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Friday, January 14, 2011
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By Corey Long
ESPN Recruiting

The story is all too familiar -- a top high school athlete excels on the field and struggles in the classroom. For some, the end of high school is the end of their athletic careers and for others it comes after a short and unsuccessful stint in junior college.

Running back Kenny Hilliard (Patterson, La./Patterson) didn't want to go down that road.

Despite being a talent on the football field, Hilliard was a struggling student. He was placed on a GED learning track during his freshman year, but rather than accept this fate, Hilliard reached out to his mother Brenda.

"He said he was just goofing off in class and wondered why he had to bother with school at all," Brenda Hilliard said. "He didn't understand why he needed to be in school if he wasn't doing anything."

Faced with the possibilities of her son leaving the school system all together, Brenda Hilliard took action and asked the administration in the St. Mary's Parish school system for help.

What they offered was a new program coming through the elementary schools called Fast ForWord, a line of computer software designed to build cognitive skills required to read and learn effectively. The program was developed by Scientific Learning, a California-based company.

"It was a blessing for us," Brenda Hilliard said. "Because I know what kind of potential Kenny has and to have this program that was going to help him get back on track was a just a blessing from God."

Kenny Hilliard
Kenny Hilliard is the No. 8-ranked running back in the 2011 class.

Kenny Hilliard needed to improve his reading and his reading comprehension skills because they were below the level needed to participate in the classes that would help him get a traditional diploma.

At the time, the Fast ForWord program was only offered in the elementary school, so Hilliard had to attend the classes with third graders from Hattie A. Watts Elementary School.

"Yes he was in there with those little kids," said Brenda Hilliard. "They let him know that if he wanted to do this he was going to have to go back to elementary school. But Kenny was willing to do whatever it took. He was humble and it didn't matter how it looked or how long it took."

It didn't take Kenny long to get his reading comprehension skills up to high school level.

"It took months, just a few months," Brenda Hilliard said. "Once he got into the program, it became easier and easier. Everything improved quickly. Even when he was reading his sports magazines it was just exciting to see how excited he was. I'm still overwhelmed by it all."

As Kenny's academic level was improving he continued to excel on the football field. After earning a position on Louisiana's Class 3A first-team as a freshman, he rushed for over 2,300 yards and 34 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2008. For his efforts he was named ESPN RISE Sophomore Football Player of the Year.

As a senior, the 6-foot, 220-pounder broke Louisiana's rushing record and finished his career at Patterson with 8,603 yards.

But instead of his prep football accomplishments being the end, it turns out they will just be in the beginning. Hilliard will enroll at LSU over the weekend and he enters college confident in his future on and off the field.

He follows in the footsteps of his uncle, Dalton Hilliard, a star at LSU in the early 80s before going to the NFL where he spent eight seasons with the New Orleans Saints.

"I'm excited about the opportunity that LSU has given me to play football and get a college education," Kenny Hilliard said. "It's a great program to be a part of. I remember growing up and watching the film of when my uncle played there. LSU has always been home to me and everyone can come and see me. I fell in love with it."

Another home for Kenny, a new home, has been the library, where he checks out books regularly and reads for leisure.

"My English IV teacher really wanted me to continue reading different books so I'm at the library a lot now," he said. "The Fast ForWord program has been great for me and it's given me a whole new opportunity to achieve more in life."

Watching her son's academic level do a complete 180 has been one of the most rewarding things in Brenda Hilliard's life.

"As Kenny improved as a student, he started getting B's when he was D student," she said. "I was so proud. I am proud of the person that he is. My son is such a positive person and he wants to help other kids that are in the situation he is. What else can a mother say? I'm just thankful that he has become the person he is."

Corey Long has been covering high school football and recruiting in the Sunshine State since 1995. He can be reached at coreyespn@gmail.com.