- Steve Wulf, ESPN Senior Writer
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"It gets my name out there ... Even I had never heard of me."
-- Peyton Hillis, reading No. 8 on the "Top 10 Perks Of Being On The Cover Of Madden 12," on "Late Show with David Letterman," April 28, 2011
He hasn't packed yet for training camp, but he travels light and besides, he knows what he's going to take. Clothes. Cowboy boots (alligator, ostrich, diamondback). Books and DVDs ("Masters of Command," "Battles BC," "Black Hawk Down," "Gladiator"). The TV he got when Arkansas played in the 2007 Capital One Bowl. A fan to supplement the air conditioning in the dorm rooms -- it's going to be over 100 in St. Joseph, Mo. Photos of his wedding to Amanda Brown. The Bible.
What Peyton Hillis is not bringing is all the baggage he picked up in Cleveland. As he sits on the couch of his home on a quiet suburban street in Leawood, Kan., stroking his cat Attila, Hillis is still wondering how he morphed from a truck-pulling, sleeve-bursting, line-busting, mold-breaking, folk hero into a game-missing, Halloween party-skipping, teammate-losing, agent-jumping scapegoat -- all seemingly in the time it takes to play a game of Madden.
"I don't know how it all went amok so fast," says Hillis. "Maybe I didn't have the best attitude or show the best character, maybe I took some wrong advice. But I think it happened for a purpose -- last season made me a wiser and better man. And now I'm in the right place at the right time."
That place is Kansas City, and the time is a few days from shipping off to Missouri Western for a career reboot. He lives right down the street from the Chiefs' new offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, who served in the same capacity with the Browns when Hillis accounted for 1,654 yards (1,177 running, 477 receiving) and outpolled Super Bowl-winning QB Aaron Rodgers to be on the cover of Madden 12. He's just a half-day drive from his hometown of Conway, Ark.
He will share duties with All-Pro Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster, running behind a strong offensive line. He's joining a team poised to surprise opponents, experts and fans, maybe all the way to the playoffs. Best of all, he's being embraced by Chiefs fans and coaches. At a press conference the other day, head coach Romeo Crennel was asked about Hillis. "Oh, I like what we see," he said. "We're all gonna like what we see."
That's on the field. What you see when he's home is a 6'2", 250-pound block of granite who looks perfectly capable of pulling the truck parked outside -- which he did a few weeks ago for a video for Rockin' Refuel, the nutritional chocolate milk drink he endorses.
What you hear is a lot of "Yes, sir" and "No, sir." What you sense is a man given to reading (the bookcases are full), pets (besides Attila, there's a miniature Eskimo dog named Cracker and a chocolate lab named Remington), hunting (four mounted deer heads in the basement, one from a deer Amanda shot) and Chuck Norris (poster). Hillis just signed a one-year contract with the Chiefs for $3 million, but there is no sign of extravagance or ego.
What you don't get is how this polite, thoughtful and likable guy fell from grace, which, in Madden terminology, was 99 trucking.
No. 6: "When going through airport security, video game box counts as ID."
Doug and Carrie Hillis were worried that night on the Letterman show. "I thought he'd blow his lines," Doug says. "Peyton's not much for public speaking. But after he read over the Top 10 twice, he said, 'I got it.' And he nailed it."
The Hillises run a day care facility in Conway, a town of 50,000 about 30 miles north of Little Rock. Peyton is not the first American idol who's a native son; there's also the season eight American Idol, Kris Allen. Nor is he the first NFL running back; the late Packers great Elijah Pitts is from Conway.
The biggest weekend of the spring is Toad Suck Daze, a carnival named for a nearby area of the Arkansas River. The biggest weekend of the fall is -- well, every weekend Conway High plays football is big. When word gets around that Peyton is home, kids knock on the door and ask, "Can Peyton come out and play?"
That's fine with Peyton and Doug, who so loves football that he named his second son after Bears running back Walter Payton. "Carrie just didn't like the spelling, so we changed the a to an e."
Doug coached Peyton and his older brother, Kyle, in baseball and football, sometimes resorting to unorthodox methods. Peyton, widely praised for his pass-catching abilities, credits his hands to this drill: "My dad would make us stand behind a pole and throw footballs at us."
The children (daughter Halley came along six years after Peyton) also inherited Doug's competitive streak. "You ever play the game Catch Phrase?" asks Peyton. "Well, our family can't play even a simple board game like that, or Apples to Apples, without somebody getting mad."
As a senior, Kyle was the starting running back for the Conway Tigers, but when he broke his collarbone, coach Kenny Smith moved Peyton, then a sophomore, over from tight end. Thus began a pattern of Peyton surprising people. By his senior year, he was carrying the ball 261 times for 2,631 yards and 29 touchdowns. As if the numbers weren't enough to build his legend, there was his training regimen. Trying to impress a girl the summer before his senior year, he attached a harness to his torso and pulled a truck down her street. "Turned out to be a great full-body workout that I still do," he says.
Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida and Nebraska came calling, but Peyton chose Arkansas, not only for the proximity, but also because coach Houston Nutt offered the opportunity to play tailback. But during his promising freshman campaign, he broke a bone in his back.
He recovered, but Nutt then recruited two other tailbacks: Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. Hillis had to settle for being the fullback. Thus, when it came time for the 2008 draft, McFadden went in the first round to the Raiders (fourth overall pick), Jones in the same round to the Cowboys (22nd overall), and Hillis in the seventh round to the Broncos (227th overall).
"I love trying to prove myself," says Hillis. "I've had to do it a few times."
Part of the problem is that Hillis is a white running back. Before he was drafted, the last Caucasian back to rush for more than 1,000 yards in an NFL season was Craig James for the 1985 New England Patriots. Never mind that Hillis ran a 4.6 40, or that he had great hands and good moves, or that he could "truck" your typical linebacker. He just didn't look like the other running backs. The most common taunt Hillis would hear was, "Why are they giving an offensive lineman the ball?"
So when Hillis arrived in Broncos camp, "he wasn't even on the depth chart," according to then-head coach Mike Shanahan. But Shanahan valued his versatility and as more Broncos running backs went down, Hillis saw more playing time. As a rookie, he had seven catches for 116 yards and a touchdown against the Dolphins, and 129 yards and a TD in a win over the Eric Mangini-coached Jets. Unfortunately, he tore his hamstring the next week. Denver finished 8-8, and Shanahan was fired.
Denver had a new coach, Josh McDaniel, and running back Knowshon Moreno, a first-round pick out of Georgia. Peyton disappeared in 2009: 13 carries and four receptions in 14 games. One man was keeping an eye on him, though.
No. 1: "Helps Cleveland forget Lebron."
Mangini was 5-11 in his inaugural season as the Browns' head coach when he traded his disappointing quarterback, Brady Quinn, for Hillis and two draft picks . "I remembered what he did to us when I was coaching the Jets in 2008," Mangini says. "But it wasn't like I knew he would become such a force. It took us awhile to realize the possibilities."
Injuries to James Davis and Jerome Harrison forced Mangini to start Hillis at running back in Week 3 against the Ravens, and he responded with 144 yards on 22 carries and 36 yards on seven catches in a 24-17 loss. The next week, the Browns won their first game of the season, 23-20 over the Bengals, and Hillis rushed for 102 yards. He came to national attention in Week 9, when he had 184 rushing and 220 all-purpose yards in a 34-14 victory over the Patriots, which earned him AFC offensive player of the week.
"There wasn't anything I didn't love about him," says Mangini, now an ESPN analyst. "He was tough, smart, strong, coachable -- yes sir, no sir -- and he had the best hands I'd ever seen on a running back. If he had any weakness, it was that he would lose the ball because he tried to keep the play alive instead of going down."
No. 40 jerseys flew off the rack. The Orange and Brown Report began running a meme called "Who Is Tougher: Peyton Hillis or Chuck Norris?" -- a play on the old Chuck Norris jokes.
"Peyton Hillis CAN believe it's butter."
"Peyton Hillis' watch does not have hands. It simply reads, 'Time to kick ass.' "
"The boogeyman checks his closet for Peyton Hillis before he goes to bed."
Hillis finished the season with 1,177 rushing yards and 61 receptions. He might have had more, but he played the last three games with cracked ribs. Alas, the Browns again finished 5-11, and Mangini was fired. "I was very sorry to see Coach Mangini go," Hillis says. "He was a coach who really believed in me."
About a week later, Browns president Mike Holmgren and GM Tom Heckert hired longtime NFL assistant Pat Shurmur as head coach.
While the Browns' brain trust embarked on Year 48 of a rebuilding plan, EA Sports conducted an online poll to determine which NFL player should appear on its Madden 12 cover. It's a lasting tribute to Browns fans that Hillis, seeded No. 10 in the NCAA basketball-style tournament for 32 teams, defeated No. 7 Ray Rice, then No. 2 Matt Ryan, No. 6 Jamaal Charles and finally No. 1 seed Aaron Rodgers.
April 28, 2011, was a big day. EA introduced Hillis as the cover boy at a New York City press conference. "I don't believe in the Madden curse," he said. He did Letterman, then hurried over to Radio City Music Hall to announce the Browns' first pick in the draft.
A few weeks later, Peyton and Kyle, who handles his brother's marketing, went to Los Angeles for an EA event at which the Madden 12 prototype was introduced. "I remember watching Peyton and Clay Matthews play against one another," Kyle says. "Matthews could not tackle him. EA actually had to dial Peyton back a little."
No. 2: "You call doing this crap a perk?"
Slightly diminished on Madden 12, Peyton was still phenomenal. Jon Robinson, who reviews video games for ESPN.com, says, "When Madden 12 shipped, Hillis was a complete beast. Defenders bounced off him right and left, and he was one of the toughest players in the entire game to tackle -- 99 trucking, 91 overall. But as his playing time slipped in real life, his ratings were updated online, and by the end of the season, he was just another back. The curse is real!"
The Madden Curse has claimed many victims. Even perennial stars like Ray Lewis and Drew Brees have suffered injuries or disappointing seasons after appearing on the cover. The explanation, which also fits the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, is that players are captured at the top of a trajectory that is bound to go down.
But with Madden, there does seem to be an especially vehement payback for hubris.
In the summer of '11, Peyton had no idea that the fates were about to truck him. He went back to Conway to wait out the labor talks, hunted, fished, pulled a fire truck for charity, bet people they couldn't knock the football he was carrying out of his hand -- his way of reducing his fumble total. He met Amanda Brown, a preacher's daughter, fellow Razorback and T.J. Maxx manager. They fell in love.
A reasonable person might assume that the Browns would embrace their new folk hero. "I actually got the feeling that management resented all the attention that Madden 12 gave Peyton," Kyle says.
The Browns lowballed Hillis, And he took took umbrage. He also didn't have as big a role in the West Coast offense that Shurmur installed. But he still rushed for 94 yards in the Browns' 27-19 victory over the Colts in Week 2. In the days before the Week 3 game against the Dolphins, though, he came down with strep throat and pulled out of the game that morning. Hillis says the Browns agreed, but scuttlebutt had it that Hillis pulled out because of the contract.
A new deal was weighing on his mind, but so was his relationship with Amanda, who was working in Oklahoma. Peyton and Amanda decided in early October to get married at the end of the month. Hillis injured his left hamstring in Week 6. The wedding in Fayetteville, Ark., was on a Tuesday, but some teammates still questioned Peyton's commitment to the team -- who gets married when he should be getting rehab?
Hillis made another crucial mistake at the 49ers game on Oct. 30. Even though he wasn't playing, he spent the warm-ups throwing passes from midfield to the crossbar with third-string quarterback Thad Lewis. "It did not sit well with any of us," a veteran Brown told Michael Silver of Yahoo Sports.
The next night, Hillis was supposed attend a Halloween party in Cleveland for the Boys and Girls Club hosted by ex-Brown center LeCharles Bentley, but he did not show. "Miscommunication," Kyle says. "I gave him the wrong information." Peyton took full responsibility, issuing an abject apology.
After those missteps, some Browns veterans staged an intervention. As one told Silver, "Last year, Peyton was such a positive, inspirational force on our team -- but now he's like a different guy. It's like he's in a funk that he can't get out of, and it's killing us, because we really need him."
Browns management cut off negotiations and let it be known that Hillis would become a free agent in March. In essence, they found a scratch on their DVD, but instead of cleaning or buffing it, they decided to buy a new one.
"This is a father talking, and not Peyton," Doug Hillis says. "The Browns crucified him."
Midway through the miserable season, Hillis gave Mangini a call. "I could tell he was lost," Mangini says. "I didn't give him any football advice -- I was trying to be fair to Pat since it was his team -- but I did encourage Peyton to stay positive until he found himself again."
And he did. Fully recovered from his hamstring injury, Hillis rushed for 99 and 112 yards in Weeks 15 and 16. But the Browns, who lost 9 of their last 10 games to finish 4-12, weren't quite through with him. Somebody floated the rumor that Hillis had told coaches he was thinking of retiring to join the CIA. "I don't know where they got that one from," Hillis says.
Adding to his reputation was the firing of three agents within the calendar year. "All great people," Hillis says. "It's just that circumstances kept changing."
The Browns may not have wanted him, but the Bucs, Jets, Cowboys, Bengals, Colts and Chiefs all made inquiries. The combination of playing close to home, for coaches he's comfortable with, on a team that's bound to improve, made the Chiefs an easy choice.
"Last year was very strange," he says. "It really was the best of times, the worst of times. There was all this joy from the wedding, and all this pain from football. Now let's see what I can do. Actions speak louder than words. I don't need to carry the ball all the time. If five carries for 30 yards helps us win, I'm fine with that. I just want to be a football player again. I don't need to be a star."
Actually, Madden 13 has done that downgrading for him: He's an 83 overall, with 91 trucking.
So does he have any advice for Calvin Johnson now that he's on the cover of Madden 13?
"Yes. Just be yourself. Don't change for anybody."
No. 10: "I'm giving the bride away at tomorrow's royal wedding."
The thermometer is hovering around 100 as fans file into Spratt Memorial Stadium at Missouri Western for a nighttime practice.
Sitting in the family section, quietly reading "Great Expectations," is Amanda Hillis.
"I didn't know football at all when we met," Amanda says. "So I didn't know anything about Peyton Hillis, the football player. All I saw was this sweet, small-town guy who loved the woods and people and animals.
"He was also focused on football, which is why last year was so difficult for him. Nobody should ever question his love for the game. But now he's in a good place -- people have been so nice to us -- playing the role he was meant to play."
As a full, red moon pops up on the horizon, the Chiefs go through their drills. Even at three-quarters speed, Hillis looks as imposing as he did in Madden 12.
After practice, the players sign autographs for the fans. As Hillis moves along the ropes, signing and chatting, a young boy bursts through the line and shouts, "I got Peyton Hillis!"
Hillis notices that almost all the other Chiefs have gone to the locker room. But before he breaks away, an older woman hands him a shirt to sign and asks him, "You have a nice summer?"
"Yes, ma'am, very nice, thank you for asking. My wife and I bought a house, then we went on vacation. And now I'm here."
Then he signed a few more.
3hEric D. Williams
1dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo