Giants receiver same as he was at UF: hard to cover and quick to recover.
By BOB HARIG
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2001
TAMPA -- There were plenty of low points, not to mention the pain that results from a severe neck injury. It certainly was no fun wearing the brace that extended down to his waist. And being unable run, ride a bike, lift weights ... those are routine activities for an otherwise healthy athlete.
But perhaps the worst thing for Ike Hilliard was the thought of the unknown. Would he ever be able to play football again? More important, would he be able to lead a normal life?
"That was a very tough thing, one of your best friends laid up in the hospital and can't really do much, a couple of inches away from being paralyzed," said Bucs receiver Reidel Anthony, remembering the 1997 injury to his former University of Florida teammate. "It put everything in perspective. You're one play away from maybe not playing this game anymore. Something like that happens, and it takes a lot out of you. He did a great job to get through it."
Hilliard, 24, has visited with Anthony and former UF teammates Jacquez Green and Fred Taylor this week. They have relived the good old days at Florida, while acknowledging how fortunate Hilliard is to be here with the New York Giants, playing in the Super Bowl.
After helping the Gators win the 1996 national championship with a victory over Florida State in the Sugar Bowl, Hilliard was coach Jim Fassel's first draft choice in 1997, the seventh overall pick in the first round.
Then, in the first quarter of his second game, Jacksonville safety Chris Hudson made a tackle on a Hilliard reception. He had ligament damage between the sixth and seventh vertebrae, which is at the base of his neck. He required spinal fusion, with a bone grafted from his hip to the neck. His season was over. Some feared his career was, too.
"It was very frightening for us," said Florida receivers coach Dwayne Dixon, who attended the game that day in Jacksonville. "But we knew that if anybody could come back from something like that, Ike would be the guy. He knows how to persevere."
"There are things that go through your mind," Hilliard said. "It makes you think. I have two kids, too. You want to have that opportunity to do everything with friends and family. It obviously made me rethink some things, but like I said, I have been blessed and I have given it over to that higher power to allow me to go this far."
Other than the thick scar between his shoulder blades, there are few clues that Hilliard suffered such a traumatic injury. He still runs pass patterns over the middle of the field, an unfriendly area for a 5-foot-11, 195-pound receiver. And he's willing to go after the ball, a trait that particularly endears him to Fassel.
"To get to where we are with him playing the way he is playing is really something special," Fassel said. "He's a tough, competitive guy. He puts his body in there and it doesn't matter. He has great focus on the ball. He's taken some of the toughest hits over the last two or three years because he just goes after the ball."
"Ike is known for taking shots, even in college," Anthony said. "He was the receiver who took the big shots. He'd jump up like nothing was wrong. To see him bounce back didn't surprise me at all. That's his mentality."
Hilliard caught 51 passes in 1998, the season after his injury, then added the third-highest total in team history, 72, last season. This season, a hit to his lungs knocked him out for two weeks, but he still led the Giants with 14.3 yards per catch, eight receiving touchdowns and the team's seasonlong catch of 59 yards. He caught at least one pass in every game he played.
But Hilliard saved his best for the Giants' 41-0 NFC championship victory over Minnesota. He had 10 receptions for 155 yards and scored two touchdowns, including a 46-yarder. In the first half alone, he had eight receptions for 146 yards.
And he never flinched.
"There were days that I didn't think I would make it back," he said. "There was nothing I could do for eight months but sit and watch. To be blessed enough to have the mental capacity and the faith to go out there and leave it on the field and just play has been special. To be in the Super Bowl after dreaming about it as a kid is definitely one of the better experiences of my life."
Robert Bailey, CB, Miami (Miami)
Peter Boulware, LB, Florida State
Ray Lewis, LB, Miami (Lakeland)
Jeff Mitchell, C, Florida (Clearwater)
Duane Starks, CB, Miami (Miami Beach)
Kipp Vickers, G/T, Miami (Tarpon Springs)
Jessie Armstead, LB, Miami
Micheal Barrow, LB, UM (Homestead)
Lomas Brown, T, Florida (Miami)
Ike Hilliard, WR, Florida
Kevin Lewis, LB, (Orlando)
Dave Thomas, CB, (Miami)