CLEVELAND — It was love at first carry.
Peyton Hillis started the second quarter with a 9-yard run down to the St. Louis 27-yard line. Hillis earned those nine yards by carrying most of the St. Louis defense. After the play, Hillis jumped up, pumped his fists toward the Browns fans. In turn, he received the loudest cheers from the soggy fans.
“I love Cleveland,” Hillis said. “I didn’t know if the fans would come out in the rain and support the team. They gave a great effort out there.”
In his first appearance in front of the Cleveland fans, Hillis finished with a team-high 51 yards on 12 carries and caught two balls for 12 yards in a 19-17 loss to St. Louis. More importantly, Hillis became a front-runner in the “fan favorite” sweepstakes.
“He is tough with the ball in his hands,” Mangini said. “He is more lucid than you think for a guy his size.”
Not only did Hillis’ run incite the fans, but also it awoke a sleepwalking Browns team. In the first quarter, the Browns had nine yards of total offense and trailed the Rams 13-0. Seven plays after Hillis' initial touch, Browns quarterback Jake Delhomme found Ben Watson in the back of the end zone on a 6-yard touchdown pass to pull the Browns within 13-7.
“He did add some fuel to the group,” Mangini said. “That is frustrating from my perspective. We should be in position where we need to add fuel. We should start a lot better than we did. It was as bad a start as you can get.”
The Browns acquired Hillis and a 2010 sixth-round draft pick and a conditional 2012 pick for quarterback Brady Quinn in a trade last March. Hillis was originally drafted by Denver in the seventh round (227th overall) of the 2008 NFL Draft.
In two seasons in Denver, Hillis played in 26 games, starting eight, and finished with 397 yards rushing on 81 carries with six touchdowns and caught 18 balls for 198 yards and one touchdown.
“Hillis runs physically,” Mangini said. “I like that.”
So did the fans at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Saturday night. Hillis is listed at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds and has the stereotypical look of a football player: Wide shoulders, thick neck and square head. After Saturday’s game, Hillis donned a cowboy hat on top of that square head along with a flannel, long-sleeve shirt and jeans.
“Cleveland is a great town and the fans are great,” Hillis said. “They are blue-collar people who love their team. They came out in the pouring rain and supported their team the whole game. That’s what drives me and gets me going and I love that about the city.”
The fans not only witnessed Hillis’ running style, but quickly embraced it. Hillis is the definition of a north-south runner. On a 9-yard pass reception in the second quarter, Hillis caught the ball, turned and ran straight up field. He did not look to juke, jive or swivel his hips. Hillis, a Conway, Ark. native and Arkansas alum, runs straight toward the goal line and would-be blockers had best be ready.
“I owe that all to my father,” Hillis said. “He taught me hard, smashmouth football and to learn how to catch the ball. I put the good Lord in there, too. He put me in position. There are a lot of good football players and He put me in position to do well. Hopefully, I can take advantage of it.”
With more performances on the field and more exposure off the field, Hillis is primed to become beloved in Cleveland.
Look for No. 40 jerseys to be popping up in no time.