Cyclones of emotion are on a collision course in Baltimore. Better raise those storm flags on the Chesapeake Bay.
Hurricane Ray (Lewis, that is) announced this week he’s retiring after 17 years of terrorizing enfeebled running backs.
Plus ChuckStrong goes national, as the inspirational journey of leukemia-surviving Chuck Pagano and his scrappy Colts is a story everyone can rally behind.
Yet the Colts-Ravens wild-card game’s true X-factor could be a diminutive, lightning-quick slot receiver whose parents lovingly call Eugene.
T.Y. Hilton is a known commodity in South Florida. He and Mario Cristobal made FIU relevant. The Panthers went to their only two bowl games his final two seasons; when he left, they slumped to 3-9 and consequently scuttled the coach who built the program.
And after laying claim to 55 school records during his four years at FIU — including career catches (229), all-purpose yards (7,498) and touchdown receptions (24) — he has had a boffo rookie season in the pros.
Hilton’s seven touchdowns are more than twice what the entire Dolphins receiving corps had combined. His top-blowing breakaway speed (Hilton averages a staggering 17.2 yards per catch, fifth-best in the NFL) has been the perfect complement to big-play quarterback Andrew Luck.
But Hilton never before has played on a stage quite like this. And with M&T Bank Stadium juiced by Lewis’ farewell home game, he never has had a test quite like this either.
“It’s just fun,” Hilton said Friday. “It’s the playoffs, and I’m still treating every day like it’s the first one. Doing everything right in preparation and whatever I need to do.”
Hilton couldn’t ask for a better mentor. Reggie Wayne, the ageless former UM wideout who had another spectacular season in Indianapolis, has taken Hilton under his wing. Wayne is the only one Hilton turns to when he has a question.
It’s a smart move for a couple of reasons. The Colts have few veteran leaders (Hilton is one of nine rookies on the team’s active roster). And Wayne knows plenty about beating the Ravens. The Colts are 2-0 all time against Baltimore in the postseason.
But Peyton Manning was under center then. He’s in Denver now, and Indy’s is a new team, with a slew of contributors who were playing in bowl games this time last year.
That list includes Hilton, the Miami Springs native who showed up on the FIU campus at just 168 pounds in the summer of 2008. Highly touted out of high school, Hilton promised Cristobal he would score the first time he touched the ball, and would someday lead the fledging Panthers program to a conference championship.
He made good on both pledges.
“I think if I’m the Colts, I tell him to keep making promises,” said Cristobal, who was fired this offseason and replaced formally Friday by former Illinois coach Ron Turner.
“They really, really love him up there,” Cristobal added. “He couldn’t be happier.”
And his physical ability? “It’s truly a special gift,” Cristobal gushed.
Like they did at FIU, the Colts have used Hilton everywhere — the return game, running reverses and even throwing the football. But what he does best is stretch the field, running go-routes for Luck.
The Dolphins could have taken Hilton with their third-round pick but passed on him to select tight end Michael Egnew instead.
While Hilton has had an instant impact, Egnew was inactive for all but two games this year and didn’t catch a pass.
And when the Dolphins visited Indianapolis back in November, Hilton torched Miami for six catches, 102 yards and a score.
Hilton acknowledged this week he realizes how far he has come.
“I know a lot of guys haven’t been there,” Hilton said of the playoffs. “... This is my first year and I’m here. I’m just going to try and make the best of it.”