Carl Hilliard braced himself for bad news when he received an unexpected call from his son Justin on Tuesday.
In the past, getting a phone call from Justin and hearing one of his Ohio State coaches on the other end of the line has too often meant bad news was coming. Carl Hilliard has received those calls three times informing him that Justin had suffered an injury, and in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, that couldn’t help but cross his mind, too.
“When you get a call from your son, first thing you think is like, ‘Oh my god, what happened to him?’” Carl Hilliard recalled. “And the first thing you thought about was another injury or a setback. And I also thought maybe he had the coronavirus.”
The news Carl Hilliard was about to receive from his son and Ohio State assistant coaches Greg Mattison and Al Washington, however, wasn’t bad news at all. In fact, the news couldn’t have been better.
As soon as the words came out of Mattison’s mouth that Justin Hilliard had been named one of the seven captains of Ohio State’s 2020 football team, Carl began crying tears of joy.
“I was actually in a Zoom call with about 60 of my staff members,” Carl told Eleven Warriors, “and I actually started crying in front of my staff. I had to walk away. They didn’t know what the hell was going on. But when I got that call, it was just unbelievable.”
By now, Justin’s ups and downs since he arrived at Ohio State have been well-documented. A five-star recruit out of Cincinnati’s St. Xavier High School, Hilliard tore each of his biceps over his first two years at Ohio State. After establishing himself as a key player on special teams in 2017 and 2018, Hilliard ruptured his Achilles in the spring of 2019. Yet he bounced back from that to have his most impactful season yet last fall, becoming a regular in the Buckeyes’ four-linebacker package and even starting two games while recording 13 tackles with three tackles for loss and a memorable interception that helped the Buckeyes seal a win over Penn State.
Justin Hilliard coming through with a clutch pick. pic.twitter.com/5bObS6DQ3O— Eleven Warriors (@11W) November 23, 2019
Now, as a rare sixth-year senior and the only remaining member of Ohio State’s recruiting class of 2015, Hilliard has established himself as one of the Buckeyes’ top team leaders.
“Everybody on the team has an unbelievable amount of respect for Justin,” Washington told Carl Hilliard during the call informing that his son had been named a captain, “for how he handles his business and everything he’s been through.”
Had Hilliard’s career gone the way everyone envisioned when he signed with Ohio State as the class of 2015’s top-ranked prospect from the state of Ohio, he’d already be playing in the NFL. But Hilliard hasn’t let the setbacks he’s had to overcome break his spirit.
Keeping a positive mindset, Hilliard has tried to make the most out of every year he’s had at Ohio State both on and off the field. While enjoying the opportunity to have an unusually long college football career, Hilliard is also closing in on earning a master’s degree after earning his bachelor’s degree from the Fisher College of Business in the spring of 2019.
“I think a lot of people had that view of me of I’m just here feeling sorry for myself for all the terrible things that have happened to me, but honestly, these past five or however long eight years I’ve been here, have been awesome for me,” Hilliard said Tuesday after being named a captain. “I’ve had the time of my life.”
That attitude has been inspirational not only for Hilliard's teammates within the Ohio State football program, but also for his family.
“He’s oftentimes said, I’m not gonna lay here and cry or get depressed,” Carl Hilliard said. “He puts himself in a positive atmosphere. He gives himself positive reinforcements. He likes people to be positive around him. He doesn’t want any self-pity. So what I’ve learned from him the most is to take a bad situation and grow from it and make it better.”
“I’ve had the time of my life.”– Justin Hilliard on his six-year Ohio State career
Hilliard's journey to becoming an Ohio State captain is already a made-for-Hollywood story that his dad said he plans to turn into a book following his Ohio State career, but the final chapters haven't been written yet. Thanks to the NCAA granting him a sixth year of eligibility, Hilliard has the opportunity to play one more season at Ohio State before he’ll finally start pursuing a professional career.
While it’s uncertain exactly what Hilliard’s role will be this season in an Ohio State linebacker unit that includes seven total upperclassmen, his standing as a team leader is now undisputed, and former NFL scout and current Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said in a tweet this week that he is confident Hilliard will get the opportunity to play at the next level.
.@OhioStateFB LB Justin Hilliard stood out whenever he got on the field during 19 tape study. Former five-star is one of OSUs twitchest athletes and clearly has an NFL future. Hilliard has overcome a ton so it was cool to see him be named captain. #TheDraftStartsInMOBILE pic.twitter.com/i5PE9d3I9X— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) August 5, 2020
With plenty of support along the way from Ohio State – Carl Hilliard credited former Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer, who led the effort for Justin to apply for a sixth year of eligibility, and Ohio State physical therapist Adam Stewart, who led Justin’s rehabilitation from each of his three injuries, as two people who have played particularly key roles in his son’s success – Justin Hilliard has persevered through every challenge that’s come his way to become a captain on a team with so many respected leaders that Ryan Day said the Buckeyes “probably could have had 11 or 12 captains.”
That’s why Tuesday was one of the proudest days of his father’s life.
“Can you imagine that being on your résumé? A captain at The Ohio State University,” Carl said. “Being selected by his teammates and coaches as a captain speaks volumes, because I do know that team is full of high-character kids and good athletes. So for them to really see that in Justin as a leader, it’s just heartfelt.”