BIRMINGHAM — It was one short video clip of what has been his best season as a professional football player. However, it was more than that for Wes Hills. It’s also a microcosm of the USFL life for the standout New Orleans Breakers running back.
On the play, the sturdy 6-foot-2, 218-pound running back gets a solid hit on an incoming defensive end before leaking out into the right flat. New Orleans quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson rolls right and delivers the football to Hills, who breaks up the sideline. About 15 yards into his run, he leaps over a defender, landing out of bounds on the opposing sideline. All the while, Hills is laughing.
Football, once again, is fun for Hills.
“Every situation that I’ve been through, up to this point, prepared me mentally, made me tougher physically (and) spiritually,” Hills said. “It all prepared me for this moment. I used to get nervous having these interviews and nervous playing. Now, everything is to a point where everything is even; everything is relaxed. It can come to me, and I can just play my game and not get lost in everything else.”
End of the season today, and Hills would be right in the middle of USFL Player of the Year discussion. Through the first five weeks, Hills is leading the league with 427 rushing yards and tied for the lead in rushing touchdowns with eight. Hills also has 20 catches for 150 yards. He’s really only played on offense, though, for the last three weeks. In the season opener, all of his contributions came on special team coverage, where he had two tackles and a forced fumble. The only other game he didn’t score a touchdown came on Sunday when the Breakers lost for the first time with the Memphis Showboats pulling out a 17-10 victory at Protective Stadium.
“It’s been a long trip to get here,” Hills said. “To be able for all that to come together and to finally get an opportunity with (New Orleans coach John DeFilippo) and just being part of the USFL is huge. We had a great season the first year and to be part of what they’re doing now, it’s amazing. I’m just happy to be here, to be honest.”
Hills’ trip to Birmingham, where he lives, practices and plays games with the Breakers, began in Wildwood, New Jersey. He grew up on a resort island on the New Jersey coast. Basketball and baseball were largely the sports of choice for youngsters growing up in the small community. Hills chose football as his first love. He didn’t have a lot of company on the football field at Wildwood High, which had an enrollment of about 300 kids.
“Not a lot of people in our town, our island, it’s like five miles long,” Hills said. “We can’t go out and recruit like other people. Whatever you have on that island is what you have to work with. You also got people are working in the summer, so training camp doesn’t always happen. People have to provide for their families and everything else like that. It was a different way of going about things, especially talking to players here. They went to huge high schools, with training camps. They live and breathe football. Playing in Wildwood taught you a lot about adversity.”
The adversity begins with roster size.
“Our team only had about 20 players,” Hills said. “We played Iron Man football. We played every side of the ball. Just to be able to go out there and represent for my town and my city, it was huge for me.”
As a junior, Hills rushed for 1,294 yards with 10 touchdowns. The following season, he rushed for 2,107 yards and 35 touchdowns to lead his team to the playoffs for the first time in nearly 40 years.
“I was the kicker, the punter, played a little bit of corner, played a little linebacker, d-end, you name it,” Hills said. “That was just the football we were taught when I was young.”
College recruiters didn’t notice. His only two offers came from Delaware and Towson. He chose Delaware, where he had a rollercoaster ride that included successful seasons and seasons hampered by injuries. He rushed for 728 yards and seven touchdowns in 2014 and 952 yards with six touchdowns in 2016. He had 81 yards in the season opener in 2015 but missed the rest of the season with a foot injury. In 2013, he had 88 rushing yards in 12 games.
His final season never got started because he was ineligible academically.
“It taught me a lot of life lessons,” Hills said. “No one ever knew the real story of what happened. It just shows me the politics of everything that goes into sports and when you’re no longer valuable what happens. It taught me that early. I was blinded to it, I had always been on the other side. It opened my eyes to a lot of different things, and I was able to grow.”
Hills ran out of Division I eligibility before he could get back to the field. He had one more semester remaining if he transferred to a Division II school but couldn’t enroll until the fall of 2018. His opportunity to play came at Slippery Rock University. He moved to town and found work as an overnight security guard at a detention center. He would work all night and head to the gym once his shift ended. At times, he might grab a short nap in his car before going to work out. Other times, he would go straight into the gym.
“I just grinded every day to provide for myself and pay my bills, so I would be able to play football again,” Hills said.
That fall was a dream come true. He rushed for a Slippery Rock record 1,714 yards with 17 touchdowns to lead his team to the NCAA Division II quarterfinals. At one point, he had three consecutive games with 200-plus yards. He was selected to three different All-America teams and was the third leading rusher in the country despite missing two games and all but two snaps of another because of an injury.
He played in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl following the season and rushed for 78 yards on 10 carries with a touchdown. After the game, he was invited to play in the Senior Bowl in Mobile. He played well in practice during the week but was hurt during the game.
“That’s kind of the story of my football career,” Hills said of success followed by a setback.
He signed a three-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals after not being selected in the 2019 NFL Draft. But a training camp injury ended that opportunity. He was picked up by the Detroit Lions and was activated for the team’s game against visiting Tampa Bay on Dec. 15, 2019. He scored on a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs that trimmed a 24-3 deficit to one touchdown. The Bucs ended up scoring the final 14 points, and Hills never carried the ball in the NFL again.
Hills spent two years in the Canadian Football League before getting the opportunity in the USFL. The goal is to get back in the NFL, which looks like could happen with his performance thus far. For now, though, he’s enjoying life with the New Orleans Breakers.
“I’m blessed to be able to be part of this team,” Hills said. “To be able to be around the leadership and these guys, I’m just taking it day by day and enjoying myself.”
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