Under The Helmet: Justin Hilliard Discusses His First Year in the NFL

Throughout his career, Justin Hilliard has overcome injuries and doubters.

When he arrived in Columbus as a five-star recruit, the talented linebacker wanted to make a big impact for the Buckeyes and play in the NFL. Although he was setback by injuries, Hilliard ended up becoming an Ohio State captain and a starting linebacker and is now playing in the league.

Hilliard recently took some time out of his busy offseason schedule to discuss his first year in the league, rehabbing from yet another injury and his future with Eleven Warriors.

You signed with San Francisco, what was that first day of camp like with the 49ers?

Hilliard: First, I wouldn’t really call it a signing. Draft day was the craziest freaking day of my life, oh my God. I was honestly so expecting to get drafted, so I was waiting around until the fifth or sixth round and I wasn’t hearing much. For those guys who don’t get drafted, or who don’t get drafted until the sixth round, you start getting calls in the sixth round. So, I had teams starting to recruit me. 

Before going into the draft, me and my agent kind of already had a plan of the teams I wanted to go to if it went down and me going undrafted. And at the very top, I knew if I didn’t get drafted I was going to San Fran. Soon after the draft, hit them up. Cleared that up, then headed there the day after. 

My first day, I would say, honestly that whole first part of being a 49er was like that was the biggest chip on my shoulder I ever had. I was so excited to be a 49er, but I still had that feeling, I knew I should have been drafted. I felt like I was better than some of the guys that I saw go before me. It was kind of a euphoric feeling. before me. But at the same time I didn’t experience all that because I had this massive, still do, have a massive chip on my shoulder.

Some people believe that by not getting drafted, you get to play the card of “I get to pick where I go.” Did you spin it that way, or would you have rather been drafted?

Hilliard: I would have rather been drafted for sure. When looking back on it, everything that happened, happened for a reason. I wouldn’t have changed anything, honestly. 

I picked San Fran not because I would have had the best chance to make the team, but because I wanted to go learn from guys like Fred Warner. I wanted to be a part of that culture they had at San Fran. Yeah, that’s why I chose them.

You mention Fred Warner. Did you learn much from him? What did you pick up from him?

Hilliard: I was in that locker room for two to three months. I learned a ton from those guys. Really, rookies learn everything from training camp. I had my whole training camp in San Fran and I learned so much from him. As far as what it is to be a pro and how to go about your business. That man works harder than anyone. I learned so much from him.

Did going to Ohio State prepare you for your NFL camp experience?

Hilliard: Nothing will be as challenging as Ohio State football camp. That is the pinnacle of just grit and pushing you to your absolute limits. I think the biggest difference between an Ohio State and a professional camp is just the key of being really consistent.

You might not get as many chances as you did at Ohio State. But you have to make sure every play that you do get in is damn near absolutely perfect.

When the Giants picked you up, you had 11 days before the season opener. How did you get caught up with the playbook and the terminology? What was going on in your mind, what was that experience like?

Hilliard: I’m not going to lie. First what happened was San Fran told me I was the last person to get cut and they were going to bring me back on the practice squad. So at that point I was a little pissed off, a little devastated. I honestly didn’t know the whole process of getting claimed in the NFL. My agent really hadn’t laid that out to me until later that night. 

The next day, I ended up literally just scrolling thru Twitter, and I started seeing stuff about guys. You know, what teams are going to pick guys off of waivers. Then my agent explained that whole process. Then literally at that point I was just refreshing my Twitter until I saw any report on who gets claimed. That’s literally how I found out. Was scrolling through Twitter and seeing some reporters’ tweets that I was headed to New York. 

Was that 24-hour period one of the longest days of your life?

Hilliard: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was honestly one of the best days of my life. Obviously, that was a dream I’ve had since I was a kid. Not just being in the NFL, but being on that 53-man roster. So, when I got that call, I was ecstatic. I got that call, I think that morning. Then six o’clock that night, I flew out to New York.

When I landed, got to the facility, did all my paperwork, signed, then was out at practice 2 p.m. that day. So, it was a quick turnaround, but probably one of the best days of my life. 

Nate Ebner and Billy Price were your teammates with the Giants last year. Did they help you make the transition to the team?

Hilliard: I think I actually got there just a little before Billy did. Soon as I got there, I linked with Nate Ebner. He was a guy I always looked up to early on at Ohio State when I was trying to be the best special teams player I could be.

He was kind of the standard. The guy who was making plays on special teams and made an NFL career out of that. So I always looked up to him. He was someone as soon as I got to New York, I was constantly in his ear. Trying to take any piece of advice he would give me. So he was super helpful. 
I played with Billy for two or three years at Ohio State. So me and him are pretty good friends. Soon as he came in it was obviously nice to see a familiar face. Then we have Jake Hausmann here too, so we had four Buckeyes here. 

What did you learn from playing with Nate Ebner?

Hilliard: I think the biggest thing, he would always talk to me. When I would talk to him, I would just become obsessed with anything. Or any other routine I could add to my routine just to take care of my body. So I can stay away from injuries moving forward. He gave me some really good advice on routines. 

The biggest thing I honestly picked up from Nate is how he worked. You start seeing patterns on guys, honestly a lot of Ohio State guys. There’s a trend of older Ohio State veterans that are in the league that you just see the professionalism and what it takes to stay in the league that long. 

The biggest thing is he was so damn smart. He knew everything about offense, defense and special teams. Ever since I linked with him on my first day here, that was the biggest goal for me. Just to learn as much I can. Offense, defense and special teams. He’s a do-it-all type. 

I got here my first day; I didn’t know anybody. As soon as I saw Nate Ebner’s locker, I was like, “Yeah, I gotta get in his ear.”

With over 50 Buckeyes in the NFL, is there a still a brotherhood or connection between you guys?

Hilliard: It’s a brotherhood I really can’t even describe. I’ve never played with Nate, but as soon as I got to New York, he instantly took me under his wing. Guys like Billy, played with Nick (Bosa) with the 49ers. Still keep up with former roommate Joe (Burrow), Sam Hubbard, Jashon Cornell. There’s just so many. 

K.J. Hill, saw him in pre-season. Preseason, it seemed like every other day, I’d go against a former Buckeye. Like I said, you start to see a pattern. Honestly, I think it’s something that’s just instilled in us from all the things we’ve been through. 

Like I said, there’s nothing harder than an Ohio State camp. Yes, there’s a brotherhood. 

You made your regular-season debut against the Saints in Week 4, what was that week like?

Hilliard: My first three weeks here, I was treating every week just to get on that. Because there’s a 53-man roster and I think a 48-man travel list. I was just scratching and clawing trying to learn the playbook as fast as I could so I could get out there as fast as possible. I think I found out Friday, after our Friday practice. 

That was something I was itching for, so I’d be in my coach’s ear every week. Asking him, “Am I active, am I active, am I active?” Finally, he told me I was active. You know, it was a really good feeling, but honestly it was really something I was expecting just moving forward. 

That first time out there was crazy. That stadium was going nuts. My legs felt like the freshest they’ve ever felt in my life. I wish I would have been in the moment more in that moment. Because I say I expect it, but at the same time, if I really would have took in that moment, I probably would have started crying or something. I just knew how much, what it took to get to that point. Looking back, it was a crazy moment, but it was still something I expected. 

Did your first NFL play match up with what you thought it would be like as a kid?

Hilliard: Looking back, yeah, honestly. That Saints stadium is crazy by the way. So, all the adrenaline was flowing. Honestly, I can’t even lie. I can’t say it was crazy, crazy, because we played in front of 110,000 fans every single week at Ohio State. It was still that type of adrenaline, but it was a little different just because I knew I made it to the NFL.

What was your first play, a kickoff, punt?

Hilliard: First kickoff of the game.

When you were running down the field, did you feel your legs, did you get the dry mouth, anything like that?

Hilliard: The stadium was crazy, so I was definitely looking around a little bit. There are only like a few special games, probably a handful of games, where my legs feel like I could run for 100 miles and not get tired. And that was for sure one of them. Like no doubt, ultra-locked in and just the freshest legs you can imagine. Just adrenaline flowing. 

Any coincidence the Giants won their first game of the season when you made your debut?

Hilliard: (Laughs) I hope so, man. I hope we win a lot more games in the future.

The next week, you were injured against Dallas. Can you share how you hurt your ankle?

Hilliard: I’m not going to talk about the specifics of the injury, but I tweaked it a little bit in the Dallas game. Then that next week in practice, I kind of messed it up a decent bit more. I finished the practice and then I had to shut it down for the rest of the season. Which was definitely tough on me.

Started attacking the rehab the day after. Before when I had these injuries, I would rehab just as fast as I could to get back. But the timing of this injury was obviously not good, because nobody wants to get injured. But the timing of it was good because I was in a place where I could get my body back to 100 percent before next season. 

My two main focuses are football IQ and then doing a routine to where I never have these injuries again. That’s something I’ve done and I feel better right now than I ever have.

Is the rehab finished? Everything good?

Hilliard: I’m pretty much almost done with rehab. I have my last little bit a change of direction we’re going in. I’m still in New Jersey rehabbing every day. I spend probably four to six hours each day just working on mobility. Strengthening literally every single ligament I can think of that I’ve ever had issues with, or I could have issues with, so I never have these issues again.

That’s a lot of time and work. What type of things do you do to strengthen your mobility?   

Hilliard: This whole offseason. Like I said, the timing of it was in a way perfect because I was able to craft exactly how I wanted to attack this offseason. Obviously, I knew the biggest focus. I know I can lift weights, I know I can run around. But the thing that I wasn’t fully developed with was mobility and strengthening some things that I haven’t worked on ever. That was the main focus of this. 

I did find a guy in New Jersey whose specialty is longevity, mobility, conditioning and things like that. Linked with him and we put together a full-on routine where the main focus is on my feet. That could be Achilles, ankle and strengthening my feet. 

Then the second thing was I’ve had some issues in my past with bicep tendons, so that’s number two. Working on things that can start those problems.

I get into the facility around 6 a.m. every morning, do about an hour or two with my foot and ankle routine. Do about an hour or two with my rehab, take a break, head to Closter, N.J. I have a guy named John Madonia there, we do about two hours of work there. It can range from head mobility to just regular movement stuff. 

Then head back to the facility, do a little upper body stuff or stuff I didn’t get to put in. Then head home around 3-4 (p.m.). So, I’m going from 6 a.m. to 3-4 each day.
That’s the whole approach I’m taking this offseason. I know the one thing that’s held me back has been injuries. And I can’t approach an offseason like someone who doesn’t have a list of injuries. Or not that prone to injuries. I know that I have to spend more time with that, so I can not have these issues.

What are your goals and expectations for the 2022 season?

Hilliard: I have a lot of goals. Honestly, they’re probably a lot higher than what people think they should be. But, I’m going to keep those to myself. I have a lot of goals. I think we have something special going with the Giants right now.

My first goal is obviously to get back 100 percent healthy and then goal after that is to be the best linebacker I can be. I have specific tangible goals, but I’m going to keep those to myself. It seems to be the trend usually. I’ve always set crazy high goals for myself. 

People would think I’m crazy for even keeping those same goals. Like at Ohio State, if I would have told people that my goal was to be a top linebacker coming out or to even get to the NFL, my junior year people would have thought I was crazy for having those same type of goals. For being one of the best linebackers in the league, and I’m going to work toward that.

Ten years from now, Justin Hilliard will be?

Hilliard: Justin Hilliard will be in his 11th year in the NFL.

Besides football, what else are you interested in?

Hilliard: I’m interested in so many different things. I think my ultimate goal, I’m so into movie production. I think it would be really sweet to work my way to be in some way related to the film industry. Not as an actor, but in production, creation or marketing of films. That’s been in the back of my head for a while. 

I’m really into writing, but honestly, I’ve never been drawn into the storytelling part until lately. Before, I was always so interested in films. Even like old westerns and new sci-fis, thrillers, you know things that make your mind spin. I think now, I have been drawn to the storytelling part. I always thought it would be cool to be a movie critic. Or a writer that writes about those things. 

Yeah, I don’t know, I think the story telling part has been drawing me lately.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Hilliard: First year wasn’t exactly what I planned or hoped for. But I’m still more motivated than ever right now and I think the same kind of story as I had in college. The setbacks only made me a better player. I’ve learned so much from even my first year in the NFL, even though I was only out there a limited number of snaps. I’m super excited for next year.

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