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Overcoming Diversity in the NFL; the Story of Peyton Hillis. …Wait, what?

By Evan Benton

It was a strange season for Peyton Hillis.

Scratch that, it was an awesome and epic season for Peyton Hillis.  It was a strange season for all my fantasy opponents who would all lose to me (Second Fantasy Bowl in four years, baby!) and the star of my team: Browns fullback-turned-tailback Peyton Hillis, the first white boy to rush for more than 1,000 yards since the New England Patriots’ Craig James in their 1985-1986 season, which is around the same time that Hillis was born in Conway, AR.

“Pony” James put up 1,227 yards for the Patriots that year, earning him the decidedly strange nickname of “The Great White Hope”, strange because decidedly Caucasian Dan Marino, John Elway and Joe Montana were already breaking passing records, creating “The Drive” (the play that turned NFL Films into a viable money-making – but still annoying – sub-genre of film-making) and earning multiple rings in that time period not for their white brethren, but in the name of football, putting the kibosh on any need for a new white football Messiah.

Years after James was showing the country that white boys that like the game wouldn’t be resigned merely to grab pigskin from underneath our center’s crotches, Hillis was being raised to do one thing and one thing only: making room for the little guy as Conway High School and later University of Arkansas’ number one fullback.

Before his senior year College Football Preview declared him the 2007 football season’s best fullback, and later that season Hillis would see himself playing as a fullback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, kick returner and punt returner.  He also would be touted as probably the best blocking back in the nation, creating enormous lanes for fellow Razorbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones during their tenure.

Hillis was selected 227th overall in the 2008 NFL Draft, but immediately went to work bulking up to over 260 pounds in the gym and establishing himself in the Denver backfield.  By the midway point of the season Denver’s starter, Ryan Torain, lay injured and head coach Mike Shanahan pegged Hillis as the new starter.

Hillis himself fell victim to injury – a three-inch tear in his right hamstring after being sandwiched in a home win over the Kansas City Chiefs – a few games later, but by then had already cemented himself as the Broncos leading rusher for that year, putting up 353 yards and five touchdowns.  Expectations were high for him as the 2009 season started.

But following the departure (see: complete unmitigated sacking) of Mike Shanahan, the man who brought two back-to-back rings to Denver, the Broncos hired Josh McDaniels.

McDaniels, who impressed the Broncos coaching staff with his assistance in bringing Matt Cassel to the big time as the quarterbacks coach for the Patriots in their 2009 season, immediately went to work making a name for himself by taking other names off of the backs of Broncos’ jerseys.

First was Jay Cutler, who, incredibly, got irritated when he discovered that McDaniels was putting together trade talks with his former team to bring in Cassel for Cutler and left on the red-eye for the Windy City while Kyle Orton was taking the bus over the Rocky Mountains.

McDaniels, who can’t be blamed for being pass-happy after coming from the Patriots, then resigned Hillis to the bench (he would rush for only 54 yards on 13 carries in 2009) while rookie Knowshon Moreno and ex-Philadelphia Eagle Correll Buckhalter took the ball from Orton on the rare time the quarterback wasn’t heaving passes.

The Broncos played very well that year, and would have made the playoffs if not for a disastrous 44-24 loss to the Chiefs – the team’s third straight home loss to a divisional opponent.  More importantly, it raised controversy for McDaniels when he benched All-Star wideout Brandon Marshall (who had just broken the single game reception record a few games earlier) after the receiver questioned the coach’s decisions during the game – according to many sources a move that instigated Marshall’s departure in the offseason to Miami.

Another Bronco to desire trade was Hillis, who despite getting abysmal carries was still set to stay in Denver if not for a few heated arguments between he and McDaniels that, although cloaked in secrecy, have been rumored to involve accusations of the Broncos organization by Hillis of racial discrimination.

The details on this are spurious, but the thought is not irregular among an NFL minority that haven’t seen a high-caliber player in the backfield since Mike Alstott and, further back, John Riggins.

While players like Jim Leonhard and Reed Doughty have made names for themselves as secondary heroes in the vein of John Lynch, men like Brian Leonard of the Bengals – perennial record-breaker at Rutgers and targeted as an elusive and agile running back, but drafted 52nd by the St. Louis Rams in 2007 as, like Hillis, a fullback – are doomed to a life of trick plays and bench warming.

Such could have been the future of Hillis when he was traded to the Cleveland Browns for a sixth round pick in the 2011 draft, a conditional one in 2012 and Brady Quinn.  (I can hear Patrick laughing as I merely type the name).

Indeed, he was placed on fullback duty behind Jerome Harrison and his game remained confined to the role of a blocking fullback or tight end.

But then, in an instant, he got his chance.

Harrison going down in Week 2 gave Hillis starting honors against the Baltimore Ravens the very next Sunday, and his rollicking run over the staunch Baltimore defensive line for 144 yards catapulted him into the spotlight.

Fast forward to the end of the season, and Hillis had accumulated 1,177 rushing yards off of 270 carries with a whopping seventeen rushing touchdowns.  Proving that his hands are as solid as his legs, Hillis also recorded 477 receiving yards off of 61 receptions – two of them for touchdowns.  Along with the mammoth stats are some very humbling honors.

In the Browns’ Week 9 upset win over the Patriots, Hillis put up career marks on the ground with 184 rushing yards as part of 220 yards of total offense.  This showing earned him Offensive Player of the Week honors, the first time a Brown had received the honor since 1992.  In Week 12 he joined Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk as the only other player to record more than 130 yards rushing, three rushing touchdowns and 60 receiving yards in a single game.

This in addition to being the first white guy to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season since “Pony” James, an accolade that Hillis accomplished under just a small spattering of racism thrown his way during his career-high season.

“Every team did it,” Hillis said to radio/TV personality Dan Patrick on the host’s eponymous show.  “They’ll say, ‘White boy, you ain’t gonna run on us today,’ [and] ‘This is ridiculous; why are you giving offensive linemen the ball?’”

Hillis, who has been given several nicknames by his supporters and detractors during the season, “Avalanche” and “White Rhino” being the best in my opinion, used the adversity as a launching pad to show his mettle – which he did in spades.  But he found another source of support in then-head coach Eric Mangini, who had apparently told Hillis after their first game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that, “I could see you being a 1,000-yard back.”

This offseason, while training to head into a season where the Browns are gifted with their most favorable schedule in a decade, and looking to repeat his incredible performance a year ago, Hillis also gained the dubious (see: Madden Curse) honor of having his likeness on the cover of Madden 2012, beating out quarterbacks Matt Ryan, Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers and fellow fan favorite Michael Vick to gain video game immortality.

In a National Football League where in thirty years the white population has gone from 70% to 30%, and when, usually from no fault of their own, NCAA alums with white skin and broken records come into the league looking more “Tool Time” than Prime Time”, Hillis stands out.

But not for the color of his skin; for his talent.

Like his African-American counterparts in the golden age of the sport, Hillis has proven to his naysayers that he can run, sprint, block and juke with the best of the best, despite his race.  In an ever-shifting landscape of adversity in American sports, any change like this is good change.

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