By Billy Watkins
Former Ole Miss defensive back Mike Hilton will start Sunday for the Cincinnati Bengals against the Kansas City Chiefs. The winner goes to the Super Bowl.
Hilton, who starred for the Rebels from 2012-2015, was a three-star recruit out of Fayetteville, Georgia. At the Ole Miss spring game before his senior season, I was talking with him and asked if he had been recruited by Georgia.
“No, they said I was too little,” he said.
“You mean, that’s sort of the word you got from them,” I said.
“Oh, no,” he said. “(Georgia head coach) Mark Richt looked me straight in the eye and told me I was too little to play in the SEC.”
He was just shy of 5-foot-9 and weighed 175 pounds.
I was stunned Richt had been so blunt.
“How often you think about that?” I asked.
“Every time I walk out on that field,” he answered.
Hilton is now in his seventh NFL season. He signed as a free agent in 2016 with the Jaguars and was among their final preseason cuts. He was signed to the New England Patriots’ practice squad in September but was cut a week later.
I ran into Hilton before an Ole Miss game shortly after his released from the Patriots. I told him, “You’re a football player and this isn’t over for you. The right NFL team is going to find you.”
He thanked me and said he believed it, too.
Three months later, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed him to the practice squad. He became a starter the next year and spent four years in Pittsburgh.
Said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin in 2017: “Mike is a guy that we’ve got a lot of respect for — and had a lot of respect for, We saw Mike play a lot in the evaluation of (cornerback) Senquez Golson, who we drafted out of Ole Miss. Mike is a unique guy. He wore (number) 38 at Ole Miss, Chucky Mullins’ jersey,. Anybody that knows anything about Ole Miss football, the guys that they recognize with that jersey, it speaks to their football character and the way they play the game.
“Anybody wearing 38 for Ole Miss is going to get your attention. That’s the first way he got our attention and we able to continue to follow him and do business with him. And he’s doing some good things.”
Prior to the 2021 season, Hilton signed a 4-year, $24 million contract with Cincinnati. He is a playmaker who has the knack of causing nightmares for offenses by blitzing off the slot.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor calls him “the best nickel back in all of football.”
Hilton is a down-to-earth guy who has worked tirelessly for all the good things now coming his way. In 40-plus years of journalism and covering sports, Mike Hilton is one of my all-time favorites. So excuse me for saying, go get ‘em No. 21.