The Giants won two Super Bowls in the past six years. To the surprise of most of the football world, they started this season 0-6. It was a swift and precipitous fall from grace for a franchise that prides itself on being competitive and making incredible playoff runs.
Running back Peyton Hillis can relate to the Giants quick decline.
Hillis has seen the mountain top and been to the promise land and now he’s trying to hold onto his NFL dream with a last ditch effort for a last-place program.
In 2010, Hillis ran for 1,177 yards and 11 TDs with the Cleveland Browns. He emerged out of the seventh-round from Arkansas in '08 and survived two lost seasons with Denver, to become one of the best running backs in the NFL.
So dope, that he was the “people’s choice” to be featured on the cover of a Madden video game, beating out established superstars like Mike Vick, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
Making him more recognizable was the fact that he was a white cat playing running back, and he was toting it strong, not just blocking.
Over the past 30 years in the NFL, the white running back has become obsolete. Most talented and athletic white offensive skills players are finding homes in today’s NFL as featured slot receivers. In fact, Hillis was the first white running back to crack 1,000 yards since New England’s Craig James in 1985-- when The Cosby Show was just popping off.
The colossal rise and fall of athletes and entertainers are increasingly common in this jet-paced information age we exist in. As we’ve witnessed this season with NY's demise and the Kansas City Chiefs’ historic rise from worst–to-first, the NFL is the ultimate ego tease. This league can build you up one season and rip you apart the next.
After that magical 2010 campaign, injuries and a nasty contract dispute with the Browns led to Hillis' exit from Cleveland. He spent one season with the Kansas City Chiefs (Land of Jamal Charles) and signed with the Buccaneers this summer (Doug Martin Street), but got cut.
Just thirty days ago, Hillis was back home on his 1,300-acre soybean farm in Pittsburg Landing, Tenn., contemplating life after football and how fast his rollercoaster career transpired. “That’s not the way I wanted to go out,” Hillis told NY Times, “but it felt like, if this is where the Lord has put me, I’ve got to accept it, you know? And just go with it.”
The flip side of the NFL is that the league also presents opportunity and holds hidden fortunes for players when they least expect it.
The Giants, entrenched in their own personal hell and decimated by injuries to their backfield, reached out and picked Hillis off the scrap heap, thrusting him into action on Monday night against the Vikings. At 0-6, they had nothing to lose.
Running back Ahmad Bradshaw wasn’t retained after last season because of myriad injuries to his foot and neck. He’s currently on the Colts, and out for the season. Projected starter, Andre Brown fractured his leg in the preseason. Second-year talent David Wilson was supposed to be that dude this season, but fumbles and a neck and spine injury has shelved him for the moment. Wilson’s primary backup and third-down back, Da’Rel Scott, got cut this month.
The Giants were searching for a second option and Hillis was searching for a second chance. It seemed to just work, if only for one night. If Hillis can keep it up, however, they will need him, at least until Brown returns around Week 10.
Without much time to get in shape or learn the playbook, Hillis’ 81 all-purpose (36 rushing, 45 receiving) accounted for nearly a third of the Giant’s 257 total yards. His handy work and a revived Giants D (3 turnovers) was the difference in defeating Josh Freeman’s Vikings squad 23-7 and ending an embarrassing losing streak.
Hillis was snagging passes, and when other backs couldn’t move the line of scrimmage, he ran fearlessly downhill, like a bulldozer. At times, he looked like a combination of John Riggins, Tom Rathman, Mike Alstott and Larry Csonka. They comprise a short list of the greatest all-time white running backs. All of these cats possess hard core rushing styles and the ability to move a pile-on like Big Meech and BMF moved bricks in their prime.
"It feels like I've been beat around here for the past couple years and really never getting an opportunity," a rejuvenated Hillis told espn.com "When I got this call, when I thought my career was over, I went out and was like I'm going to give it all I can and see what happens.”
Prior to the turn of the century, the NFL had some dope white running backs, who actually brought the ruckus every game. Both Washington Redskins back John Riggins and Miami Dolphins pounder Larry Csonka, were tremendous featured fullbacks, a position that isn’t currently utilized for more than blocking in two-back sets. Riggins and Csonka trucked for 1,000 yards in a season multiple times, and have won a Super Bowl MVP.
Hall of Famer John Riggins “AKA” The Diesel-- considered by many to be the best white back to ever do it-- had 38 carries for 166 yards in Super Bowl XVII. His four-straight, 100-yard rushing games in the 1982 playoffs bullied the Redskins to a 27-17 win in Super Bowl XVII. When the free-spirited Riggins hung em’ up in 1985, only Walter “Sweetness” Payton, RB King Jim Brown and Pittsburgh’s hot-footed Franco Harris had more career rushing yards.
Csonka was an integral part of the 1972 Miami Dolphins squad, which is still the only team to complete an NFL season undefeated and untied, going 17-0. Csonka also had 33 carries for 145 yards in Super Bowl VIII and a career total of 8,081 rushing yards and 68 TDs.
Tom Rathman was a member of a star-studded offensive juggernaut featuring cats like Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Roger Craig and John Taylor, but he managed to make a dent in every game. Rathman was a vital part of the San Francisco 49ers squads that won back to-back Super Bowls in 1988 and 1989. He caught 73 passes during the second Super Bowl season and scored two rushing TDS in a 55-10 blowout of Denver in Super Bowl XXIV.
Mike “The Train” Alstott was the NFL’s official double-threat fullback in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was a six-time Pro Bowler, who had 5,088 career rushing yards, 311 receptions and 60 TDs. He helped the Tamp Bay Buccaneers win their only Super Bowl title in 2002 and led the team in rushing touchdowns each year from 1997-1999 and 2001-2002. Alstott also led the team with 65 receptions as a rookie out of Purdue.
Hillis’ defining moment was when he powered in from the 1-yard line, to give the Giants a 17-7 lead, New York's biggest in 2013.
Just as the Giants have enjoyed past success looking down on suckers in the NFL food chain, Hillis was once thought to be on the level of the aforementioned "white hopes."
Together they both took a resounding step towards getting back to that zone of invincibility. At the very least it’s a sign that they’ve both made it past the worst times.
“It removes the stigma of having a zero at the front of your record, and it gives us renewed energy,” wide receiver Victor Cruz told nytimes.com after the game. “Everyone feels a little fresher, like the season is beginning again.”
On Monday night Hillis had to feel the same way.