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: August 27, 2007, 08:18:09 AM

By STEPHEN F. HOLDER, Times Staff Writer
Published August 27, 2007




TAMPA - If he never told a soul, maybe no one would know.

If Ike Hilliard never shared that it stung to be released from the only team he'd ever known, no one would have a clue.

If the Bucs receiver never said he was out of sorts after arriving in Tampa, no one would have guessed.

If Hilliard never said his mother died last year, hitting him harder than a safety with a full head of steam, you simply would not know.

Why? Because the smile never left. His attitude remained refreshingly positive. And he was the ever reliable, tough-nosed veteran the Bucs consider themselves lucky to have.

As he prepares for his third season in Tampa Bay, Hilliard is drawing daily raves from coach Jon Gruden and at 31 is threatening to take playing time from younger, more athletically gifted prospects.

The reason is no mystery.

"I just think it's the first time in about four years I don't have a lot of junk on my mind, a lot of baggage," Hilliard said. "My mom passed away last year. And the year before that, it was my first year in this offense, and I was just trying to figure out where everything was going. After being released and not taking a pay cut, my time in New York didn't end well.

"Now, all that stuff is behind me, and I had a pretty good offseason. Hopefully it will turn over for me."

How could it not? Given the low points Hilliard has endured in recent years, it seems there would be nowhere to go but up. Hilliard calls 2006 "the toughest year of my life - by far." His mother succumbed to colon cancer April 6 in his home state of Louisiana, the day after his birthday.

"She had a four-year fight," Hilliard said. "She tried to hold on for a long time. She was young, just 54 years old. I didn't think it was her time, but a higher power took her home."

Doris West's death was a culmination of a series of difficult experiences. It came on the heels of Hilliard's release in 2005 from the Giants, the franchise that drafted him in the first round out of Florida in 1997. He spent eight seasons in New York, where he became a fixture and one of the team's more popular players.

But when business forced a parting of ways, it was on to Tampa Bay, where Hilliard struggled to find his way. He finished 2005 with 282 yards, his lowest total since his rookie season. The 2006 season was only slightly better, when he tallied 339 yards.

Hilliard's improved state of mind this season might allow him to begin a positive trend on and off the field.

"I'm good now," he said. "I'm probably in as good a place mentally as I've been for a while, even though I said that last year, too. This year, it's different."

There is plenty of evidence. Gruden has continually lauded Hilliard for having the best training camp among the receivers. For all the discussion of Joey Galloway's speed, Maurice Stovall's size and David Boston's potential return to form, the one thing that rarely has generated conversation is Hilliard's consistency.

"He's a pro football player, a hell of a clutch player and a real pro," Gruden said. "I'm just glad he's here. I just really believe that, at the end of the year, he's going to be a big reason we have any success at all."

And, as usual, Hilliard does it all in his low-key manner. He doesn't do interviews wearing sunglasses, doesn't have a trademark end-zone celebration. Heck, he's the least-noticed person in the room.

"My grandfather said a long time ago before he passed away that if you want to be successful at anything, make the spectacular look routine," Hilliard said, quoting Wilbur Francis, whom the family affectionately referred to as "Poppy."

"That's something that I've carried with me the rest of my life. For me, it's always, 'Act like you've been there.' I have my moments where I might get animated and excited, but being humble is part of me."

Maybe that's why Hilliard commands so much respect. And not just from his teammates.

"Ike is a professional," receivers coach Richard Mann said. "That's why he's a guy we give a lot of input in the meeting room. Everyone respects what he says."

More than anything, they respect what he does. With his mind finally right, he should do it quite well this season.


Snook

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#1 : August 27, 2007, 08:43:30 AM

Ike's one of my favorite Bucs.  Great article. 


john.matincheck

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#2 : August 27, 2007, 09:45:25 AM

It seems the only way to get a positive spin out of bad numbers is to have your Mom die.

Uncle Stan

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#3 : August 27, 2007, 10:23:35 AM

Johnm,

That wasn't called for. Bad taste.


Learn to disagree without being disagreeable-Ronald Reagan circa 1981

Groovatron

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#4 : August 27, 2007, 10:28:12 AM

Johnm, out of all the comments that could have been made about this article, you come up with that?!?!

superbuc

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#5 : August 27, 2007, 10:30:19 AM

Johnm, you CAN delete that post if you'd like.



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#6 : August 27, 2007, 10:45:03 AM

wow

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#7 : August 27, 2007, 10:50:38 AM

Ike is a great guy and a solid reciever a lot of people seem to count him out.

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#8 : August 27, 2007, 10:56:08 AM

The strange thing about Hilliard is I liked him less than Reidel Anthony or Jacquez Green in college.   Those 2 guys were much more exciting than Hilliard on the Gators.   Hell, Reidel Anthony was practically unstoppable in college.   But Hilliard definitely ended up being the best of the lot.

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#9 : August 27, 2007, 01:41:18 PM

My comment is more about the media's penchant for melodrama. I can't even list all the players on the team that have lost a parent in the last couple of years but everytime we get this same bleeding heart story and we are all supposed to go out and hug someone. Pro football is about performance; that's it all the human interest stuff is fluff.



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#10 : August 27, 2007, 03:33:22 PM

YOU go out and deal with it then Johnm.

Your comments WERE and ARE in poor taste and don't belong here.

My guess is that if YOUR mom were to pass on, your performance at work would suffer for a while also.

Unbelieveable.

dalbuc

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#11 : August 27, 2007, 03:52:26 PM

My comment is : he's a good guy, seems like a nice human being....still hope we upgrade his position though.

All posts are opinions in case you are too stupid to figure that out on your own without me saying it over and over.
If you think Manziel is the best QB in this draft I can safely assume you are an idiot and will treat you as such.



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#12 : August 27, 2007, 09:57:56 PM

I hadn't seen or heard about this, thanks for posting, Ed.
Ike is a consummate pro and like Gru said, "a hell of a clutch player".

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#13 : August 27, 2007, 10:05:44 PM

Nice story.



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#14 : August 27, 2007, 10:25:41 PM

touching story, Ike's awesome.
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