A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
One of the NFL's top young wideouts plays with a chip on his shoulder and a prayer cloth beneath his left thigh pad. He often sounds wiser than his 23 years, such as when he discusses the rash of NFL players arrested this summer—"Trouble is easy to get into but hard to get out of"—but then he admits to being a clown, who plans to "act a fool" on the field this season. He has been timed at 4.34 seconds over 40 yards, and despite his small stature (he's 5'9" and weighs just 178 pounds), he can make vast quantities of food disappear with similar speed.
Fact is, T.Y. Hilton does most things fast. Which is why it's no surprise that he's on an accelerated track to stardom.
As a rookie with the Colts last season he led all first-year wideouts in touchdown catches (seven) and average yards per catch (17.2), ranked second in yards receiving (861) and tied for third in receptions (50). He came on so strong that over the final seven games, he had more yards (506 to 424) and more TD catches (five to two) than Reggie Wayne, his mentor and Pro Bowl teammate.
"People would say it's too early for me to use that word: greatness," says Hilton, whose given name is Eugene. (He was called Little Ty, after his father, Tyrone, and that nickname was eventually shortened to T.Y.) "But by great I [mean that I] want to be special in this game. I had an incredible rookie year—incredible stats, more yards than a couple of guys I look up to. But I feel I can only get better. I've got Reggie in my corner, and any questions I have, he's going to answer. He's going to give me the key I need to open the door to be great, to be a Hall of Famer, to be special. The game is slowing down for me, and I feel good."
That might sound cocky, but spend time with Hilton and you see a far more down-to-earth, hardworking and even humble young man. (When told he could pick any restaurant in his hometown of Miami to conduct an interview for this story, he chose Red Lobster.) He blesses his meals before eating, praises his teammates for helping him succeed and treads cautiously on questions about becoming a No. 1 receiver because he considers the topic to be disrespectful to Wayne.
But it's a topic that's going to be difficult to avoid much longer. Looking back, it's laughable that 12 receivers were taken ahead of Hilton, whose stock fell because of a quadriceps injury that kept him out of the Senior Bowl and prevented him from running at the scouting combine. There was also concern that because of his size, he might be fragile or unable to consistently escape press coverage at the line of scrimmage. Never mind that he had been one of the nation's most dangerous all-purpose threats at Florida International, where he had 24 TD receptions, seven rushing scores and six touchdowns on returns—Hilton had to wait and wait for his phone to ring on draft day. He was O.K. until he saw Jacksonville use the 70th pick on Brian Anger. A punter.
Finally, the Colts traded for the 92nd pick and took Hilton. As a third-round pick he was all but guaranteed a spot on the roster, but he approached the season as if he were the 54th man on a 53-man roster. "A lot of times young guys come in with wide eyes and don't know their way around," says Colts safety Antoine Bethea. "T.Y. wasn't your typical rookie. I'm not going to say he was like a seasoned vet, but he was like a third- or fourth-year guy in the way he carried himself on and off the field. Very straitlaced and focused."
Motivated by his plunge and protected by the prayer cloth he wears over the quadriceps that he tore in his final collegiate game, Hilton set a franchise rookie record with five 100-yard receiving games. His speed and elusiveness got him open, and when he got the ball in his hands, Hilton was one of the most dangerous players in the league; 45% of his yards came after the catch, a number topped only by Wes Welker, Randall Cobb and Michael Crabtree among the top 30 in receiving yards.