NFL draft hopeful Justin Hilliard is a story of determination
How the Ohio State linebacker, and projected mid-round pick, has persevered
Six-year-old Justin Hilliard skated so fast and was so focused that the loud pleas from his older hockey teammates and chuckles from the crowd could not redirect him from his mission. He was going to score no matter what.
“He didn’t know he was going toward the wrong goal, but he was booking it because he really wanted to score,” said Hilliard’s older brother and teammate, C.J., laughing at the memory. “The goalie was confused. Justin scored. He didn’t feel bad because he’s always positive. He made up for it with two more in the right goal.”
That positive approach and determination is what carried Hilliard through some trying times during his football career, too. In high school, he rose from a fourth-stringer to one of the best prep linebackers in the country. At Ohio State, he persevered through a host of injuries and elevated himself from a special teams performer to a potential mid-round pick in this week’s NFL draft.
Hilliard’s college tenure stretched so long – six years – that his much younger teammates affectionately called him “Old School” and “Grandpa.” But his perseverance and grit have him on the verge of achieving his NFL dream.
“Justin will play in the league for a long time because of what he’s been through,” Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, Hilliard’s roommate at Ohio State, told The Undefeated. “To go through so many injuries and remain focused is incredibly tough. He went through each rehab process without a single complaint.
“That’s the kind of mentality that makes it.”
Hilliard grew up in the hockey hotbed of Plainfield, Illinois. He and his brother often stood out because of their speed, strength and skill set, but also because of the obvious.
“They would really whip around on that ice,” said Hilliard’s father, Carl. “Most of the time, they were the only Blacks on the ice. And we’d get those looks like, ‘Why are you here?’ or ‘Those boys are amazing.’ ”
Hockey helped shape Hilliard.
“Hockey was the hardest sport I ever played in my life,” he said. “You don’t just put on skates for the first time and go out there and try to figure things out. Compared to football, the nature is the same, but hockey is probably where I got my competitive edge because I was younger than everyone else.”
But when the family moved to baseball- and football-focused Cincinnati, Hilliard’s course changed. Instead of dreams of the NHL draft, his football journey began.
There was an adjustment period because of the differences in the two sports, and how Hilliard stood out even more this time because of the height and weight disadvantages of playing on his older brother’s level at first.
“I was worried that he’d get hurt,” his father said. “There were times I’d have to go out on the field to pick him up because he was crying.”
Two to three years later, Carl Hilliard decided to move his younger son to his appropriate age group. Justin’s confidence soared. But Carl’s bank account suffered from awarding his sons financial bonuses with each touchdown, tackle or big play.
“They’d run up about $700 to $800,” he said. “I eventually had to make a deal with them by buying an electric motorcycle to share.”
After the pee wee football success, Hilliard’s first real dose of adversity arrived when he enrolled at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, an Ohio high school football power.
“As a high school freshman, I was on the freshman B team, which was like the third or fourth string,” Hilliard said. “I wasn’t that good, but I was competitive and I worked hard as hell and became one of the best high school linebackers in the country.”
Hilliard’s growth began the summer before his sophomore year, when he dove into weight training. He made such an improvement that he became a starter his second year. He continued to grow and blew up into the top-ranked player in the state, No. 1 outside linebacker in the country and No. 17 among all recruits in ESPN’s 300 in the Class of 2015.
“Even when I reached that level, I continued to have this knot in my gut that I could always do better,” Hilliard said. “I’m constantly trying to be better. That motivates me.”
That mindset proved beneficial at Ohio State.
Hilliard signed with Ohio State in a class that included Burrow, linebacker Jerome Baker (Miami Dolphins) and cornerback Damon Arnette (Las Vegas Raiders).
He sat out his first year as a redshirt, which made him even more eager to play the following season. But he suffered his first setback — a right bicep tear during the spring that put him out of commission for several months. He returned in time for the season opener in 2016. Hilliard finished with four tackles.
And then he tore his left bicep two weeks later.
The start of Hilliard’s promising college career began with consecutive injuries that took him to an unforgettable place. But he never thought about doing anything else.
“There were times where I distanced myself from the game, but never to the point where I truly contemplated quitting,” Hilliard said.
Especially not when he could count on his family for support and motivation.
“My mom [Diane] has gone through so much stuff like me when it comes to injuries,” Hilliard said. “But hers has been more like chronic back pain. And I saw her strength every day, and my dad’s work ethic on how he goes about his business.”
By 2017, Hilliard regrouped and became a backup linebacker and special teams member. The next season, he tied for the team lead in special team tackles and earned his first start against rival Michigan. Hilliard finished as player of the game because of several outstanding plays.
The year 2019 was supposed to be his coming-out party, but an injury arrived once again. Hilliard ruptured his Achilles tendon following a drill during the spring. Another season was lost, and potentially the rest of his college career. Ohio State petitioned the NCAA for a rare sixth year of eligibility.
While that decision was pending, Hilliard returned to a space that propelled him from a fourth-string high school freshman to a five-star recruit: the weight room.
“Ninety percent of the battle is within your mind,” said Ohio State strength coach Mickey Marotti. “When guys get injured, they get down in the dumps and it’s hard to get them up. But Justin handled [rehab] like a rock star. There was the first, second and third injury, but he kept battling. He kept fighting.”
Hilliard fought his way through the fall of 2019 as a contributor on defense and as a special teams ace. He started late in the season in victories over Michigan and against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. He also received great news that the NCAA would grant a sixth year of eligibility.
All was well and looking up for Hilliard for the 2020 season. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and the Big Ten initially decided not to play football in the fall.
While that decision was changed, and Ohio State scheduled an eight-game conference-only season, Hilliard wouldn’t play until the third game because the coaching staff was cautious about his return in the opener, then he had a false positive COVID-19 test that kept him out of the second game.
His 2020 debut was emotional.
“I wasn’t even thinking about coming back from injuries, it was just the fact that we didn’t know if we were even going to have a season,” Hilliard said. “Finally having a chance to have a season was a relief.”
Hilliard played well in the first few games. He made his first start against Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game. It was Hilliard’s late-game interception in the end zone that regained the momentum – and, on the next possession, the lead – for Ohio State. Later, Hilliard sealed the victory when he forced a fumble.
“That [interception] was fueled by me not being able to play the game and just valuing every minute on the field and truly loving the game,” Hilliard said. “Those were the type of plays I’ve always envisioned myself making at Ohio State.”
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day credits Hilliard’s work ethic.
“He was reliable and made a lot of big plays for us this season,” Day told The Undefeated. “This is a guy who had a long road to get to where he is. To see the work that he put in and show up in big spots was awesome.”
Hilliard continued his impressive play in Ohio State’s victory over Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal, with eight tackles and a fumble recovery. He was named defensive player of the game. Then, in Ohio State’s loss to Alabama in the title game, he had eight tackles – two for losses.
His performance in the Senior Bowl in late January cemented his status as a fast-rising prospect, earning rave reviews from Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy.
“No player in 2021 draft helped himself more over past two months than Justin Hilliard,” tweeted Nagy.
Hilliard, who has a bachelor’s degree in marketing and a master’s degree in consumer science, plans to watch the NFL draft from his apartment in Columbus, Ohio, with family, friends and former teammates, including Burrow.
He’ll also keep one eye on his cellphone.
Day, who has received many inquiries about Hilliard from NFL teams, is confident about Hilliard’s future.
“The first thing I tell NFL teams is that he’s going to make their team better, and that’s not off potential, because he’s a finished product,” Day said. “This is a guy who played college football for a year, but he was a pro already. He’s ready to go. He’s going to jump in there, learn quickly and have an impact.”
At one point, it appeared Hilliard’s best NFL opportunity would come as a free agent. But, unlike in that hockey game from years ago, he’s now headed in the right direction.
“I haven’t had time to reflect because, ever since the last play of the national championship, it’s been nonstop getting prepared for the draft,” Hilliard said. “I’m sure it’ll be emotional thinking about all of the people that got me through the hard times, but as soon as the draft is over, it’ll be right back to, ‘Let’s play some football.’ ”