No one would have questioned Ike Hilliard if he had retired as a player and never looked back at the NFL. In a 12-year career, eight with the Giants, the wide receiver continually tested the limits of physical punishment. His teammates marveled at his toughness and pain threshold.
A neck injury limited him to two games as a rookie and required posterior spine stabilization surgery. In 2000, he missed two games with a bruised lung and bruised sternum after being blasted by Detroit safety Kurt Schulz. A brutal hit from Philadelphia's Brian Dawkins separated his shoulder in 2002. "My shoulder still isn't happy based on that one," Hilliard said. When he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Hilliard was knocked cold after being sandwiched by Leroy Hill and Lofa Tatupu (who suffered a concussion). "I had a little nerve damage," Hilliard said. "It's on You Tube, you can see it if you want.
"Maybe (he got hit hard so often) because I didn't know what the hell I was doing out there," he continued with a laugh. "And now I can actually figure it out and tell somebody how to do it without getting beat up. But you know what, I feel good, actually. I made it out upright, which is the key. It is an unforgiving game. Everyone plays hurt. I took my share of bumps and bruises but I was blessed enough to come away and feel okay."
For as much pain as Hilliard absorbed playing football, he couldn't turn away from the game. After playing his final down in 2008, Hilliard didn't want to put football in his past; instead, he made it part of his future. He is in his first season as the assistant wide receivers coach of the Miami Dolphins, who will face the Giants Sunday in MetLife Stadium.
"I must say, it's absolutely crazy," Hilliard said this week. "I mean, physically, beating the crap out of myself for all those years. And now I'm out here every day, continuing to smell the grass. I think I'm either wired a little different or I actually love this game. The amount of time we spend away from our families, trying to put the best product on the field, you have to love what you do. No question about it. When it comes to the game of football, I love it."
He always has and the feeling has never waned. To get his current position, Hilliard had to complete a two-year apprenticeship with the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League, the first as an unpaid assistant.
"The name of the team or anything like that isn't important," Hilliard said. "Jay Gruden, he was gracious about allowing me to work with the Tuskers offense by way of coach Jim Haslett. Those guys gave me my first opportunity to taste what it's like to coach. I worked on a volunteer basis throughout the year. I absolutely enjoyed the grassroots football of it, in terms of the guys you worked with and how they were so receptive to what we were trying to get done there. I actually had the opportunity to be the wide receivers coach the following year (when Gruden, now the offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, replaced Haslett as the head coach)."
When the NFL season ended, Miami Coach Tony Sparano called Hilliard and invited him to join his staff. Now Hilliard is coaching Brandon Marshall, Brian Hartline, Davone Bess and the Dolphins' other receivers.
"I just try to give those guys an option or two to be hopefully successful playing the game," Hilliard said. "I got a chance to do that with the UFL. I'm grateful for those guys getting my start down here."
Hilliard said he first got the coaching bug as a player with the Giants.
"It was around my seventh year, when I experienced the method to the madness of Sean Payton and they way he went about trying to attack defenses," Hilliard said of the Giants former offensive coordinator, who is now the head coach of the New Orleans Saints. "After being in New York for another year I was fortunate enough to go down (to Tampa Bay) and meet Coach (Jon) Gruden and it kind of confirmed to me that coaching was something I wanted to do. I always enjoyed the chess match. I've always enjoyed the detail. So many people influenced me throughout my career to where it's been easy for me to gravitate toward that side of it."
Hilliard is one of the most productive receivers in Giants history. He joined the team in 1997 as a first-round draft choice (the seventh overall selection) after helping Florida win the national championship the previous year. Hilliard stayed through the 2004 season and ranks fifth in franchise history with 368 catches, eighth with 4,630 yards and tied for 11th with 27 touchdown catches.
His finest hour was in the Giants' 41-0 thrashing of the Minnesota Vikings in the 2000 NFC Championship Game. He started the rout by catching a 46-yard touchdown pass from Kerry Collins on the game's fourth play. When the game ended, Hilliard had a Giants postseason-record 10 catches (since broken by Plaxico Burress in the 2007 conference championship game) for 155 yards and two scores.
Typically, Hilliard downplays his contribution in the memorable victory.
"It was obviously a special day for all of us there," Hilliard said. "You look up and it's 14-0 before the Vikings' offense even touched the ball. It was a situation where everyone seemed like we could do no wrong. Everybody got a little bit. I got a couple, Amani (Toomer) got one, Joe Jurevicius got one, (Greg) Comella got one, I can go on and on, Kerry threw it all over the park, the defense pitched a shutout against that offense. It was a day I'll never forget."
After leaving the Giants, Hilliard played for the Bucs from 2005-2008. In Tampa Bay, he caught 178 passes for 1,767 yards and eight touchdowns. Hilliard's career totals are 546 receptions for 6,397 yards and 35 scores.
Hilliard's value was greater than just the numbers. He was a team-first, accountable, stand-up player who never hid from the media after a tough loss or suffering a season-ending injury. It's quite possible the man has never made an excuse in his life.
"That's something my wife has gotten on my (butt) about, sometimes I probably talk too much," Hilliard said. "I think at the end of the day you have to stand up for something or believe in something or do something a certain way. I hope that people respected the way I played the game. I figure if I were to get in this business there's only one way I can be. I'm sometimes brutally honest with my guys and it may not be the way I need to be, but I would hope they respect that and I asked them to be the same way with me. At the end of the day, I'll stand by anything I said. And I'll continue to do that going forward."
Although Hilliard enjoyed his time in Tampa, his heart remained in New Jersey. In 2010, he signed a one-day contract so he could retire as a Giant. He continues to speak of the franchise with great affection.
"I think everyone knows and understands what kind of organization they run," Hilliard said. "It's the flagship organization in the league, in my opinion. It gave me my start, I chose to leave, I didn't have to leave, I was just leaving based on the situation. I don't think it would be right to do it any other way to spend eight years of my life there. The slogan is true, 'Once a Giant, Always a Giant,' and you know they've been gracious enough to allow me to do that and be a part of the family. Hopefully, that'll turn into a bigger and better relationship going down the road."
His immediate goal is to find as much success as a coach as he did when he wore a uniform.
"I think everyone has an aspiration to be that head coach at some point," Hilliard said. "I'm green in the business. There's a lot for me to learn. That's what I'm focused on, just learning as much as I can. Whatever opportunity is there for me, I plan on taking it. I'd love to be an offensive coordinator trying to score 50 a game. I'd love to be a head coach. There are so many great men that put in a lot of time in this business that never had that opportunity to be an offensive coordinator or head coach. I just want to work, I love being around the game. I want to be the best teacher I can be for this group, whatever group of guys I'm around, and do the best I can for the head coach I'm working for.
"I'm grateful I've been allowed this opportunity to do it and I'm hoping to do the very best I can and hang around for a bit."
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