Steelers OL Hills has had his ups and downs
The next Kellen Winslow?
Tony Hills smiles as he thinks about those days when he had limitless potential as a tight end. Days when he was widely considered the top prep prospect in Texas, which is kind of like being the smartest person at Harvard.
"I would have been the first Tony Hills," he said.
Hills' football odyssey has taken him from tight end to guard — the two are close in a literal sense but far apart by any other measure — and that's not even the half of it.
Hills was once given little chance of playing football again, following complications from a knee injury. Nearly a decade later, the ultimate football survivor may be in the mix to start at right guard for the Steelers.
Hills, largely an afterthought in his first three seasons with the Steelers, has been one of the pleasant surprises of the preseason.
Hills reported to training camp in what he said is the best shape of his life, and here is where it gets a little humorous.
He also showed up weighing close to 330 pounds, around 15 more than what he usually carries on his 6-foot-5 frame.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin promptly assigned the fourth-year veteran to a 7 a.m. workout group, reserved for players who arrived at St Vincent College too big or out of shape.
Tomlin soon realized that Hills didn't need the extra work. Indeed, Hills had lowered his body fat to 13 percent during the offseason — it had been in the 20s, he said — while adding the extra weight.
"I feel quicker. I feel more powerful. I definitely feel more flexible," Hills said.
Most of all Hills feels more confident after spending a summer with a Texas-based trainer that put him through something akin to boot camp while broadening his training horizons.
Hills said he rarely, if ever, used to stretch after working out. Now, that is one of the staples of his regimen.
The increased flexibility can only help Hills, because getting lower than the opponent is a critical component of successful offensive line play.
"The great thing about Tony is how much better his core has gotten," said Charlie Peters, who trained at Anytime Fitness in McKinney, Texas. "Your muscle strength and flexibility are one in the same, so you can be tight and exhibit some power but you're never going to get a full range of motion if that muscle's tight."
Full range of motion is something doctors thought Hills might never regain in his left foot — not after the hit that changed the course of his football life in December 2002.
Hills had been the No. 1 recruit in Texas, according to several services, when he took a shot to the lower left leg while carrying a would-be tackler on his back. It happened during a playoff game in his senior season at Alief Elsik High School in Houston. The injury, which occurred in early December, left Hills with a torn lateral collateral ligament in his knee.
It ended his season and nearly his career, as nerve damage later caused Hills to lose sensation in his left leg, leading to what is known medically as drop foot. When Hills made his official visit to Texas in late December — he had already verbally committed to the school — he did so in a wheelchair.
Coach Mack Brown talked to him about still coming to Austin and helping with the program, though not once mentioning how Hills might do so on the field.
Small wonder: Doctors, Hills said, had given him a 2 percent chance of playing football again. His mother responded by adding Hills to every prayer list she could find and pushing him as if she were also his coach.
After surgery in January 2003, Hills had a second operation in August that successfully removed scar tissue and cleared his return to football.
"I've been to hell and back," Hills said of the ordeal. "I've been blessed."
When Hills got back on the field, Texas shifted him to offensive tackle. Hills backed up current Steelers left tackle Jonathan Scott at the same position in 2005, when Texas won the national championship.
He started the next two years before breaking his lower left leg near the end of the 2007 season. Hills slipped to the fourth round of the 2008 draft, where the Steelers took a chance on him.
To say he has played sparingly since then would be charitable.
Hills, who looked overmatched at left tackle during his first training camp, has played in only five games. He is optimistic that the time he spent with Peters during the NFL lockout will change that.
"I feel like it's my time," Hills said.
"He's the hardest worker I've ever seen," Peters said. "He doesn't quit."
Making his move
That is not entirely true.
When Hills first met with Peters, the latter had scheduled three sets of exercises to serve as an evaluation.
Hills made it through two of them.
"He whipped my butt. After that I was like, 'You know what, I'm going to ride with this guy,' " Hills said.
The two worked together five days a week in the month leading up to the end of the lockout in late July.
The two-hour workouts were a mix of strength and cardiovascular training as well as stretching — something Hills said he still does for 20 minutes after lifting.
Hills has the training regimen, which includes nutrition, in his phone. His devotion to it is such that Steelers guard Ramon Foster calls him "the medicine cabinet."
"I've got so many supplements and proteins, it's ridiculous," Hills said.
Hills played well enough in the preseason opener that he earned a start at right guard last Friday night. Injuries, however, forced Hills to move to left tackle early in the Steelers' 24-14 win over Philadelphia. That limited what Hills could show the coaches at the one position that is up for grabs.
"He's had a good camp," Tomlin said after the game. "He continues to be a guy on the rise."
The coming weeks will determine how serious of a candidate Hills is at right guard. Not that he will lose sleep over what course the Steelers might take along the offensive line.
Not after what it has taken for him just to get to this point.
"It makes it so easy to come out here and compete because when you have something like that, pretty much your football life flash in front of your eyes, you appreciate the game that much more," Hills said. "I feel like that's what the (Steelers) looked at. They had a guy that was going to come in and work and wasn't just going to just sit back and enjoy being in the NFL, but want to make something of myself."
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