Peyton Hillis could have been a Pro Bowl running back with the Cleveland Browns for years on end.
After two unspectacular seasons with the Denver Broncos from 2008 to 2009, the unheralded Hillis became a top-tier running back with the Browns in 2010.
He had 1,177 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 270 carries in Eric Mangini’s last season as Browns head coach.
Despite Hillis’ emergence, Cleveland remained a cellar dweller in the AFC North division.
Unfortunately, Hillis’ second season with the Browns in 2011 was shrouded in controversy – including the dreaded “Madden Curse” – from the very beginning.
Hillis ultimately wore out his welcome in Cleveland.
He spent three unremarkable seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Giants from 2012 to 2014 before retiring from pro football.
This is Peyton Hillis’ remarkable and controversial football journey.
Peyton Derek Hillis was born to parents Doug and Carrie in Conway, AR on January 21, 1986. He has an older brother, Kyle.
Peyton’s parents named him after Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, per Bleacher Report’s Brad Gagnon.
When Hillis was a youngster growing up in Arkansas, he gained so much weight his father Doug envisioned him becoming a lineman, per The Associated Press’ Rainer Sabin (via The Gadsden Times).
Doug Hillis told The Plain Dealer’s Jodie Valadie in the fall of 2010 that his two sons’ frequent wrestling matches broke more furniture than he could possibly count.
Consequently, the local furniture repairman made a small fortune out of it.
“The furniture man in Conway really liked me,” Doug Hillis told Valadie. “I made a living for him.”
Peyton Hillis attended Conway High School in his hometown. He lettered in baseball and football for the Conway Wampus Cats.
Peyton was an outstanding third-baseman back then.
His dad, Doug, credits that to him throwing tennis balls at Peyton in the corner of their house when he was just a toddler.
Hillis had an unusual, strongman-style training method in high school. He pulled cars to help increase his strength levels.
According to TalkBusiness.net, Hillis continued doing that during his seven-year stint in the National Football League.
Hillis put that training technique to good use when he tried to impress a girl in his senior season in 2003.
Hillis and a friend pulled over in a pickup truck, tied a rope to its front portion, and then tied the other end around Peyton’s waist.
He pulled the pickup truck up and down the street the entire day, per Cleveland.com.
Greatest Alum is likely Peyton Hillis who, before his senior year, used to tie actual Ford trucks to himself and jog around Conway while a friend kept it in neutral/from rolling down hills. This same senior season, I rolled my ankle real bad getting out of a pool too quickly! pic.twitter.com/PRQuTsR5gN
— Zack Stovall (@ZStovall) August 27, 2020
Hillis emerged as one of the best running backs in Arkansas as a junior and senior.
He racked up 2,631 rushing yards on a 10.1 yards-per-carry average in his final season.
Peyton had two favorite plays in high school: blocking defensive backs on a sweep play and blocking linebackers on a running play, per The Plain Dealer.
In both cases, the opposing defenders had no answers for the bull-strong Hillis.
Hillis told Sabin that running backs in his part of the country must have an intimidation factor to succeed. The key was making defenders scared of the running back from the opening kick-off.
Hillis’ fearless style of running earned him plaudits from many football experts.
He also won several accolades in high school, including the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Offensive Player of the Year and the Landers Award as the best high school football player in the state.
Hillis also became an All-State, All-Conference, and All-Arkansas selection in his final two seasons at Conway High.
As Hillis’ high school football career neared its conclusion, he turned down offers from the LSU Tigers, Tennessee Volunteers, Oklahoma State Cowboys, Florida Gators, Alabama Crimson Tide, Nebraska Cornhuskers, and Oklahoma Sooners.
Instead, Hillis remained in-state and committed to the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Hillis admitted to Gagnon in a 2015 interview that he was a 250-lb. running back prospect who was not as fast as other college football aspirants.
Consequently, many coaches and recruiters did not consider him a prototypical running back. Hillis eventually grew weary of going against the grain.
However, Peyton Hillis would eventually emerge as one of the most versatile running backs in the nation during his four-year stint in Fayetteville, AR.
College Days with the Arkansas Razorbacks
Peyton Hillis attended the University of Arkansas from 2004 to 2007. He majored in sociology.
Hillis suited up for Arkansas Razorbacks head football coach Houston Nutt. Hillis played behind running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.
Hillis told Buzz 103.7 FM’s “Out of Bounds” (via BestOfArkansas.com) in 2020 that Nutt fostered a family-like atmosphere during his time with the Razorbacks.
According to Sabin, Hillis wore No. 22 as a tribute to Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith.
Hillis did a little bit of everything on the college gridiron. He played halfback, fullback, tight end, wideout, punt returner, and kick returner for Nutt.
Hillis made a name for himself as a first-rate pass-catching running back at Arkansas.
Hillis’ 118 career receptions eclipsed the previous program record of 94 which Gary Anderson set in the 1982 NCAA season.
Hillis’ 537 receiving yards as a senior in 2007 was a new single-season record in Razorbacks’ football program history.
Hillis finished his college football career with 12 touchdowns on the ground and 2,624 all-purpose yards in 44 games.
The Razorbacks averaged seven wins per season in Hillis’ four years in Fayetteville, AR from 2004 to 2007.
Arkansas made two bowl appearances – the 2006 Capital One Bowl and the 2007 Cotton Bowl – during those four seasons. Unfortunately, the Razorbacks lost on both occasions.
Unheralded Peyton Hillis defied the odds and entered the NFL ranks in 2007.
Regrettably, Hillis never excelled apart from his lone breakout season with the Cleveland Browns in 2010.
Pro Football Career
The Denver Broncos made Peyton Hillis the 227th overall selection of the 2008 NFL Draft.
Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan told ESPN (via Bleacher Report) that Hillis was not on the team’s radar during the lead-up to the draft.
However, the injury bug bit the Broncos’ running back corps hard in 2007. Among the casualties included Selvin Young, Michael Pittman, Andre Hall, and Ryan Torain.
Denver’s depleted running back roster prompted Shanahan and Co. to take Hillis off the draft board in the seventh round.
Hillis showed everybody that he had NFL potential in Week 13 against the New York Jets on November 30, 2008.
Hillis broke loose for 129 rushing yards in the Broncos’ 34-17 triumph over Gang Green.
Chris Simms, son of former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms and current football analyst, was in awe of Hillis’ physicality and versatility during their time together in the Mile High City in the 2009 NFL season.
Simms told Gagnon that Hillis could pass and run like a top-tier NFL player.
When the Broncos’ running backs corps reached full strength in 2009, Hillis took a back seat.
“I never really was ‘The Guy,'” Hillis told Bleacher Report some six years later. “I was always the guy to fill the spot until somebody else came along.”
Denver was a mediocre squad that won eight games per year from 2008 to 2009. The Broncos extended their postseason drought to four years.
The Broncos eventually traded Hillis, a sixth-round draft choice in 2011, and a conditional selection in 2012 to the Cleveland Browns for quarterback Brady Quinn on March 14, 2010.
It did not take long for Hillis to make an immediate impact in Northeast Ohio.
Hillis had an impressive 144 rushing yards against the Baltimore Ravens, which had one of the league’s stingiest run defenses, in a 24-17 loss on September 26, 2010.
Hillis followed that up with 102 yards on the ground in a 23-20 victory over the Browns’ in-state rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals, a week later.
He then shredded the New England Patriots’ defense for 184 yards in a 34-14 rout of Bill Belichick’s crew on November 7, 2010.
When Hillis’ pro football career reached its pinnacle with the Browns, he related to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who was the 199th overall selection of the 2000 NFL Draft.
“Coming out of college, I had a lot of people saying I couldn’t do a lot of stuff,” Hillis told The Repository’s Steve Doerschuk in the fall of 2010. “Since that time, I’ve just wanted to prove them wrong.”
Hillis enjoyed his most prolific football season in 2010. He played in all 16 games and had 1,177 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 270 carries that year.
Hillis, an adept pass-catching running back during his college days at Arkansas, added 477 yards and two touchdowns in the air on 61 receptions for good measure.
He also inched closer toward Darren McFadden – the running back he played behind at Arkansas – in the NFL rushing-receiving leaderboard in 2010.
McFadden ranked fifth in the NFL in that category with 1,664 yards. Hillis had just 10 fewer yards and ranked sixth.
Felix Jones, the other running back who was ahead of Hillis in the Arkansas Razorbacks depth chart, finished 23rd with 1,250.
Despite Peyton Hillis’ breakout year, the Browns finished with an atrocious 5-11 win-loss record in Eric Mangini’s last season as head coach.
The Browns missed the postseason for the eleventh time in the past twelve seasons since they resumed play in 1999.
Unfortunately, Hillis could not build on his memorable 2010 NFL season.
Worse, he was a shadow of the player he was when he took the field in 2011.
According to Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot, Hillis’ various antics wore thin on the Browns’ patience that year.
Hillis’ tenuous contract extension dispute with the Browns marked the beginning of his downfall in Northeast Ohio. Both sides could not come to an agreement.
Next, Hillis’ agent Kennard McGuire advised him to sit out the Week 3 game against the Miami Dolphins due to strep throat and the flu.
Browns Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas could not fathom why Hillis did not play through those issues.
Thomas brought up the example of Browns center Alex Mack, who once played through a burst appendix.
Thomas felt that Hillis’ contract issue and the latter’s refusal to suit up were distractions that sidetracked the Browns in 2011.
“(Hillis) decided to go about trying to get a new contract a certain way and ended up hurting the other 52 guys in the locker room. That was his decision,” Thomas told Cabot in December 2012.
Hillis confirmed to Bleacher Report in 2015 that he battled through pain and injuries in the 2011 NFL season. Hillis felt Thomas did not fully understand what was going on in his life at that point in his pro football career.
To compound the Browns’ woes, Brandon Jackson and Montario Hardesty sustained injuries during the season. Their losses further depleted Cleveland’s running backs corps.
Thomas remembered that none of his Browns teammates’ wanted to take sides with Hillis in training camp. Hillis was an unpopular teammate who wore out his welcome because of the manner in which he went about his business on the gridiron.
Another instance that did not sit well with the Browns was when an injured Hillis, who should have been recovering, was throwing warm-up passes to backup quarterback Thad Lewis prior to a game against the San Francisco 49ers.
Prior to that incident, Hillis had strained his left hamstring during a Browns scrimmage.
A frustrated Hillis flung his helmet to the ground after spiking the football. A team source confirmed to Cabot that it was a legitimate injury.
However, Hillis told Bleacher Report in 2015 that he had lost 20 pounds the week of that controversial game against the Dolphins four years earlier.
He traced the weight loss to a bad virus that grew worse from a combination of stress and non-stop criticism.
Hillis refuted the notion that he skipped the Dolphins game because he was holding out for a better deal.
Despite coming off a severe stomach virus, Hillis reported for practice, so he wouldn’t upset Browns fans the following week.
Alas, that was the same scrimmage where he injured his hamstring.
Peyton Hillis also took some heat for missing a Boys & Girls Club Halloween party in the fall of 2011.
Hillis cited miscommunication for his failure to attend the event, per The Associated Press (via ESPN).
Hillis’ personal life also rubbed some of his teammates the wrong way.
Hillis decided to get married in his home state of Arkansas in November 2011. That infuriated some of his teammates, who felt he should have reported for treatment.
On the other hand, Browns cornerback Joe Haden went through eight hours of knee treatment in preparation for a game against the Seattle Seahawks.
“Of course we’re going to be a little upset if Peyton’s not in there getting his treatment,” Cleveland quarterback Seneca Wallace told Cabot in November 2011. “But if he felt he wanted to get married that day, that’s his business.”
Wallace also told Cleveland.com that he and the other Browns noticed a significant change in Hillis’ personality in 2011.
Wallace thought Hillis might have had some personal issues or other priorities that could have affected his demeanor on the gridiron.
— Pro Sports Outlook (@PSO_Sports) October 23, 2022
Browns left tackle Thomas seconded Wallace’s observation. Thomas lauded Hillis for his blue-collar work ethic and willingness to help his teammates in 2010.
Unfortunately, Thomas felt Hillis was more concerned about his new contract than winning the following year.
Hillis’ antics riled up the Browns to the point that they were allowing him to test the free-agent waters in 2012, per Cabot.
Thomas told Cleveland.com that he and his teammates tried to talk some sense into Hillis, but it did not work.
When Cabot tried to reach out to Hillis to comment on the matter in December 2012, he refused an interview request.
Hillis was in his first year with the Kansas City Chiefs at the time. He and his Chiefs teammates were mourning the loss of Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher, who had just committed suicide.
Hillis signed a one-year, $2.8 million contract with the Chiefs that included $2.4 million in guaranteed money in the spring of 2012.
Thomas thought Hillis’ departure from Cleveland in 2012 was the best option for both sides.
“I think it was better for both sides (that he left),” Thomas told Cabot. “At that point, the situation with him here was toxic. He didn’t want to be here and players didn’t want him here and it’s better for a fresh start at that point.”
From Hillis’ perspective, the Browns were the reason why he became a reviled figure in Cleveland after his infamous fallout in 2011.
“I think the Browns never really looked at me as a true running back,” Hillis told Bleacher Report in 2015. “Because obviously they didn’t sign me back the year after that, but they did a good job turning the fans against me.”
Whenever Hillis was out in public, Browns fans talked smack and labeled him a traitor.
Hillis admitted to Bleacher Report in 2015 that those accusations hurt him. He felt he was a blue-collar guy who related well to the Northeast Ohio culture. He insisted he was not the turncoat that the fans thought he was.
Nonetheless, Hillis also told Gagnon that Browns fans were the best in the NFL. It was just unfortunate that they did not know the details behind his departure from Cleveland.
If they did, Hillis felt they would not have felt that way.
At the time he left Cleveland in early 2012, he felt that the fans wanted to run him out of town, per Bleacher Report.
It got so bad for Hillis that he battled depression and sleepless nights when his issues with the Browns spiraled out of control in 2011.
Hillis’ production in 2011 was a far cry from his memorable 2010 campaign with the Browns.
Hillis had just 587 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns on 161 carries in his second season in Cleveland. He also had just 130 receiving yards and zero receiving touchdowns in 2011.
In the bigger scheme of things, the Browns mustered just four victories in Pat Shurmur’s first season as their head coach in 2011.
To nobody’s surprise, Cleveland missed the postseason – a recurring theme since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999.
— Faux NFL Network™ (@FauxNFLnetwork) May 14, 2017
It seemed like the infamous “Madden Curse” had struck again.
Fans across the country voted Hillis as the cover image of the “Madden 12” video game in the spring of 2011.
Hillis’ popularity soared to new heights following his impressive showing in 2010. He topped bigger-name players such as Michael Vick, Ray Rice, Aaron Rodgers, Jamaal Charles, and Matt Ryan to become the featured cover on “Madden 12.”
Hillis, who never believed in video game curses before gracing the cover of “Madden 12,” thought curses played a part in his rough second season with the Browns in 2011.
“Things didn’t work out in my favor this year,” Hillis told The Associated Press (via ESPN) in December 2011. “There’s a few things that happened this year that made me believe in curses. Ain’t no doubt about it.”
When Hillis first suited up for the Chiefs in 2012, his zest for football had dwindled considerably.
“I was really heartbroken when I left the Browns because that was where I really needed to be,” Hillis told Bleacher Report three years later.
Hillis loved Cleveland so much that he hinted at playing one more season for the Browns in the fall of 2020.
I’d come out of retirement to play just one more season with the @Browns
— Peyton Hillis (@thepeytonhillis) September 18, 2020
Unfortunately, a high ankle sprain in Kansas City’s Week 3 game marked the beginning of three unproductive seasons Hillis split between the Chiefs and New York Giants from 2012 to 2014.
Hillis saw action in a combined 29 games during those three seasons. He never had more than 309 rushing yards in a season.
Hillis, who had 11 touchdowns with the Browns in 2010, had just three combined rushing touchdowns with the Chiefs and Giants.
He never played a single down for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who signed and released him within a two-month time frame in the summer of 2013.
To make matters worse, Hillis had concussions toward the end of the 2013 and 2014 NFL seasons in the Big Apple.
Consequently, team physicians discouraged Hillis from playing football again.
Hillis heeded their advice and hung up his cleats after the 2014 NFL season.
Peyton Hillis finished his seven-year NFL career with 2,832 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns on 696 carries.
He earned approximately $6.3 million in the NFL, per Spotrac.com (via Bleacher Report).
Peyton Hillis returned to his home state of Arkansas after he retired from the National Football League, per Bleacher Report.
He currently resides in Springdale, AR with his wife Amanda and their son Orry.
Happy Birthday to my best friend & the best woman I know… Thank you for coming into my life & making me the happiest man that I can be. You saved my life truly. & I thank Yahweh for that every day…Thank u for loving me unconditionally & giving me new life & purpose. I love you pic.twitter.com/9SbLlNsgWq
— Peyton Hillis (@thepeytonhillis) June 25, 2022
Hillis confided to Gagnon that he would not have coped well with his on- and off-field issues in 2011 had it not been for his family.
Peyton Hillis volunteered as a high school football coach in Siloam Springs, AR after he retired from the NFL.
Although Hillis had other employment opportunities, he felt relating with kids on the gridiron was the best fit for him.
Hillis and his wife purchased the car towing company NWA Towing and Recovery, Inc. in the summer of 2016, per TalkBusiness.net.
Their business has ten workers and nine tow trucks.
Hillis began dabbling in acting in 2021. He portrayed a detective in the horror film, The Hunting.