- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
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I wanted to know how much he'd been asked about his success as a white featured back in the NFL this season. He wanted no part of the inquiry.
"I don't put race into the equation," Hillis said. "I'm a human being just like everybody else."
It was a predictable answer to a predictable question, and I don't blame Hillis for assuming the politically correct position. What I can't do is look at his breakout season and act as if his skin color isn't part of the storyline. Yes, the man clearly has talent that has been ignored for far too long. But it also has been even longer since we've seen a white man running through pro defenses the way he has this year.
The 6-foot-1, 240-pound Hillis has gained 726 yards through nine games, while scoring eight touchdowns and averaging a healthy 4.8 yards per carry. He's also accomplished all this while playing on a Browns offense currently led by a rookie quarterback (Colt McCoy) and a bunch of skill players who aren't going to make any defensive coordinators lose sleep in the near future. Hillis basically is the biggest reason why Cleveland fans have a chance to see a competitive game every week these days. His hard-charging, smashmouth style has turned him into an immediate hit with those long-suffering locals.
You'd have to go back decades to find a white runner who has meant this much to his team. Merril Hoge had some decent years in Pittsburgh in the late 1980s and early '90s. John Riggins was a dominant offensive force for the Washington Redskins in the late '70s and early '80s. Let's also not forget about those old-timers who cracked the 1,000-yard mark in the 1970s, men like Miami's Larry Csonka, Oakland's Mark van Eeghen and Pittsburgh's Rocky Bleier.
As for more recent years, there hasn't been a white running back who's even been capable of driving this kind of conversation (and please don't say Tampa Bay's Mike Alstott -- he never looked as dangerous as Hillis has become). Blacks have dominated the position, and it's become nearly impossible to even find promising college runners entering the league who aren't African-Americans. To put this into greater perspective, only eight of the top 100 career rushers in league history have been Caucasian. So when somebody like Hillis comes along to crash the party, you've got to be startled by how rare a guy like him has become.
Keep in mind, this is a man who waited a long time to be a featured back. That opportunity never came when he was playing fullback at Arkansas, primarily because the Razorbacks already had two exceptional backs who eventually would become first-round NFL draft picks (Darren McFadden and Felix Jones). When the Denver Broncos made Hillis a seventh-round pick in the 2008 draft, his prospects didn't look any brighter. Aside from having the versatility to be an effective fullback in the West Coast offense run by then-head coach Mike Shanahan, he had given nobody any reason to dream big about his future.
Then a funny thing happened: Hillis got a shot. When several Broncos runners suffered injuries in 2008, he proved he could do the job by gaining 343 yards and scoring five touchdowns before a torn right hamstring ended his season. The production was enough to keep Hillis on the NFL radar even though he vanished last season in the offense run by head coach Josh McDaniels. And the Browns eventually acquired Hillis (along with a sixth-round pick in the 2011 draft and a conditional pick in the 2012 draft) in a March trade that sent quarterback Brady Quinn to Denver.
When Hillis looks back on those days, he can't come up with an adequate explanation as to why nobody could see him in a feature role. Even in Cleveland, he started as a fullback until injuries led to a shot in a Week 3 game against Baltimore, a chance that Hillis turned into a 144-yard effort.
"I think it was about not being in the right place at the right time," he said. "Or maybe it was about not being in the right scheme. But I'm not worried about that now. I'm just focused on being in the right situation here."
Since Hillis can't make sense of his past, I'll take a stab at it. His previous coaches likely spent so much time looking for runners with certain skill sets that they never envisioned that Hillis could be more than what he was. He got placed in a box, and that's not just because of his skin color. It's because this is what happens when people don't have the vision to see beyond the expectations they've already established in their own minds.
If you think this is flawed logic, just consider the plight of black quarterbacks in the past. Many were labeled as "athletes" or "scramblers" and rarely given a chance to show their abilities as passers because they didn't fit a certain NFL mold. The irony now is that mobility is a treasured asset in quarterbacks, but that's also beside the point. In those days, if you didn't look the part, you didn't get the part.
In Hillis' case, some people will see race attached to this story and assume it's an attempt to be controversial. It's actually just an attempt to be honest. Hillis is showing us something we haven't seen in the league in awhile. In the process, he's reminding us of what makes sports so special in the first place -- that the whole point of competition is to make us understand what can happen when somebody gets a chance.
In fact, Hillis was so confident in his own ability that he promised to be the steal of that offseason trade when he arrived in Cleveland. It was a little out of character for such a humble man, but as he said, "I always felt I had the talent. It was just a matter of getting an opportunity."
As it turned out, Hillis was quite prescient in his thinking. What he couldn't have imagined, however, was that his ability wouldn't be the only reason he'd turn heads in the league this season.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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