Former Gator receiver seeks revival with Bucs

Published May 7, 2005

TAMPA - Ike Hilliard, eager to start the next chapter of his NFL career in a Bucs uniform, is borrowing a line from Mark Twain: Rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated.

"A lot of people were throwing dirt on me. They felt my injuries had caught up with me; I'd lost a step or two or three," said Hilliard, 29, who had a career-low 8.9 yards per catch and no touchdowns last season with the Giants. "I'm looking forward to showing people I can still play."

Hilliard, signed to a one-year deal Friday, will wear No.19, the number he wore in helping Florida to the 1996 national title but Bucs fans associate more with receiver Keyshawn Johnson.

"Any comparisons, I'll leave that to (the media)," said Hilliard, 5 feet 11, 210 pounds. "I just want to wear my old number again; to close that chapter with the 88 and move on."

Hilliard has 368 catches in eight seasons, and coach Jon Gruden said he is glad to have another downfield threat.

"Ike has proven what he can do in this league," he said in a statement. "He is a versatile player, and we expect him to help us."

Any success, Hilliard said, will start with staying healthy. The No.7 overall pick in 1997 missed 14 games with a neck injury during his rookie season.

"First year, second game, first drive, fourth play," he said. "I didn't want it to end like that."

After two healthy seasons, he was sidelined by a host of injuries: two games with a bruised sternum in 2000, two after foot surgery in 2001, nine with a dislocated shoulder in 2002 and three with a knee injury in 2003.

The 2004 season, while healthy, was frustrating, with two new quarterbacks, Kurt Warner and rookie Eli Manning, and new offensive coordinator, John Hufnagel. Hilliard and Amani Toomer combined for 100 catches but no touchdowns, and after a 5-2 start, the Giants lost eight of nine.

Hilliard, released in March in a salary-cap move, was in the same Florida recruiting class as Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green, who did not have the same success in the NFL as Gainesville. The three remain friends, and Hilliard called both to share his news Thursday.

He refuses to acknowledge there is a stigma attached to Gators receivers, but he recognizes the perception.

"I guess people try to make one," said Hilliard, who has lived in Miami for four years. "Chris (Doering) and I are still in the league. I guess that's what we have to hang our hats on. It'll be interesting to see what happens for me here."

Financial terms were not disclosed, but Hilliard is believed to be making close to the veteran league minimum of $665,000.

"I'm here more for the non-economical reasons. I want to show people I can play," he said. "I've had enough of the dirt-throwing. I'm hoping to show I'm playing with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. It's great being back in Florida. I think I'm really going to have fun playing football again."

BUCS BITS: Linebackers Shelton Quarles and Ryan Nece honored 50 women named top moms in the bay area. Rebecca Kinsey of Tampa, an 89-year-old mother of six, was the overall winner and given two tickets to a Bucs home game, spa and restaurant gift certificates and maid service for a day. ... Fifth-round pick Larry Brackins, a receiver making the leap from junior college to the NFL, is working out in Hattiesburg, Miss., with Titans quarterback Steve McNair. The two share an agent, James "Bus" Cook.