My soon-to-be 14-year-old son, JD, was a determined, spirited tike. On this summer day, his first football camp, the then-6-year-old JD was set on wearing his Peyton Hillis Cleveland Browns jersey to the event in North Little Rock. The former Arkansas football star’s jersey was the cherry on top of an outfit that included new cleats and eye black. He was especially excited for Hillis, one of the camp counselors, to see the jersey.
JD was really satisfied with his look but was more than upset when he discovered camp organizers required the youngsters to wear the free T-shirt given. True to form, my son refused to comply. I tried to reason with him and eventually he made a beeline for the door of what is now Simmons Bank Arena. One of the organizers had to corral him, convincing him to return by promising him that after the camp he could put the jersey back on and get it signed and get a picture with Hillis.
That compromise satisfied my son, so he happily joined the large group of kids. I watched on as he caught and threw passes and ran other drills. His smile was constant. When music began to play, he danced wildly. That caught the attention of both Hillis and his University of Arkansas teammate Darren McFadden.
As the half-day camp ended, JD was awarded ‘Camper of the Day’ for his age group. He was given a football signed by Hills, McFadden and other Arkansas football legends including Clint Stoerner, DJ Williams and Martrell Spaight. He got a picture with all of the players and the rest of the award winners and, as promised, he and Hillis posed.
JD asked me for his jersey I was holding, and I assumed he was going to put it on. Instead, he handed it to Hillis and said,”Hold it up.” Hillis was a bit puzzled, but did as instructed with a chuckle. I couldn’t help but laugh as the two posed for the picture as the hulking Hillis held the youth-sized jersey with a wide smile.
After the picture, he hugged JD and congratulated him on his award and told him to keep playing football and to keep working hard. It was a storybook ending to a day that started off a bit rocky and those special moments with Hillis during and after the camp made for a fantastic memory. JD, now in eighth grade, still has that ball and picture and counts Hillis as one of his favorite all-time Hogs.
Peyton Hillis’ Accident
That memory came back to me last week when I heard Hillis was clinging to life after an accident while on vacation on Florida’s gulf coast.
According to reports, last Wednesday Hills was injured while successfully rescuing his children from drowning. However, the selfless act left Hillis, 36, unconscious. He had to be transported by helicopter to a Florida hospital where it was determined the rescue had caused severe lung and kidney damage.
Almost immediately, social media was filled with concerned Arkansans who adored Hillis as a Hog and a star at his native Conway High School.
After a couple of days of sketchy details from outlets both in state and across the nation, Hillis’ uncle Greg took to Facebook:
I just wanted to let everyone know on Razorback Nation that Peyton is doing better. He’s still in intensive care and having some problems with his kidneys and his lungs but doctors say he is improving. I just wanted to head off any rumors that have started. I am sure he would want everyone to know that he appreciates all of the prayers being thrown up on his behalf!!!
The latest update came from his girlfriend, Angela Cole, via a post on Instagram. She shared Wednesday night that he is off a ventilator and “on the road to recovery” while asking for continued prayers.
With his ties to the Hogs, Hillis has a ton of support and concern for his condition. And there are others who know him well personally like in his hometown and in the Shiloh Christian youth football community in Springdale, where he was in his first year of volunteering with the program there. That group came together for a candlelight vigil to pray for Hillis on Sunday night.
“As a Shiloh community and family, we want him healed,” Hillis family friend Kelsey Eusery told television station 40/29. “We want him back at full capacity.”
While it seems that group of parents and coaches already respected Hillis, the thought of him risking his own life to save his kids only confirmed their admiration for him. None of them were surprised that he sprang into action. And I’m pretty sure Hillis would have done the same thing for someone else’s kid who might have been in trouble. He’s clearly a guy who cares about others, and especially has a heart for kids.
Beloved by Arkansas football and NFL Fans Alike
It would have been easy for Hillis to have been overshadowed by McFadden and his running back mate at the time, Felix Jones, but Hogs fans were drawn to Hillis because of his ‘every man’ attitude. He trained by pulling a pickup truck down the street in Conway and if McFadden and Jones were flashy, he was bluer collar but also talented in his own right with the ability to run the ball like a fullback and catch it like a tight end. He filled the H-back role perfectly and most likely could have been a great college linebacker with his combination of grit and athleticism.
In the pros, Peyton Hillis gained a national following among NFL fans mostly because he was on the cover of the popular EA Sports Madden 2012 video game after a monster season in 2010 where he racked up 1,600 total yards and 12 touchdowns. That is a huge honor for an NFL player and was mentioned numerous times this week as different national media covered his accident and condition.
As Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin left a Cincinnati hospital Monday and seems to be on his way to recovery after a scary hit last Monday caused his heart to quit beating, there are thousands of people who are praying for a similar recovery by Hillis. It seems his biggest hurdle now are his kidneys. As of Tuesday, he was still undergoing dialysis to remove toxins after he swallowed and inhaled sea water during the rescue, according to Arkansas football reporter Tom Murphy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, but getting off the ventilator is a promising start in the road to recovery.
Peyton Hillis is a hero and not just because he was a football star. He’s made an impact, and last week he was an example for all us to look up to.