CINCINNATI — When the news arrived that Sycamore High School product Darius Hillary signed with the Bengals, he received plenty of feedback from family, friends and former classmates.
Whether it was through Facebook, text messages or phone calls, the 2011 Sycamore graduate was thankful for the support.
But, in the midst of rookie mini-camp this week, Hillary is fully committed to not only being on the team this spring and summer, but to make the 53-man roster for the start of the season.
Hillary, a former Wisconsin cornerback, says he’s enjoyed getting acclimated to the NFL with learning the playbook, coverage schemes and the tempo of the game in the offseason conditioning program. He is looking forward to organized team activities later this month (May 24-26).
“It’s been a blessing,” Hillary told WCPO.com after practice Thursday. “I’ve gotten an opportunity to make some things happen here. I’ve had a lot of family, friends, old friends from high school and coaches hitting me up and congratulating me. Now it’s time to go to work and make a name for myself and get on that 53-man roster anyway I can.”
Hillary signed as an undrafted free agent May 6 after Bengals defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle showed significant interest.
Hillary has leaned on his father, former Bengals wide receiver Ira Hillary, for advice.
“You can’t script it much better than that,” Sycamore coach Scott Dattilo said. “The next piece of that story is to make the team. He certainly has the ability to do that.”
Ira Hillary, who played with the Bengals from 1987-89, arrived in Cincinnati on a similar path. He was drafted by the Chiefs in 1985, but signed with the Bengals for the 1987 season as a free agent. He said he was "hoping and praying" his son would get an opportunity with Cincinnati.
His advice to his son is simple: "Just take it as you go and play like you know you can play. Focus and enjoy the entire experience."
Darius Hillary, who played corner, nickel and some safety with the Badgers, doesn’t view the opportunity with the Bengals as being extra pressure despite being the hometown guy.
Darius has also discussed the opportunity with former Bengals Tim McGee, Stanford Jennings, Barney Bussey, Eric Ball, Eric Thomas and his godfather, Joe Kelly – all of whom have had a positive influence in his life.
“They all said: ‘once you get that opportunity just run with it. Do the best you can and make the coaches notice you,’” Darius said.
McGee, a former Bengals receiver, says being signed as a free agent can work to Hillary's benefit, given any team's salary situation.
"Once you get on the practice field your practice jersey doesn't say No. 1 draft pick or free agent," McGee said. "It's all about performance."
McGee says Hillary won't blaze you with his 40-yard dash time, but has very good closing speed. The biggest asset is his ability to learn.
"Everything for him is a grind," McGee said. "He is used to putting the extra effort in."
Dattilo is thrilled for Hillary’s opportunity with the Bengals. Sycamore is very proud to have Hillary’s teammate, former UC offensive lineman Justin Murray, recently sign with the Broncos.
“Off-the-charts happy for both him and Justin, especially for Darius being able to link up with the hometown team,” Dattilo said. “Just such a cool story and a cool opportunity for just a great kid.”
Hillary verbally committed to Wisconsin in November 2010 after he also considered Boston College, Stanford and Illinois, among others.
He has three favorite memories of playing with the Aviators with No. 1 being his first interception as a sophomore in a game at Fairfield.
“We were in Cover 3 and I am running with the receiver — the quarterback had nowhere to go,” Hillary said. “The quarterback threw up a lob and I went up and got it.”
He had first pick-6 also his sophomore season in a game against visiting Oak Hills — the same game his former high school teammate Steve Hull also had an interception return for a touchdown.
Another favorite memory was in Week 10 of Hillary's senior season against rival Mason. The Aviators won on a field goal in double overtime.
Those who played or coached him remember his impact and are pulling for him this summer with the Bengals.
Former Sycamore defensive end Mike Streicher envisioned Hillary's opportunity at the NFL would be reality one day. He remembers Hillary as a "phenomenal teammate" and a player who started on varsity as a sophomore.
Streicher said he always made it a point to watch Hillary's Wisconsin games and was very happy to learn his friend signed with the Bengals.
"It's absolutely incredible," Streicher said. "I know for him it's a dream come true."