Peyton Hillis, former NFL star with the Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, and New York Giants, was known on the field as a fierce competitor. Tough, hard-nosed, and with a never-quit attitude, the former fullback joined the Cleveland Browns in 2010 and proceeded to rumble for 1177 yards, 14 touchdowns, and the cover of Madden 12. No small feat for an Arkansas farm boy.
However, Hillis made his biggest accomplishment in Pensacola, Florida in January when he risked his own life to brave a savage rip current to rescue his niece and own son from drowning. The incident almost cost Hillis his life, as he spent two weeks unconscious in a Pensacola hospital.
Now, on the road to recovery, Hillis has opened up about the experience and what was going through his mind as he was watching his family members almost drown.
Hillis set the scene: “The night before, it was a bad storm, but you know, I didn’t really pay too much attention to it and when I woke up the next morning it was windy, but it was beautiful.”
Despite the storm the night before and the rip currents a bad storm can leave behind, Hillis recalled seeing “no flags” warning beach goers of any dangerous conditions. As Hillis was enjoying the beach with his mother, the unthinkable happened.
Hillis continued: “I looked at her and she pointed to my son and she says, ‘Orry and [Camille] are drowning.'”
Peyton sprang into action and immediately “started running into the water.”
As Hillis was fighting the rip current, watching the children being pulled farther out, he had to make the agonizing decision to pass his son and rescue his daughter first, as she was much further out: “I knew that I had to pass him up to get to Camille first. Because, you know, if I didn’t, then there’s no way she would’ve made it. And so what happened … I swam past my son, and I got to Camille, and she starts freakin’ out, you know, ‘We’re gonna die, we’re gonna die.'”
Hillis put his niece on a boogie board and got her to safety before returning for his own son, who was “pretty much limp” from exhaustion, and on the verge of drowning. It was at that moment that Hillis leaned into God and said a prayer: “Lord, please. Like, I really don’t care about my life. I don’t. But if we can get him out of here that’s the only thing I’m going to care about.”
God answered Hillis’ prayer, and he was able to get his son to the shore. However, upon reaching safety, the former fullback fell unconscious as his own lungs and kidneys began to fail. Hillis spent weeks in a Pensacola hospital, much of it unconscious and unable to move.
Now, while his physical recovery slowly continues, Hillis doubts that his lungs will ever be back to where they were, his mental recovery from the trauma of the event is coming much more slowly. As he struggles with the experience, he said: “Mentally, things are coming along a lot slower. I’m just trying to take it one day at a time.”
Peyton Hillis was a hard-nosed warrior on the field, and a hero off. Best wishes for a speedy recovery for Hillis and his family.
Featured image screen grab from embedded YouTube video
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