same time the Flathead Braves were wrapping up their football scrimmage at Legends Stadium on Aug. 19, almost 3,000 miles away the Miami Dolphins had the ball on the Carolina Panthers’ 1-yard line.
It was scoreless in the first quarter of an NFL preseason game at Sun Life Stadium. The Dolphins were rolling with an eight-play, 79-yard drive that only needed a few more feet.
Two straight times quarterback Chad Henne handed the ball to second-round draft pick Daniel Thomas. Two straight times Thomas was stuffed.
Pro Bowl kicker Dan Carpenter, the Helena native with a sharpshooter foot, stood by ready if Miami decided to settle for three points. But the preseason is about rolling the dice and seeing who can make big plays. The preseason, for some players, is the real season.
Third and goal from the 1-yard line, Lex Hilliard strode onto the field.
Ten years ago, Hilliard was a Flathead High School junior taking the field at Legends Stadium. He was no longer an unknown. The previous season he’d made a name for himself after setting a school record by rushing for 1,348 yards.
He had no idea what was ahead of him.
Within two years he was a true freshman taking handoffs at the University of Montana. Within four years he had become one of the best running backs in the country and was breaking rushing records at UM. Within seven years he had overcome a season-ending Achilles’ injury, graduated as one of the most successful Grizzlies of all-time and was drafted by Miami in the sixth round of the NFL draft.
Now, 10 years later, Lex is still battling, still unsure of what’s ahead of him. The 27-year-old is vying to keep his roster spot for the third year in a row as the team begins whittling down its squad in preparation for the new season, which starts Sept. 11.
“It’s been a journey,” he told the Beacon recently. “I’ve enjoyed it very much and I’ve been very blessed and very privileged to have the opportunity that I’ve had.”
The Dolphins’ three other running backs from last season — Ricky Williams, Ronnie Brown and Patrick Cobbs — are all gone this season, leaving Lex as the de facto veteran along with fullback Lousaka Polite.
Unofficially, Lex is currently third on the depth chart behind Thomas and Reggie Bush. The Dolphins also have rookie Charles Clay, a big tight end who has carried the ball in preseason with success, and recently signed former Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson.
In the next week the list could be different. No one really knows until it happens. But that’s the way Lex is used to living.
“Ten years ago when I was sitting there in high school I would never have thought I’d ever be down in Miami especially or even playing in the NFL. That never even crossed my mind,” he said. “You just play it step by step. Like people always say ‘live your life day-by-day.’ That’s kind of how I did my football career – I lived it year by year and wasn’t really looking too far ahead.”
Since earning a roster spot from the practice squad in 2009, Lex has established himself as a reliable go-to guy when called upon, whatever role it may be. In his first full year, injuries plagued the team and Lex stepped in and played solid, finishing the season with 247 total yards and three touchdowns. Last year, his role at running back was limited as the team juggled a number of players, but Lex still made an impact, ending with the third most tackles on special teams.
“I think Lex is probably one of the two best special teams players that I have on the team,” head coach Tony Sparano told the Miami Herald recently. “Lex is a jack-of-all trades for me right now in that this guy can play both fullback and halfback and did it in the games last year.”
It’s become a small world for Lex in many ways. He has two former Grizzlies around him – Pro Bowl kicker Carpenter and defensive back Jimmy Wilson, a seventh-round draft pick who is impressing coaches during the preseason. Being able to play with former Griz is an added bonus, Lex said.
Living in the metropolis of Miami, a “very different” world than Montana, Lex has simplified his life. When he isn’t at practice or reading over playbooks and scouting reports or working out, he’s probably with his son, Lex Jr.
“People always say to me down here ‘What did you do when you were growing up in Montana?’ and I’m like ‘What did you guys do?’” he said, laughing. “I’m like I spend more time inside with my kid down here than I do in Montana.”
In his young career, Lex has already collected memories that 10 years ago would be best described as dreams. Like playing on Monday Night Football or sharing laughs with players he looked up to as a high school and college player.
“You meet some tremendous people,” he said. “It’s weird when you’re a kid and you’re reading about people that you look up to or watch them on ESPN and you finally get to meet them. It’s really cool.”
He sounds like he’s getting used to this new life, even though he knows it could change any day, any minute. The Dolphins say nothing but good things about Lex on a weekly basis, but they also traded up three picks to draft Thomas and brought in Bush and Johnson. Life in the NFL is an uncertain one.
Lex has no idea what’s ahead of him.
“I’ve learned a lot of things. Basically stay to the grind,” he said. “There are going to be bumps along the road but it’s what you do after the bumps that make you who you are as a person, or in my case as a football player. You have to take adversity by the horns basically and flip it around and make the best of what you got.”
Third and goal from the 1-yard line, a wall of Panther players stacked the box, prepared for a run down the middle. Henne took the snap and handed the ball to Lex Hilliard. He powered toward the chaos, clutching the ball, looking for any opening into the endzone. Nothing.
Now fourth down, the 12th play of the drive. Here’s one more chance.
The Carolina defense was frothing with confidence and still predicting run. Henne called the snap, drew back and handed the ball off.
Lex took two steps behind the right guard at the 2-yard line and put his head down. His feet left the ground as he launched all 240 pounds into the air, over everyone.
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