Game-breaking speedster Hilton putting upstart FIU on the map
Receiver T.Y. Hilton and FIU are on the national radar after beating Louisville
The electric Hilton nearly went to West Virginia, but let his infant son pick FIU
The Panthers were 1-11 before Hilton arrived; they've won 17 games with him
As with so much else in life, we all could have known about T.Y. Hilton sooner if we had simply asked Jose Canseco.
When Hilton was 9, his father Tyrone said, he met Canseco in South Florida's Bucky Dent Park, where Tyrone and his wife Cora were playing competitive travel softball. Canseco, the big-league slugger, steroid whistle-blower and longtime slow-pitch enthusiast, spotted the nine-year-old T.Y. (whose given name is Eugene) on the base paths, sliding and pirouetting as he raced around the diamond in between games.
Canseco grabbed a football and tossed it to Hilton, who plucked the ball from the air and sprinted around the park like a collie unleashed. Canseco turned to Tyrone. "Call me when he grows up," Tyrone remembered Canseco saying. "I want to be his agent."
He won't be the only one.
These days, Hilton sprints up and down the field for Florida International University, where he's a wideout and return specialist. From the moment he stepped on campus in 2008, Hilton was the probation-laden Golden Panthers' biggest playmaker. In 2010, he was named Sun Belt conference player of the year. Now, after his 201-yard, two-touchdown performance in a primetime win over Louisville last week, Hilton has entered the national spotlight.
"T.Y. Hilton is a different breed," Louisville linebacker Dexter Heyman said after falling to Hilton's Panthers. North Texas coach Dan McCarney can commiserate. "He plays at a different speed than everybody else," McCarney told USA Today. "He makes people miss, he has great hand-eye coordination, and he's just tough. He's one of the best players in college football."
And he plays for one of the country's fastest-rising programs.
FIU started its football program in 2002. The Panthers moved to Division I-A in 2005 and were promptly placed on probation. When FIU coach Mario Cristobal was trying to lure Hilton to his school, it might have been difficult to convince him the Panthers would be any good. They'd just finished a 1-11 season. The year before, they'd gone 0-12.
Hilton had been a late bloomer, but he'd earned attention from BCS conference schools as a senior. As the time to decide on a college approached, he leaned toward signing with West Virginia. Some advisers pushed him to jump at the chance to play in the Big East, while others encouraged him to stay home. The night before Signing Day, Hilton decided to ask someone who hadn't yet spoken: his infant son.
Eugene Jr. had been born months before, and his arrival left Hilton with far more to consider than the average recruit. So Hilton left it up to him. He placed two caps -- one for FIU, one for WVU -- next to each other, and he encouraged Eugene to crawl to the one he liked best.
He chose FIU. Hilton arranged the hats again and repeated his request. Again, Eugene chose the Panthers. And again. And again. Whether he wanted to keep his dad close to the rest of the family or he just liked the Panthers' logo, the baby's decision was final. The next day, Hilton became a Panther.
"He's become the face of this program, without question," said Cristobal, aware that 17 of the program's 31 wins have come with Hilton on campus. "The first time we saw him, we thought, my Lord, it's going to be hard for anyone in the country to stop him. We knew he'd give us something special. As a coach in that position, you could only dream of getting a kid like that."
After signing, Hilton made Cristobal a promise: "The first time I touch the ball," he said, "I'm taking it to the house." When he jogged on the field for a punt return in his first collegiate game, at Kansas, Hilton had those words in mind. When Hilton crossed into the end zone 74 yards later, Cristobal could only smile. "I thought, this guy's some kind of a prophet or something," he said.
Perhaps. After the Panthers finished 3-9 in 2009, Hilton walked off the field at the end of their 28-21 season-ending loss to Florida Atlantic, frustrated near the point of tears. He made a point of walking up to Cristobal as the team headed for the locker room. "Coach," he said, "next year, we're winning the conference."
Hilton led the way, catching 59 passes for 848 yards and five touchdowns. He also rushed for 300 yards and another four scores, and he averaged 28.7 yards per kickoff return and took two returns to the house. "We can basically put him at any position except punter," Cristobal said. Along the way, he helped revive the career of quarterback Wesley Carroll, a former All-SEC freshman team selection at Mississippi State who transferred to FIU for his junior season.
"If I had T.Y. Hilton on my team at Mississippi State, I probably would have finished my career there," Carroll said. "That's the kind of player he is. There's no doubt in my mind he'd be one of the top players in the SEC if he was in that conference. He would fit right in."
As he charges through his senior season, Hilton said he's made another promise of what's to come, though he refuses to tell reporters what it is. Perhaps it has to do with earning his degree and entering the NFL next season. Though Eugene Jr. has grown into quite the pee-wee football player, his father wants the means to give him more.
"We go to the mall, and I can't get him the things he wants," Hilton said. "I want to be able to buy him anything, to not have to worry about it."
For that, he'll need an agent. Perhaps Canseco is still available.