Cruel luck has ruled much of Justin Hilliard’s collegiate career.
So, of course he was the one sitting down in front of a computer in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center to take questions from reporters when the decision to axe the Ohio State-Michigan game came down.
In the time before learning the unfortunate news, he was dead-set on earning his sixth pair of Gold Pants by beating the Wolverines a sixth year in a row. During that run, which features four Big Ten championship rings, four bowl wins, three College Football Playoff appearances and a 68-6 record, Hilliard helped knock off Michigan every time the teams met, yet he still hasn’t captured the ultimate prize. He hasn’t won a national title.
On Monday, that could change.
Hilliard, in his sixth and final season, will participate in the 75th and final game Ohio State has played since he enrolled. A national championship, of course, will be at stake.
“I think this year especially, it just means so much more,” Hilliard said on Wednesday. “It kind of came full circle for me. When I first was being recruited by Ohio State in 2014, they were coming off a national championship win, and then six years later in my last year here, we're right back here. In that regard it is special, just for me playing in my last game, this being my last week of preparation. A lot of these seniors and a lot of the other guys are well aware that this is our last game and we're pouring everything we have into it.”
And yes, to be clear, it will be his last. Though eligible for a seventh season, he’s planning to move on after Monday.
“I mean, at this point I completely have the intentions on this being my last game,” Hilliard said. “It's been an incredible journey, but I just don't know how much more I can give to Ohio State.”
For Hilliard, the moment he runs out of the tunnel in Miami Gardens, Florida, to take on Alabama will be more than a half-decade in the making.
Famously, he and Jashon Cornell set the Ohio State football fanbase on fire by committing as a pair of five-star recruits on the same day: June 2, 2014. Six-and-a-half years – or 2,381 days – have passed since the pledges. Putting that into perspective, Justin Fields had wrapped up his eighth-grade year in Georgia when it happened. Garrett Wilson was between seventh and eighth grade. Paris Johnson had only just finished sixth grade.
“My journey here has been, I guess, so interesting. I've had so many times where, like you said, I didn't know if I was going to be able to push through.”– Justin Hilliard
In a perfect world, Hilliard wouldn’t even be in Columbus right now. He wouldn’t be training for another game in a college football journey that sometimes feels never-ending. No, he’d be in the NFL. Five-star prospects don’t ever commit to schools intending to stick around for six years. Heck, most of them would prefer to leave for the NFL in half of that time. Hilliard, once regarded as the third-best outside linebacker in the 2015 recruiting cycle, seemingly possessed the kind of talent to make that scenario a reality. Injuries, however, made it an impossibility.
First, he tore his right bicep. Then it was a left bicep tear. Then, a ruptured Achilles. One rehab after another.
Yet in a story that’s been told numerous times and that will be remembered for years to come, Hilliard stuck with football. He never gave in, never gave up.
“I would say the things that I've learned here is just perseverance, leaning on others,” Hilliard said. “I think when I got here I was kind of all to myself and refused help sometimes. Honestly, I don't think a lot of people would be in this situation where they are here if it wasn't for coaches, for teammates, players, family to push them through. I have so many people to thank after this year is over with.”
Those who helped him stick with the process, he said, motivate him to “bring one back” to the state of Ohio on Monday night. And because of the determination not to give up the sport of football, he’ll be an integral part of how Ohio State wants to attack Alabama’s offense.
Somehow, some way, Hilliard is going through a late-season sixth-year breakout. It is completely unprecedented given the amount of time he’s been in the program to play the way he has and yet also makes perfect sense. The past two games, Hilliard has simply been the guy Ohio State once thought it was getting out of St. Xavier. He has turned into a hard-hitting, fast, contact-seeking, aggressive, athletic linebacker capable of disrupting the flow of offenses.
In the Big Ten championship game, Hilliard would have been a cinch to earn game MVP honors had Trey Sermon not turned into Eddie George 2.0 for the night. He recorded nine tackles, including two for losses, with an interception and a fumble recovery. Then, against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, he had eight tackles, one tackle for a loss and a fumble recovery.
After enduring years of injuries that threatened to stunt his development as a linebacker, one could make a strong case that he’s been the best player on a Buckeye defense loaded with former four-star and five-star recruits for the past two games.
“Yeah, when you talk about Justin, he's a guy that kind of welcomed me into the university,” linebacker Pete Werner said. “He's a guy that we've had really fun times together. To see his improvements throughout the season and the way he's playing and operating on the football field is crazy to think. You talk about all the injuries, everything through adversity he's gone through. To see the level of play he's going with right now, it's crazy to think about. But credit the kid and his hard work and how much he loves this team. It's just great playing alongside with that.”
Alabama’s offense will be like nothing Hilliard has ever faced before. At least, not in the role he has now as a major contributor and possible starter – depending on how the coaches deploy him and Baron Browning.
He’ll be part of a group that has to to maneuver a stout offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award, tackle Najee Harris who’s viewed as the nation’s best running back, defend a wide receiver corps that includes Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and corral quarterback Mac Jones who earned a Heisman finalist nod.
This national championship game is exactly what Hilliard wants, though. It’s where he wants to be, the stage at which his recent play deserves and the opportunity he wasn’t sure for a chunk of his time spent in college he’d get.
“My journey here has been, I guess, so interesting,” Hilliard said. “I've had so many times where, like you said, I didn't know if I was going to be able to push through. I think the first three years here at Ohio State were probably the toughest, because year after year I had a biceps tear on my right and then biceps tear on my left again. After that, after injuries started stacking up, I had those thoughts in my mind: was I going to keep playing? I think a lot of times when you hear like three- or four-, six-month season-ending injuries, a lot of people usually call it quits.
“Yeah, I thought about that, but I'm so thankful for the teammates I have here, for the coaches, coach (Urban) Meyer especially. I think in that time I was going through a lot of those injuries he was pushing me through. All my position coaches, D-coordinators in the past, I'm so lucky to have them, because honestly, if it wasn't for some of those conversations I had with them and with my family and teammates, I honestly probably wouldn't still be playing.”