BEREA: Eighteen months ago, Peyton Hillis was a reject, thrown in with a couple of low-round draft choices when the Denver Broncos traded for Browns quarterback Brady Quinn.
Late last month, Hillis was featured on the front page of Target’s weekly circular.
Coupon-clipping housewives saw his blue eyes and bulging biceps as the national retailer touted the release of EA Sports’ Madden NFL 12 video game with Hillis on its cover.
For Hillis, a 25-year-old running back, it capped a rise to prominence as startling as his one-year leap from NFL obscurity. That leap has the Browns negotiating a contract extension with Hillis, president Mike Holmgren confirmed Wednesday, even though Hillis has just one 1,000-yard season in three years.
Hillis was dispatched to the Browns after a year in Broncos coach Josh McDaniels’ doghouse, playing fullback and rushing for just 54 yards, 47 of those in a game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Hillis had fared better as a rookie under coach Mike Shanahan in 2008, when the seventh-round draft pick from Arkansas started six games and led the Broncos in rushing with 343 yards and five touchdowns.
Hillis conceded that his confidence was shot when the Browns acquired him in March 2010.
“When you get shipped from team to team, people really don’t see what you can do,” he said late last month. “It can wear on you a little bit. You just want somebody to accept you, somebody to embrace you. Coach [Eric] Mangini and coach Holmgren did that last year. When you have people believe in you, it makes you want to do your best.”
With someone in his corner, Hillis ran for 1,177 yards, 11th in the league, and finished second on the team in receiving with 61 catches for 477 yards and two touchdowns.
He became the only Browns player with 1,000 rushing yards, 50 receptions and 10 touchdowns in a single season, and he joined Mike Pruitt (1980, ’81) as the only Brown to hit the 1,000-50 double. Hillis’ 11 rushing touchdowns in a season put him in an elite Browns class with hall of famers Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly, a feat not accomplished since Kelly scored 16 in 1968. With 13 combined touchdowns, Hillis tied for third in the NFL.
The only blotch on his season came in rainy Buffalo on Dec. 12, when he fumbled three times, recovering two, in a 13-6 loss to the Bills in which he reached the 1,000-yard plateau.
Now it is Hillis’ jersey hanging in Northeast Ohio stores alongside that of Pro Bowl returner Joshua Cribbs and quarterback Colt McCoy. It was Hillis that drew a local manicurist to training camp, happy to accompany her sports-crazed husband and children even if she knows him more by his number 40 than by name.
It was the voting of Browns fans that improbably landed Hillis on the Madden NFL 12 cover. In a five-round bracket challenge on ESPN.com, Hillis knocked out Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers in the semifinals and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick for the honor.
During the first week of the game’s release that ended Sept. 5, sales were up 10 percent over the same period in 2010, according to Electronic Arts Inc.
Hillis acknowledged that his throwback style of running (or sometimes leaping) over defenders instead of going around them might be part of his appeal. But there’s also his chiseled physique and his penchant for dressing in jeans and cowboy boots, often with some camouflage, a reflection of his affinity for hunting.
“What I’ve come to learn is people don’t like different,” Hillis said. “People are scared of different. I think I’m a different player, I bring a different type of style to the game. I’m not saying that’s any better or any worse. When you bring something different, people tend to look more [at] that player and see if he succeeds or not.”
That will be the case this season, which opens with the home game today against the Cincinnati Bengals. He’ll likely share the carries with Montario Hardesty, a second-round pick from Tennessee who sat out his rookie season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“He definitely has something to prove,” Browns left tackle Joe Thomas said of Hillis last week. “He had a good year last year, but he kind of came out of nowhere. He’s got something to prove that he’s one of the best backs in the NFL. He’s going to have that mentality all year.”
Although taken by Hillis’ running, blocking and receiving abilities, Browns coach Pat Shurmur seems concerned about his durability.
“I don’t know about the length of his career, but he is a physical-style guy,” Shurmur said. “That’s what makes him a little bit unique. A lot of times, runners are trying hit to guy on the edge. He doesn’t shy away from a straight-on blow.”
Hillis knows that some are skeptical, waiting for him to prove he’s not a one-year wonder before they’ll give him his due.
“Nothing’s ever enough,” Hillis said. “You can do great this year, but they want to see it the next year and the next year and the next year. As long as I’m healthy, you can expect the very best out of me.”
But he believes he can repeat his feats because he’s changed from last season.
“My approach to the game is totally different,” he said. “I’m more confident, I’m more positive about things to come. And that’s a good thing when you’re talking about an NFL football career.”
Thomas said at his core, Hillis remains the same.
“He’s still the same old county boy from Arkansas,” Thomas said. “Nothing’s going to change that guy. He’s just a hard worker. That’s the way he was raised and that’s the way he’ll be forever.”
Hillis seemed so empowered during the 2010 season that he began flexing his biceps after touchdowns, a move that has been copied on T-shirts and drawn comparisons to the ‘‘Incredible Hulk.’’
“That was just something that instinctively came to me. It wasn’t really planned or anything like that,” he said. “I guess that’s part of what I do now.”
Fans sometimes ask about his Hulk-sized arms and prompt him to show them off, as did ESPN SportsNation co-host Michelle Beadle on the day the Madden cover was announced.
“I just say it’s God-given, really,” Hillis said. “I’ve lifted my whole life, but nothing special so you can have something bigger than others. My dad’s built like this.” He said his father Doug used to be a farmer in Conway, Ark., now he owns day care centers with Hillis’ mother.
Hillis goes along with requests such as Beadle’s because he believes the Madden cover was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and his lifetime hasn’t always been this good. He admitted he strayed from his religious faith while in Denver and was floundering for a time.
“Everybody once in their life loses faith, loses their way,” he said. “I think I found that a couple years ago. It’s really just how much faith you have in him and how much you fear him about the rewards he’ll give you.”
One of those rewards should come from the Browns, who are about to give him a raise from his $600,000 salary this season. Hillis longs to stay in Cleveland.
“This team, this city, even the colors represent who I am as an individual, as a person and as a player,” he said. “I would love to be here for as long as the Browns want me here.”
He did some agent-switching looking for the best representation to negotiate his second contract, but Hillis doesn’t seem obsessed with what’s going on behind the scenes. He’s still trying to grasp how he came out of nowhere in such a short time and plot how he’ll avoid the Madden curse that has befallen some of the cover choices, including Vick, who broke his leg days after he was announced as the 2004 selection.
“The Lord had a plan for my life and I believe he’s trying to show it to me now,” Hillis said. “He’s humbled me beyond all means. When I look at this, I know a lot of people doubt you and say you can’t do it again. Especially with this Madden curse thing, you want to prove people wrong.
“I’m going to show them that there’s a real God and he doesn’t believe in curses.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MarlaRidenour. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.