(Editor’s note: MTN Sports began recognizing some of the best football players in Montana history on July 2 with the launch of the #MTTop40. The series started with defensive backs and will run eight weeks, featuring one position each week, concluding with quarterbacks the week of Aug. 20-24 to coincide with Montana’s high school football season opener. We’ve wrapped up the defense, also profiling the defensive linemen and linebackers, and started the offense with the offensive linemen, tight ends and wide receivers. This week, we focus on the running backs.)
No. 3 running back — Lex Hilliard, Kalispell Flathead
An all-state football player at Kalispell Flathead, Lex Hilliard became a bruiser for the Montana Grizzlies in the mid-2000s, adding his name to the UM record books before a fine career in the NFL.
Lex Hilliard stat sheet
Hilliard was a three-time all-state selection at Kalispell Flathead, setting the school’s single-season rushing record with 1,384 yards and 14 touchdowns during his sophomore season. He finished his Braves career with school records in rushing yards (3,419), all-purpose yards (4,410) and touchdowns (44).
Hilliard was originally slated to redshirt at the University of Montana, but he saw action in 12 games as a true freshman in 2003, totaling 590 yards and five touchdowns. Despite starting just four games in 2004, Hilliard broke out, carrying the ball 190 times for 972 yards and 17 touchdowns, while also adding 22 receptions for 211 yards to earn all-Big Sky Conference honors. He bettered that in 2005, totaling 1,322 yards and 12 touchdowns on 249 carries and adding 11 catches for 144 yards and two more scores to again earn all-conference recognition. The 1,322 yards are the fourth-best single season in UM history. Hilliard’s 237-yard game against Cal Poly that season is the program’s third-best rushing game. After an injury forced him to redshirt in 2006, Hilliard returned in 2007, rushing for 1,134 yards and 16 touchdowns on 241 carries. In total, Hilliard accumulated 4,018 rushing yards with the Grizzlies, trailing only Yohance Humphrey and Chase Reynolds on the all-time list. His 50 career touchdowns trail only Reynolds.
Hilliard was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the sixth round of the 2008 NFL Draft. He first saw NFL game action in 2009, appearing in 16 games. He also spent the 2010 and 2011 seasons with the Dolphins before spending the 2012 season with the New England Patriots and New York Jets. Hilliard finished his professional career playing in 62 games, including 13 starts, and totaling 163 rushing yards, 233 receiving yards and four total touchdowns.
… on Hilliard:
Former Montana Grizzly running back and teammate Chase Reynolds: “Once I got (to Missoula) and the first time I saw Lex as a human being, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m not fit for this. How am I going to play running back at this level when I’m sitting next to Lex Hilliard?’ He was a great guy to learn from, tough guy, ran hard. He was a great guy to watch and see how he developed, his toughness in general. It was great to sit and watch and be behind him.
“He was huge, he was big. He had good speed for how big he was. He was a power runner and I watched him run over a lot of guys. I didn’t know him in high school or know how he was, but I heard the exact same thing. He was kind of average, but got to the collegiate level and something clicked. I don’t know if there was a growth spurt or if it was just working hard, but I watched Lex out there on the field and what he did during his seasons, obviously I wanted to follow in his footsteps and do what he did. I didn’t have his size or power, but I tried my hardest to do what he did. Big shoes to fill, but it was an honor being able to watch him. He’s actually one of the first guys I called when my career was over here and I was looking at going in to the NFL. I kind of picked his brain a little bit.
“I think his work ethic. I know he worked hard. One thing I remember about Lex, there was a point during a game where he had busted his thumb or something and he had a pin in it. During the game, the pin had stuck out through his thumb. I remember them, with pliers, trying to get the pin out. I remember going, ‘Man this guy, he’s tough.’ I don’t care what you do in the wieght room or on the field, he’s trying to get this pin pulled out of his thumb so he can go back in there and play. That memory sticks in there. It’s that, ‘Never leave the field, never give your back-up a second chance.’ That was kind of my whole story, don’t come out of the game because there’s always somebody working hard that wants that spot. That kind of reminds me of that, he was just tough. That specific moment of him wrenching on that pin in his thumb, trying to pull it out, was pretty impressive.”