Hilliard's start reward for tenacity

Bill Rabinowitz
Despite suffering a torn Achilles tendon during spring ball this year, fifth-year senior Justin Hilliard was back on the field Sept. 14 in limited duty, before getting a start Saturday against Wisconsin. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

After Saturday’s victory over Wisconsin, Justin Hilliard sought out Adam Stewart. They shared a well-earned hug.

For months, Hilliard, a fifth-year senior Ohio State linebacker, and the team’s physical therapist worked together as Hilliard rehabbed from a torn Achilles tendon sustained during spring practice.

On Saturday, Hilliard started his first game of the season. He was the fourth linebacker in the 4-4 alignment the Buckeyes used in a successful strategy to throttle the Badgers’ potent running game.

Hilliard’s biggest moment was a tackle for a 6-yard loss of star running back Jonathan Taylor, who was held to only 52 yards.

After the game, Hilliard embraced the man known around the Woody Hayes Athletic Center simply as “Stew.”

“I would say most people don't know my name is Adam,” Stewart said.

But Stewart is regarded as one of the program’s more important members. Numerous players have credited him for his work in their recovery from injuries.

Hilliard's Achilles tear came after he’d already missed the majority of two seasons because of separate biceps injuries. He had entered Ohio State as a five-star prospect out of Cincinnati St. Xavier. His immense potential seemed destined to be unfulfilled.

Asked Saturday how he managed not to succumb to the belief that a successful career was just not meant to be, Hilliard replied, “I can’t say I didn’t have some of those moments.”

He entered spring practice determined to make the most of his final year. Hilliard said he was playing the best football of his Buckeyes career before the injury.

“When that happened, it was a tough week,” he said. “I didn't know if a comeback was even possible. I mean, you tear your Achilles in the middle of spring ball. People don’t come back for like 12 months, 14 months sometimes. Me and Stew had a plan to attack this, to try to get back in 6½-7 months.”

Hilliard said he was inspired by the precedent set last year by fellow linebacker Tuf Borland, who returned from an Achilles injury in a similar time frame.

“I was in his ear probably more than anybody,” Hilliard said. “When I tore my Achilles, I had someone to kind of lean on and ask questions.”

Stewart said that Hilliard kept whatever doubts and fears he had to himself.

“He was very much head down, boots on the ground, ‘What can I do and how much can I do to get better?’" Stewart said. “That was his attitude the whole way.

“There was no feeling sorry for himself, never a day when he was asking the what-if questions.”

Hilliard returned to play a few plays on special teams against Indiana on Sept. 14. Saturday was his most extensive action on defense.

He credited his teammates and coaches, specifically co-coordinator Greg Mattison and linebackers coach Al Washington, for their support. And, of course, Stewart, who said it was “very gratifying” to watch Hilliard on Saturday.

“He's a guy that you just admire for everything he’s been through and just the way he’s handled it,” Stewart said. “You can’t help but step back and say that whatever good this kid gets, he deserves.

“Guys like that make it such a joy to be in this position. He worked so hard and just put everything he had into it. He deserves all the credit.”

Hilliard graduated in May with a marketing degree after being an OSU scholar-athlete. He could have chosen not to grind through rehab for a chance at a final season.

“It hasn't been completely easy, but this has been the best five years of my life,” he said. “I love the teammates I've met, the coaches I've been with. I wouldn't trade it for anything.”