Versatile Hilton starting to emerge as Colts' other rookie prize
After pumping weights during the week, football players like to pump up the volume on their iPods on game day before going out to play. Loud, rib-rattling music ranging from rap to heavy metal generally are the genres of choice. But not for T.Y. Hilton.
The rookie wide receiver and punt returner for the Indianapolis Colts prefers the mellifluous sounds of ... love songs.
Whether Hilton is riding to the stadium, getting dressed in the locker room or going through his pre-game stretch on the field, his playlist is slow and mellow. His favorite artists include Beyonce, Marvin Sapp and Betty Wright.
"I've just got to have my slow music with me," Hilton said. "Eases my mind."
That seems so ironic, because Hilton is a blur on the football field. At his pro day last spring, the 5-foot-9, 183-pound Hilton ran a 4.34-second 40. And that was with a sore quad that had precluded him from running at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Hilton flashed his speed in last Sunday's 20-13 victory over Buffalo inside Lucas Oil Stadium, where he returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter (on Wednesday, the return officially earned him AFC special teams player of the week honors). Later, after coming back from a scary hit that left him temporarily numb in his back and legs as he lay on the field, Hilton caught an 8-yard touchdown pass.
He became the first player in franchise history (the Colts began in 1953) to score on a punt return and a pass reception in the same game. But that accomplishment didn't cause his head to swell in his helmet.
"It made me feel pretty good but, you know, it was pretty much a team effort," Hilton said. "I was able to do a lot of things because my teammates helped me out a lot. ... That's what I get paid to do -- return punts and catch passes -- and that's all I did."
A third-round draft pick from Florida International University, Hilton is that other rookie -- in addition to quarterback Andrew Luck, the overall No. 1 selection -- who has shown to be a stellar star for a Colts team that so desperately needed playmakers after last season's improbably awful 2-14 record.
While Luck has completed 255 of 449 passes for 3,205 yards, 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions as the successor to Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, you can't overlook Hilton's multiple contributions. The 13th of 33 receivers drafted last April, the Colts had a role in mind immediately for Hilton.
"They told me they were going to utilize me a lot, move me all over the field, just get the ball in my hands," said Hilton, who has caught 33 passes for 488 yards and five touchdowns; averaged 12.3 yards on 19 punt returns, including one touchdown; rushed four times for 31 yards; and averaged 16.9 yards on seven kickoff returns. His six touchdowns lead the team.
Luck and Hilton have helped turn the Colts into one of the season's biggest surprises. The franchise looked like it had flat-lined when Manning missed the entire 2011 season after multiple neck surgeries and then, in the offseason, was released. Owner Jim Irsay further cleaned house by firing longtime president Bill Polian, general manager Chris Polian and coach Jim Caldwell.
Forced to start over under a new GM, Ryan Grigson; a new coach, Chuck Pagano, who has been forced to miss most of the season because he's undergoing treatment for leukemia; and a rookie quarterback, Indianapolis has resurfaced in the AFC South, a division they dominated for most of the previous 10 seasons. The Colts are 7-4 and in the hunt for a wild-card playoff spot, with only a pair of games against division-leading Houston looking formidable on their remaining schedule.
Having veteran wideout Reggie Wayne as a leader and mentor has benefitted Hilton greatly. The two players' lockers sit next to each other for home games, and Hilton frequently picks Wayne's brain by asking questions on the field or in the meeting room, or texting him, to make sure he understands a play or a concept.
"He's always there (to help)," Hilton said. "He's a great guy. I love him. I'm glad he's still playing."
And Wayne is happy to be playing with Hilton. In early October, Wayne said: "He wants to be good. You see that. He's always in his book, always asking questions. He's probably one of the receivers who asks the most questions, so that's always good. He wants to know how to get better. I'm glad he's on our team."
Having Luck on his side also has aided Hilton. As fellow rookies, they spend a lot of time around each other on and off the field. They often go out to dinner together, taking turns to pick up the check.
"He shows why he was the No. 1 pick," Hilton said of Luck. "He has a great arm -- a phenomenal arm -- and he makes throws other quarterbacks can't make when players are on his back."
Hilton, who was inactive for the season opener against Chicago and caught only one pass against Minnesota the next week, broke out in Week 3 against Jacksonville with four receptions for 113 yards. He also had a six-catch, 102-yard performance against Miami in Week 9. He competed with Austin Collie for the slot receiver spot until Collie suffered a season-ending ruptured patellar tendon in the Jacksonville game. Since then, Hilton has been the No. 3 receiver behind Wayne and Donnie Avery.
As the weeks go by, Hilton is starting to feel more and more comfortable with the pace of the NFL.
"There were a few games that were pretty fast," he admitted, "but right now it's kind of slowed down for me and I'm adjusting well."
A native of Miami Springs, Fla., Hilton starred in football and basketball at Miami Springs High. The night before national college signing day, he had narrowed his choices to Florida International and West Virginia. He made his decision using a most unorthodox method.
First, he put a hat from each school on his bed. Then he placed his son, Quis, then 1, on the bed. Quis crawled to the Florida International hat. Eight times in a row. That determined it for his dad.
Hilton made an immediate impact at FIU, where he set school career records for receptions (229), receiving yards (3,350) and touchdowns (24). On his first touch for the Panthers, in the 2008 season opener against Kansas, he returned a punt for a touchdown. He finished his freshman season with 12 touchdowns: seven receiving, two rushing, one throwing, one on a punt return and one on a kick return. On his first touch of the 2009 season, he received the kickoff against Alabama and raced 96 yards to the end zone. Hilton said that was the moment when he knew he had special speed.
"When I hit the corner, I had a couple of guys who had an angle on me and I outran them," he said.
Hilton never ran track, nor did he do anything to develop his speed. While acknowledging that his parents both were fast, Hilton said his speed is "a God-given gift." When he played football as a youth, "Once I got the ball, I just ran as fast as I could away from other people."
His given name is Eugene, but Hilton was nicknamed "Little Ty", after his dad. It eventually became T.Y. Curiously, Hilton has a brother named Ty, and his youngest son also is named Ty. Quis, now 5, Ty, and Shantrell, his fiancée, all live with Hilton in Indianapolis. Hilton loves being a father.
"No matter what happens in the game, once I come off the field and I see (Quis and Ty), it always brightens up my day and puts a smile on my face," he said.
Although there are five games left (and perhaps a postseason appearance), Hilton already has an offseason goal. Grigson suggested that he add 10 pounds of muscle.
"He's the man around here, so whatever he wants, that's what I've got to do," said Hilton, who doesn't think more weight will adversely affect his speed. "I can't wait to do it."
And he'll probably do it while listening to love songs.