The Peyton Hillis Story: From Madden Cover to Outside Looking In

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistAugust 25, 2015

B/R via Getty/AP Images

The popular Madden NFL 16 video game was released Tuesday, with flashy Pro Bowler Odell Beckham Jr. gracing the cover. 

In previous years, the famous cover has featured other flashy Pro Bowlers, like Eddie George (2001), Daunte Culpepper (2002), Marshall Faulk (2003), Michael Vick (2004), Ray Lewis (2005), Donovan McNabb (2006), Shaun Alexander (2007), Vince Young (2008), Brett Favre (2009), Troy Polamalu (2010), Larry Fitzgerald (also 2010), Drew Brees (2011), Calvin Johnson (2013), Adrian Peterson (2014) and Richard Sherman (2015). 

But one particular Madden cover athlete—the man who headlined the 2012 edition—stands out for being neither flashy nor a Pro Bowler. 

Remember Peyton Hillis? Seventh-round pick with only 26 career touchdowns, one 1,000-yard season and zero trips to the league's annual all-star game?

One hot season and plenty of help from voting fans was enough for Hillis to become arguably the most bizarre cover star in sports video game history that year.

To get a feel for just how quickly players can rise and fall in this league, consider that just four years prior to becoming the Madden cover boy, Hillis was a relatively anonymous fullback working in All-American Darren McFadden's shadow at Arkansas. And now, four years after the fact, he's out of football entirely, volunteering at a high school in the Arkansas town of Siloam Springs, population 15,000.

Nobody, not even Hillis himself, can explain with certainty why he rose to unexpected fame, or why he returned to anonymity before anyone figured his 15 minutes had expired. But this is how it happened. 

 

A face in Fayetteville and Denver crowds

Darren McFadden overshadowed Hillis in college.
Darren McFadden overshadowed Hillis in college.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Hillis, who was named after Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, was highly recruited as somewhat of a mythological figure in Arkansas high school sports. At Conway High in a town of the same name north of Little Rock, he was a stud third baseman as well as a beastly running back, earning football scholarship offers from schools like Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma and the nearby University of Arkansas. 

He chose the Razorbacks, which led to a six-year stretch during which Hillis began to realize he'd always be viewed differently than other players at his position. Overshadowed by All-American backs McFadden and Felix Jones at Arkansas, he feels he was marginalized.  

"I'm 250 pounds, I'm not really fast," Hillis told Bleacher Report recently in a rare interview. "I think when coaches look at me, they don't see a prototypical running back. I always had to fight that, and after a while it just got too tiresome."

With the opportunity to excel as a featured back in Fayetteville, Hillis continued to be an afterthought when he slid into the seventh round of the 2008 draft. The Denver Broncos swept him up with the 227th pick but mainly utilized him as a fullback. 

Former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan told ESPN's Steve Wulf that Hillis wasn't even on the team's running back depth chart from the get-go, but then injuries happened. Selvin Young went down in Week 5, Michael Pittman and Andre Hall in Week 9, Ryan Torain in Week 10. 

Hillis battled injuries and a loaded depth chart during his two years in Denver.
Hillis battled injuries and a loaded depth chart during his two years in Denver.David Zalubowski/Associated Press/Associated Press

It wasn't until the Broncos reached out to Tatum Bell—who had spent the previous three months working in retail at a local mall—when Hillis earned a chance. Flexed into a spot-starting role by default, he put together a 129-yard performance against the New York Jets in Week 13 and managed to average 5.0 yards per carry during his rookie season. 

"He was definitely one of the most physical specimens I was around in my NFL career," said Chris Simms, who was teammates with Hillis in 2009. "Just the size-speed combination. You see a lot of guys like that, but he had the other skill traits as wellhe could throw a football, he could run routes as good as any receiver on the team. He was just a good all-around athlete."

But when the Broncos had a healthy backfield again in 2009, Hillis returned to the back burner. 

"I never really was 'the guy,'" he said. "I was always the guy to fill the spot until somebody else came along."

But Simms saw something special in Hillis while the two played and practiced together in Denver, and Arkansas quarterback Casey Dick had a similar feeling when working with the overlooked bruiser in the SEC.

"He was probably one of the best receivers on our team," Dick said. "His hands were super soft, he had great ball skills and he could do whatever you asked him to do with the football. We knew if he got into a system in which he could thrive, he was going to be in great shape."

 

Saved by the Browns

Hillis became an instant celebrity when Madden happened.
Hillis became an instant celebrity when Madden happened.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

When Hillis was traded to the Cleveland Browns in the 2010 offseason, he was about to find himself in the exact system Dick was referring to. He showed up in Cleveland expecting to play fullback, but then Jerome Harrison and James Davis got hurt and Hillis was starting at tailback Week 3. 

Cue the coming-out party. 

Yards from scrimmage leaders, 2010
PlayerTeamTotal
1. Arian FosterTexans2,220
2. Jamaal CharlesChiefs1,935
3. Ray RiceRavens1,776
4. LeSean McCoyEagles1,672
5. Darren McFaddenRaiders1,664
6. Peyton HillisBrowns1,654
7. Maurice Jones-DrewJaguars1,641
8. Adrian PetersonVikings1,639
Pro Football Reference

A battering ram in the form of a crash-test dummy, Hillis exhilarated fans, teammates and coaches by tackling defenders, rather than avoiding them. The very traits that he felt diminished his chances of succeeding at Arkansas and with the Broncos were now working in his favor. Despite possessing a linebacker's body and mentality, he moved with exceptional grace while flashing smooth hands and sneaky speed. 

Hillis picked up 180 yards from scrimmage in that Week 3 game against the Baltimore Ravens, and he'd hit the triple digits six more times in the next 10 games. He finished the year ranked 11th in football with 1,177 rushing yards. And because he was such a stellar receiver, he finished with 1,654 yards from scrimmage, which was sixth in football, 10 yards behind his former Arkansas backfield-mate, Darren McFadden. 

"It was a dream come true," said Hillis. "I finally felt like I had a home at that point."

Madden cover athletes, sorted by Pro Bowls
PlayerPro BowlsAll-Pros
Ray Lewis137
Brett Favre113
Barry Sanders106
Drew Brees91
Troy Polamalu84
Larry Fitzgerald81
Marshall Faulk73
Adrian Peterson63
Donovan McNabb60
Calvin Johnson53
Eddie George41
Michael Vick40
Daunte Culpepper30
Shaun Alexander31
Richard Sherman23
Vince Young20
Odell Beckham10
Peyton Hillis00
EA Sports/Pro Football Reference

The following March, Electronic Arts, which produces Madden, kicked off its first-ever fan-voting campaign for the game's cover, with Hillis—a 10th seed on one side of a split 32-seed bracket—shocking the sports gaming world with an electronic Cinderella run.

Aided by online campaigns from the Browns and their fans, he toppled bigger stars like Ray Rice, Matt Ryan, Jamaal Charles, Aaron Rodgers and Vick in order to land on the cover. In the final round, he crushed Vick with 66 percent of the vote.

 

The crash in Cleveland

But Cleveland hadn't become a particularly stable place in the world of football, and the Browns won just five games in Hillis' breakout season. That led to the firing of head coach Eric Mangini, who appeared to really believe in Hillis. 

The change meant a new coach in Pat Shurmur, as well as a new West Coast system. 

Change was not what Peyton Hillis needed, but that alone doesn't explain why 2011 became a nightmare encore to that 2010 dream. 

Hillis claims that late in what he calls his "good year," the Browns reached out to his agent about a new contract, but nothing materialized. Following that, there were major staff changes, and the 2011 lockout prevented the two sides from negotiating a new deal in the offseason. 

He was slated to make just $550,000 during the final year of his rookie contract, but he had only put together the one monster season. That might explain why the he entered the 2011 campaign without a new deal and with the two parties "pretty far apart," per NFL.com.

Turns out that was the catalyst for a season which ruined Hillis' career and changed his life. 

Looking back on it, Hillis doesn't believe the Browns were ever serious about signing him to a lucrative long-term contract. Instead, he suggested the team was trying to placate him.

"Every game I played, they did the same song and dance, 'We'll get you a deal, we'll get you a deal, we'll get you a deal,'" he said, noting that contract talks throughout the late summer were always prefaced by the team with the need to have him on the field while negotiations took place. "After a while, I just got tired of them lying to me and I'd just say, 'Listen, if you're not going to offer me a contract, then just say you're not going to offer me a contract.'"

Amy Sancetta/Associated Press

Everything came into question when Hillis missed the third game of the season because of strep throat, which seemed a little odd for a dude as tough as him. While he insists he wasn't sitting out to make a statement, he did later admit he decided not to play on the advice of his agent, Kennard McGuire. 

Then, when he returned, he injured his hamstring. And then he aggravated that injury. He was either out of the lineup or severely limited from the end of September until the end of November, which was fishy considering the surrounding factors. 

"He was one of the toughest guys I've ever been around as far as being able to play through injuries and certain situations he was faced with," Dick said. "There were times that I would look at him and not know how he's playing through stuff."

So why was he missing games due to something as innocuous (at least in football terms) as strep throat? And why was a balky hamstring plaguing the powerful Peyton Hillis? 

At the time, Hillis thought the best approach was to remain quiet. Often, that's the apt route to take. In this case, though, he never took the time to explain himself because he thought he'd be fighting a losing battle with the Browns and media partners, whom he feels turned the fans against him. 

Now, he tells us that he lost up to 20 pounds the week of that Miami game due to "a real bad stomach virus" which lasted about 10 days. And he believes the stress caused by the contract discussions, the virus and the criticism stemming from both caused him to enter a downward spiral. 

"A lot of it was stress and a lot of it was wondering why they weren't coming around, and I was too sick to play the [Miami] game," Hillis said. "And at that point, people started getting the idea that Peyton's holding out for contract reasons. Once that got around, I didn't want to disappoint the fans, so I went straight back to practice after that week feeling the way I did, and the way I felt, I ended up pulling a hamstring.

"So people really started thinking at that point. I guess the Browns and the media, they're all connected, they were saying I'm holding out for a contract. So again, I get more stressed out and more frustrated because I can't do anything about it. And I keep on forcing myself back with the pulled hamstring and I keep on re-pulling it. I just kept on hurting myself and people kept thinking I was holding out for a contract."

Hillis did eventually return to put together some solid performances, including a 112-yard effort in Week 16 against the Ravens. But in the locker room, the front office and the minds of many fans, the damage was done. 

"I think the Browns never really looked at me as a true running back," Hillis said. "Because obviously they didn't sign me back the year after that, but they did a good job turning the fans against me."

The Browns, who are under new ownership and no longer employ any of the executives who would have negotiated with Hillis and his representatives, declined comment. Tom Heckert, who was the general manager in Cleveland at the time and now works for the Denver Broncos, denied a request for a response through the team's media relations staff.

"The Cleveland Browns fans really are the greatest fans," Hillis added. "Me and my wife talk about it all the time, we really sit back and think those were the best days right there. It was really tough because the fans looked down on me, but they weren't on the inside. If they were on the inside, they would have probably thought differently.

"I think they were just out to get me out of Cleveland. When you really look at it hard enough, that's really what it was." 

 

Accepting partial responsibility 

But the bad optics went beyond the legitimacy of Hillis' sickness and injuries. In a scathing article from Michael Silver of Yahoo Sports, he took heat from several veteran teammates, some on the record. He also was criticized for messing around on the field before a game he apparently wasn't healthy enough to play in, for missing a charity function without explanation, for getting married while injured in October and for playing agent roulette (when Hillis fired McGuire early the next offseason, he was moving onto his fourth agent in just over a year). 

A year later, former Browns teammate Joe Thomas didn't hold back

It was a terrible distraction. He crippled our offense. We were struggling to find anybody who could carry the ball after all the injuries we had. To have Peyton going through a contract dispute and basically refusing to play, it was a big distraction. But more than anything, he was our starting running back that was a good player who was going to help us be a successful offense. When he's not there and you don't have anybody to turn to, it makes it hard to win. And that's the distraction, it's not being successful.

To his credit, Hillis knows he wasn't a complete patsy in 2011. 

"Don't get me wrong, there are things that I could have done differently," he said, "I could have held my temper a couple times, especially with the upper staff." 

He apologized publicly for missing that Halloween charity event, and he also admits he shouldn't have kept firing agents.

"A lot of stuff wasn't getting done, and even with that, I should have just stuck with one agent and been done with it," Hillis said. "But by that point, I wasn't thinking rationally." 

And that he should have waited to get married. 

"I probably should have waited for my marriage, there's no doubt about it," he said. "But by that point, everything was already in full swing. The sad thing about my marriage was I was hurt during the process and I got married while I was hurt. But if I'd been healthy and got married, nobody would have thought anything about it. So yeah, I regret that."

Joe Thomas had harsh words for his former teammate.
Joe Thomas had harsh words for his former teammate.Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

And he even says he'd apologize to Thomas. 

"If I saw Joe Thomas today, I'd say I'm sorry," Hillis said. "But I think there was a lot of things wrong with the organization at that point. He was a key figure there and he wanted his players to play, but I don't think he even fully understood what was going on at that point."

But he won't apologize for his health issues that season.

"That whole year I truly was hurt," he said, "and there was nothing I could do about it."

 

It's complicated

One other factor to consider here is mental well-being, which of course complicates the narrative that aligns the Browns on one side and Hillis on the other. One of Silver's unnamed sources noted the formerly "positive and inspirational" back had become "a different guy" in 2011.

Per Silver, who claimed players felt Hillis was "mentally fragile," Hillis also told the media that year he was having trouble getting his "mind right." And time and again during our conversation, he alluded to the stress that weighed down on him that year. 

In fact, Hillis even sought help. 

"I was going through real bad depression during that time," he said. "I was getting help because I couldn't sleep, I was so upset that everything was going down the way it was and nobody could understand.

"The fans didn't understand and the organization was against me and I couldn't play because I was hurt. You'd walk the street and people would talk smack at you and say you aren't doing this, and you're a traitor, you're this, you're that. And that hurt, because I'm not that kind of guy. I've always been a hard-nosed, blue-collar guy, just like the city of Cleveland. And it hurt me that I fell from grace so hard and so fast with a city that I can relate myself to."

 

Nothing left

Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

Hillis claims that 2011 season caused him to lose faith in football and robbed him of his drive to continue playing. 

"By my fifth year in the league, I just got tired of it," he said. "There's nobody that really believed in you or really wanted you to be there. Some people didn't look at you as the guy, so it just got really tiresome after a while. And I got tired of fighting it, really."

He did finally get a payday in the form of a one-year, $2.8 million deal from the Kansas City Chiefs in the spring of 2012, but he suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 3 that year, which he calls "the beginning of the end" of a career that sputtered on for three more seasons with the Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants.

"At that point, I really lost a lot mentally and emotionally with the game," he said. "And it's not as though the years I played after that I didn't try, but something was lacking. I was really heartbroken when I left the Browns because that was where I really needed to be."

Each of Hillis' last two seasons ended with concussions, and he says doctors have advised him to stop playing football. But the way he talks, his heart is holding him back as much as his brain is. 

"And after a while, it got too hard," he said. "I didn't care as much anymore, I didn't care to work at it. Football brought me down. I still love the game and I still have a lot of friends in the game, but as far as NFL football goes, my heart's just not in it anymore."

 

Cursed? 

Oct 21, 2013; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants running back Peyton Hillis (44) fumbles on a hit by Minnesota Vikings middle linebacker Erin Henderson (50) in the second quarter at MetLife Stadium.  Hillis recovered his own fumble on this play. Ma
The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

That's what brings us to the infamous "Madden Curse." It may or may not be coincidence that a high number of Madden cover athletes have fallen on hard times soon after gracing said cover, but it nevertheless spooks a lot of fans and players.  

Madden Curse at a glance
VictimBeforeAfter
George (2001)3 Pro Bowls, 3.9 AVG1 Pro Bowl, 3.4 AVG
Culpepper (2002)Pro Bowler in 2000NFL-high 23 picks in '02
Faulk (2003)3 straight All-Pro seasonsNever rushed for 1,000 yards again
Vick (2004)Pro Bowler in 2002Broke fibula in preseason
Lewis (2005)6 Pro Bowls in 8 seasonsNo picks, wrist injury
McNabb (2006)5 straight Pro BowlsTorn ACL
Alexander (2007)MVPNever rushed for 1,000 yards again
Young (2008)Offensive Rookie of the Year17 interceptions, never emerged
Favre (2009)"Retired" a Pro BowlerLeague-high 22 picks after return
Polamalu (2010)5 straight Pro BowlsInjury-riddled season
Brees (2011)Super Bowl MVP22 interceptions
Hillis (2012)1,654 yards from scrimmage1,633 the rest of career
Pro Football Reference

Hillis says thoughts of the curse have crossed his mind, but he won't go as far as to suggest he was victimized by it. Bad timing and God's will are potential factors in his mind. 

He notes, though, that even four years later, he hasn't "fully recovered from that experience."

"I went through a couple of years there just mad at the world," he said. "I put my faith in the world and the world let me down. And I should have known that. The world's always going to let you down. Put your faith in God."

Peyton Hillis: Before/after Madden
Breakout 2010 season4 years that followed
Starts1412
Rushing yards1,1771,258
Scrimmage yards1,6541,633
Yards/attempt4.43.6
Receptions6155
Touchdowns136
Pro Football Reference

As Simms suggests, Hillis might have lost his stardom as quickly as he gained it simply because he lived in the cruel world that is an NFL backfield. 

"It's the nature of the business," Simms said, "especially at the running back position. You have such a short shelf life. You get physically abused for a short period of time and rarely get to see that second big contract." 

In fact, if you look at it from that perspective, a seven-year career with, according to Spotrac, $6.3 million in earnings ain't bad, especially for a seventh-round pick who feels he was overlooked for most of his life in football. 

So maybe Hillis was cursed from the start. 

"I've always felt like I've kind of overachieved at everything I've done," he said. "I've felt like I've always gone against the odds because the odds are never on my side. As long as I've played football, they never were."

 

Saved by Amanda?

Peyton Hillis now lives in Arkansas with wife Amanda and their son, Orry.
Peyton Hillis now lives in Arkansas with wife Amanda and their son, Orry.Courtesy of the Hillis family

Finally, let's consider the difference between a curse on the field and a curse in the real world, because Hillis' controversial midseason wedding might have been the best thing that ever happened to him. Before that, a man who admits he was depressed at the time claims football was all he had, which is also dangerous.

"When I got married, a lot of things changed," he said. "And football just wasn't as important to me as it was before."

With apologies to everyone who drafted Peyton Hillis in the first round of fantasy drafts that summer, that's a good thing.

Hillis met Amanda Brown back home in Arkansas in the summer leading up to that messy 2011 season. They were engaged in September and married in October, about four months after finding each other. "When you know, you know," he says, proudly. 

As he speaks to us late on a carefree August afternoon from Arkansas, with his and Amanda's two-year-old son, Orry, sleeping on him, Hillis says his mind is in a better place now. 

"I believe truly to this day that if I didn't have my wife and my family, I'd be in a lot worse state," he says. "I'm in a good state now, but I'd be really far off without them.

"The heartache that I went through on and off the field at that time made me realize what was truly important, and it wasn't football. Obviously football is done, and what do I have now? I have my family. It's just one of those things you look back on and you're bitter because you know you could have done more if you just had the opportunity, but a lot of things are out of your hands, so you try to look at it [as a] positive. But the only thing that was going well for me during that time was my wife."

Football is a memory now, but it isn't stopping Hillis from volunteering as a high school coach in Siloam Springs—"I just want to be there for them," he says of the kids he's working with—and he says it won't stop him from signing Orry up for football, if that's what his son eventually chooses to do. 

And it definitely won't stop him from one day reaching for an outdated version of Madden—specifically the 2012 edition—in order to share his football legacy with his boy. 

"One day he's gonna want to know what daddy did," said Hillis, "and that's an accomplishment I'm going to be proud to show him."

 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.