Ten years before Boston College running back Jonathan Hilliman suffered the first impactful injury of his career, Inquoris Johnson, a University of Tennessee defensive back better known as “Inky,” finally got his big shot. When starter Jason Allen went down in the fifth game of the season, a kid who grew up running extra laps hours after practice by the lights of his late-working mother’s car got the call to start against the powerhouses of the SEC.
Johnson shone during his rookie season, and came back ready to cement his status as a first-round NFL Draft prospect. But then came the second game of the year, a non-conference matchup against Air Force, and a head-on tackle from which he couldn’t get up. He survived a surgery that almost cost him his life, but nerve damage in his shoulder left him forever sidelined from the one thing he had always loved: playing football.
A few weeks ago, ESPN featured Johnson. He has since become an inspirational speaker, delivering one of Hilliman’s favorite motivational speeches, which he discovered back in May. On a SportsCenter 30 for 30 special, he spoke about his journey before and after the life-changing tackle of Sept. 9, 2005. His mission: to encourage people to embrace the hurdles life slips in front of them before they have the chance to leap clear. But it’s easier said than done for athletes, young or old, who have never known a life outside the realm of the gridiron. As SportsCenter anchor John Anderson said of recently-injured athletes before introducing the clip, “And then you do what? And then you do what?”
On Sept. 24, 2015, nine years and 17 days after Johnson had to confront his own new direction, Hilliman was faced with this question. Like Johnson, he exploded onto the scene his freshman year, coming as close to filling the mammoth gap left behind by now-NFL back Andre Williams as anyone could have expected in 2014. Like Johnson, he began his sophomore campaign with sky-high expectations, though he underwhelmed until breaking out for 119 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries in that last game against Northern Illinois. But unlike Johnson, his injury—a fractured foot—came on an innocent-looking cut that just about no one paid real attention to during the game. Neither he nor his coach anticipated the severity of the injury.
“I just really thought we were dealing with some sort of foot sprain,” BC head coach Steve Addazio told The Boston Globe on the following Monday. “I had no idea after I left my [postgame] press conference that I was going to find out he had a fracture.”
Also unlike Johnson’s injury, Hilliman’s was season-ending, not career-ending, but BC’s back still found himself in a place he’d never seriously imagined. He had been bumped and bruised plenty before—after all, he’s a 6-foot-1, 230-pound power back whose job is to barrel North-to-South through the defensive line—but since he first discovered the game as a toddler, he had never been prevented from taking the field.
“It was tough. I had to hold back some tears,” Hilliman said last week. “I never really had plans of sitting out, I didn’t know how to deal with it because I’d never had to. I had no practice of dealing with it.”
Depression crept up on Hilliman in the coming weeks as he was stuck trudging through the first steps of recovery and rehab from a successful surgery. Meanwhile a platoon of second-stringers—at both running back and quarterback, as starting QB Darius Wade went down with his own season-ending injury the game before Hilliman—struggled to lead BC’s offense through the heart of the ACC.
But Hilliman wants to be clear. He isn’t just a ballplayer. It has been his primary passion since he was 4, watching his hometown New York Giants on TV with his dad. Ironically enough, it wasn’t the 41-0 offensive explosion in the NFC Championship win over the Minnesota Vikings that sparked his interest in the game of pigskin. It was the next game he remembers, when the Baltimore Ravens, a team ranked as one of the best defenses of all time, manhandled the Giants in a crushing 34-7 loss.
“I kinda just saw that, saw how Ray Lewis was playing, that Ravens defense, the attitude it brought, the swagger it brought, the type of mentality it brought—and I thought, I want to be a part of that,” Hilliman said.
But even though he remembers a moment of inspiration far earlier than some people remember anything, he wouldn’t call football his original love. Yes, football now has top billing in his life. But before he began devoting much of his life to training and practice, he loved music. So when he had to put his first love on hold, he put energy back into the second one, music.
“Besides football, music is definitely his safe haven and he absolutely turned to music to help him through his recovery,” Hannah Argul, Hilliman’s girlfriend since last November and a student at Seton Hall, said in an email. “Whether it was to help him relax or to motivate him to get better, music was always his go to when football couldn’t be.”
In his newfound downtime, a conversation came up with a couple guys from the team—primarily kicker Mike Knoll. The two discovered they shared similar tastes in music. Knoll had enough recording equipment in his room to call it a mini studio, and roommates tolerant enough to accept the noise. The kicker eventually offered his buddy the mic to freestyle, and their partnership took off from there.
On Nov. 20, 2015, Hilliman and Knoll released their first track on SoundCloud. The project: S.W.A.G. (Society Wants A General). The track: “I’m Not A Rapper,” by Ea$tSyde Jon aka AceThaPoet, feat. DJ Mike Knoll. The song contains subtle references to football: “I just started but I’m highly regarded like veterans” and “used to dribble the ball but I’m on the field now,” but it also shows another side of Hilliman from the No. 32 that would take the field on Saturdays.
“My favorite thing to do is play football, but definitely when everything’s done, when I get done watching film, and done with homework and everything else, I definitely try to get on music a little bit,” he said.
The often-reserved Hilliman posted the song in the BC Class of 2018 Facebook group a week later, something he was excited to do. (He’d posted three times before in the group, all in the summer before freshman year: a welcome note inviting anyone to drop by his room, and two posts to share his Instagram handle.) This doesn’t come as a huge surprise to the people who know him best, who see he’s constantly laughing and joking, only serious on the football field, and, according to Rich Hansen, his high school football coach at St. Peter’s Prep, a “sweetheart of a kid.”
This side of his personality showed through more when he was younger. He entered high school as a post-Pop Warner star with tons of raw talent but the immaturity of any other freshman boy. He resisted coaches’ proddings to mentally mature at first—when you have such a strong natural athletic ability to run through future Division-I players as a freshman, it’s easy to feel invincible to even the most insistent coaches. But with a few “lightning-bolt moments” along the way, he embraced the process of becoming a more intelligent player.
By the time he was a senior, he had become a role model for the younger guys. He learned discipline—trusting the play and the offensive line, and not trying to do too much. He was always strong, but his field vision improved exponentially, allowing him to set records at St. Peter’s and rake in offers from 26 schools, including Alabama, Florida, and Ohio State, as well as seven ACC schools.
After initially committing to hometown team Rutgers (he grew up in Plainfield, N.J., just half an hour from New Brunswick), Hilliman felt the need to revisit his choice in the wake of the reverberations made by coach controversies, the resignation of Director of Athletics Tim Pernetti, and numerous other decommitments. After a visit to BC, which was powering its way to a bowl game under the new reign of run-heavy Addazio, he knew pretty quickly where he wanted to be.
“When I came to BC, I felt like this is definitely a place where I could thrive,” he said. “I felt like it was a no-brainer.”
Part of that appeal came from BC being a Jesuit school like St. Peter’s. Hilliman grew up in a religious family, though it leaned more Baptist. But he sees both sects as carrying the same message, which makes his passion for preaching via rap verse an unsurprising fit. And not one he plans on giving up any time soon.
“Even if I go to the NFL, or get a regular job, I want to keep music with me,” Hilliman said.
Hilliman and Knoll continued to produce music into the winter. They released another song via Facebook on March 10 and two more after that. He plans to continue the activity that kept his boredom in check, though at this point his free time has all but evaporated. He’s back to the grind that comes with love number one. Now, it’s about getting focused for his return to the game on foreign soil, as BC will travel to Dublin for its first game of 2016. On July 13, he declared via Twitter he wouldn’t post another Instagram photo until the first game, and then also took over 40 days off from Twitter.
These hiatuses are fitting for a player whose mantra is “work silent … play loud”—a phrase he has taken from his father and uncle, and integrated into his identity as a player.
“If you’re balling out you don’t really talk about it, you know what I’m saying?” Hilliman said. “People know, they feel you. My dad would always tell me, your actions were so loud, I forgot what you just said.”
Though a younger Hilliman got mad at his father for this, eventually he got it. Empty talk didn’t make someone better. Hard work did.
As the now-redshirted sophomore gets set to return to the field, the continued effort has kept his ceiling high, and the possibility of an NFL future on the table. After all, few are concerned about his ability to bounce back this season, and that’s without him having to reassure them. The man hearing his 4-year-old kid sitting with him on the couch during the Super Bowl saying he was going to play in the NFL someday may have laughed, but no one is laughing anymore. They’re too busy listening.