Football is the closest thing in America to a gladiator sport — it’s no surprise that superstars fall apart every year between injuries, stress and personal issues. As we know it now, football will never be a completely safe game, and some top-tier players will have their careers cut short. Sometimes, though, an unstoppable force will cease to be for no apparent reason. No great injury, no familial death or contract dispute — the magic will simply vanish. Such a story was viewed on a national scale in the Cleveland Browns’ Peyton Hillis.
Hillis’ accomplishments in the NFL are even more bizarre after looking at his college career. Attending the University of Arkansas, his most extraordinary year saw Hillis garner 950 yards total, rushing and receiving combined. Never at any point was he a standout talent — serviceable for sure but no indication of what was to come in his future. His six-foot, 240-pound frame with a 2.47 40-yard dash time was very average, and his pick number reflected that at pick 227 in the seventh round. He was placed in the fullback position in his 2008 rookie season.
His first career 100-yard game came against a home loss to the Miami Dolphins, but Hillis’ first mark on the league came with an injury to the starting running back. Against the Cleveland Browns, starting running back Ryan Torain tore his ACL in the second quarter. With no better options, Hillis was given the starting job, and he impressed over the next few games; his two touchdowns contributed to a 24-20 win over the Atlanta Falcons, and two games later, Hillis recorded 129 rushing yards and a touchdown against the New York Jets. Despite Hillis making the best of his opportunity, his time in Denver was cut short. After being clipped by two players and tearing his ACL, new head coach Josh McDaniels opted to draft running back Knowshon Moreno. Hillis was once again relegated to the fullback position. Putting up less than 60 yards all year and seeing little playing time, he was traded to the Cleveland Browns in a package for quarterback Brady Quinn.
Hillis’ time in Cleveland was nothing but legendary for his first year. Despite being placed at fullback once more, he would get another chance to prove himself as the #1 and #2 backs on the depth chart; Jerome Harrison and James Davis, respectively, were injured in the first two weeks. Week three against the Baltimore Ravens saw Hillis amassing 144 rushing yards against a defense with starters like Haloi Ngata and Terrell Suggs. In 2009, this same defense only allowed 3.4 yards per carry on average. Hillis doubled that at 6.5 yards per carry in that contest. Week four saw much of the same success against the Bengals, as he broke 100 rushing yards again in a victory. These performances became a regular occurrence — week nine saw Hillis gather up 220 yards versus the New England Patriots. In week 12, Hillis ran for 130 yards and added three rushing touchdowns against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He added another 108 rushing yards against the Buffalo Bills in week 13, but even with his amazing play, Hillis was unable to save Cleveland’s miserable team, as they only went 5-11 on the season. His accolades were noted by NFL fans across the country, however, and he beat out the likes of Ray Rice, Aaron Rodgers and Michael Vick to appear on the Madden 12 video game cover.
Cleveland’s terrible luck took its toll on Hillis, though. His 2011 season is one of the strongest cases of the “Madden Curse” — a superstition that posits that stars that appear on Madden game covers fall apart spectacularly. Beginning with a tense contract dispute, there was a different feeling surrounding Hillis altogether. Between “strep throat” and “hamstring injuries” (despite a very healthy season and no mention of an offseason injury prior to the contract talks), it was clear to everyone that these were excuses in an attempt to force Cleveland to pay him more than the $600,000 he was being offered. He was never paid any more, and after giving up the fight, Hillis played out the rest of the year, ending with under 600 rushing yards and feeling very unsatisfied. Regretful of his actions and wanting to stay in Cleveland, Hillis dropped the dispute entirely to stay in Cleveland, even offering to take less than his current yearly rate in 2012. The Browns didn’t respond to his position, though, and he left in free agency to Kansas City.
The end of Hillis’ stardom was utterly unremarkable. Between playing in Kansas City, New York and Tampa Bay, his most rushing yards in a season after Cleveland was 309 for the Chiefs. His retirement in 2014 was met with little fanfare, and his career was officially over. As sullen a turn as his career took, remembering him for his crash-and-burn would be unfair. Not only did Hillis become the first white running back to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season since 1985, but his stunning play, if only for a year, kept the perpetually depressed Cleveland fans in their seats. With little to watch for, Peyton Hillis was a hero to them and a great way to increase ticket sales in a shallow market. His end may have been bizarre and dull, but his 2010 year is a fond memory for Cleveland and a testament to the unpredictability of the NFL.