Browns running back Peyton Hillis might be the most popular player in the NFL, if the results of the recent Madden cover vote is any indication. Hillis dazzled fans by running around, through and over players in 2010 -- the latter a nod to the great Walter Payton, whom Hillis suspects he was named after despite the dissimilar spelling.
Some in Cleveland have even compared Hillis to the great Jim Brown, a comparison that the current toast of Cleveland wants no part. "He was a legend, and I'm nothing," Hillis said while making the rounds at the NFL Network studios Tuesday.
Hillis sees his skill set being similar to other bruising running backs, mentioning the names of Earl Campbell and Eddie George. One name he omitted is Mike Alstott.
Yet it seems that every time Hillis compared to any running back, it's Alstott. The reason is obvious -- they both wear No. 40. Oh, and they are white running backs in a position dominated by African-Americans.
Does he resent the comparisons?
"No," Hillis said. "I like to look at it as things and people and whole society in general being uneducated about facts. There are a lot of stereotypes. But I don't see color, I don't see race. I see athletes and see what kind of heart that they have. There are a lot of athletic trends that I don't have. I feel like I have a bigger heart and desire than most people do.
"One thing I have figured out: People don't like different. People don't like to see anything different. When you see something different, you are either scared or afraid or you feel threatened. And I feel that the way I play the game, it feels like I should have played 50 years ago. But it's what I do. I feel I do it well. Whatever it takes to get on the field and get that starting spot to get the carries. I've always worked hard."
That heart and desire has allowed Hillis to persevere. Hillis blocked for the talented duo of Felix Jones and Darren McFadden at Arkansas. Hillis began his rookie season in 2008 in Denver behind seven running backs before getting a chance for one game against the Jets, where he ran for 129 yards and a touchdown.
New head coach Josh McDaniels rewarded Hillis by burying him on the depth chart by selecting Knowshon Moreno in the 2009 draft and acquiring veteran Correll Buckhalter. The biggest indignity coming when he learned via a television report that he had been traded to Cleveland for Brady Quinn prior to the 2010 season.
Hillis broke out against the Ravens in Week 3, rushing for 144 yards and a touchdown. Hillis had another monster game in Week 9 against the Patriots, rushing for 184 yards and two touchdowns. Anybody skeptical of Hillis became a believer, even his trash-talking opponents.
"You get taunted, but everybody gets taunted," Hillis said. "It's a game, a competitive game and everybody has that competitive nature. Smack talking has a lot to do with the game. Everybody wants to succeed and that's another mental game that people like to play. Everything is in play."
Through it all, Hillis remains humble, mostly because of the obstacles he has overcome. "It's something that is here today and may be gone tomorrow,â he said, âso you have to enjoy it while you can."