by Lisa Mushett
Everyone associated with the Notre Dame football program is in agreement. He is the biggest man they have ever seen. He tips the scales at a listed 290 pounds in the 2003 Notre Dame media guide, although there have been debates as to how accurate that figure really is. He boasts 22-inch arms and is a frame of solid muscle mass in his six-foot, two-inch body. He is called “Cedasaurus” by his teammates because, as they like to joke, he is “like a big dinosaur” who rules his surroundings and “has possibly eaten a few small children” along the way.
Try as he might, Cedric Hilliard cannot hide. Although he insists there is nothing special that makes him stand out from the rest of his teammates, the senior nose guard from Arlington, Texas, has exploded onto the college football scene as one of the best defensive linemen in the country. Amazing for a guy who wanted to be a baseball player as a young child and had never even seen the game of football until he moved to the football-crazy state of Texas before his sixth-grade year.
After living in Oxford, Miss., most of his life, Hilliard moved to Texas to live with his father. A big baseball fan, Hilliard had dreams of being the next Jose Canseco – who at the time was the hard-hitting star of the Texas Rangers. Hilliard participated in organized baseball since he was eight years old playing first base and outfield. He loved the game until that fateful day when he was playing catch with his father and in the background was the elementary school football team. His dad asked him if he would be interested in trying football. Not knowing any different, the younger Hilliard agreed.
“I had no idea what this game of football was about,” Hilliard says.
“I had only seen maybe three games on television back in Mississippi and didn’t know what I was getting myself into. My dad suggested I try it and I agreed, although I was really into baseball at the time.”
Hilliard’s mind might have been on baseball, but his body was trying to tell him otherwise. As a young sixth grader, he already stood 5-7 and about 149 pounds – lucky for him the weight limit was 150 pounds. His football coach, thinking he had won the lottery when the beefy Hilliard showed up for the first day of practice, immediately put him on the defensive line. But before they could go any further, there was also another need on the team that had to be filled for Butler Elementary School to be successful. They needed a placekicker and Hilliard was their man.
“All you had to do was toe-punt the ball,” Hilliard says with a laugh and a smile.
“I don’t think Nick (Setta) has anything to worry about though.”
Although Hilliard liked football and he was garnering the attention of a lot of people in the area, he was a bigger fan of baseball and basketball. He still had dreams of being the next “Bash Brother” with Canseco.
“I loved that he hit huge homeruns,” Hilliard says of Canseco who ended his distinguished career with 462 long balls.
“As a kid you always want to hit home runs. I saw him on television just crushing the ball and helping the Rangers win. I wanted to keep playing baseball and I was turning into a pretty good basketball player too.”
He thought about giving up football all together – an unforgivable sin in football-frenzied Texas. It wasn’t until his coaches and father took him aside that he decided football was the sport for him.
“I was about 235 pounds when I started high school and by the end of my sophomore year, I was 285 pounds. I think everyone saw the potential I had,” Hilliard says of his football ability.
“It would have been stupid for me to quit football.”
After deciding that his future was not in placekicking (I am sure Setta is breathing a sigh of relief), Hilliard dedicated himself to the defensive line for perennial Texas power Lamar High School in Arlington. He finished his high school career as a first-team USA Today All-American and was listed in the top-100 national prospects by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Sun-Times and The Sporting News. He was the team most valuable player and captain as a senior, while racking up 72 tackles, including 11 for loss. Not bad for a guy who almost gave up football.
So how did one of Texas’ biggest high school football stars escape the clutches of state collegiate powers Texas or Texas A&M?
“My high school has great football pride and a winning tradition. Everyone knew about my high school in the state of Texas,” Hilliard says.
“I wanted to go to a college that had a similar feel and tradition. Notre Dame had all that.”
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Like most people, Hilliard loves to eat. In fact, his current teammates say they have never seen anyone eat as much as he does. Hilliard’s favorite food is spaghetti and a normal sitting for him is “two pounds of pasta with a lot of meat sauce.” Fellow defensive lineman Justin Tuck says, “besides small children if he really wanted, he could eat a huge 26-ounce porterhouse steak and then order a number of different side dishes to go with it.” His teammates even penned a spoof to the Base Rob song “Joy and Pain,” about Hilliard, entitled “Steak and Cheese.” The first two lines go “Steak and Cheese, Bacon and Grease.”
Like most high school football students, nutrition is not high on the list of priorities. A diet of cheeseburgers, French fries and soft drinks are more the norm than the exception. Hilliard was no different, and being a man of his immense size, it took a large amount of food to satisfy the hunger pangs that seemed to be attacking him more often than not.
After not playing as a freshman, Hilliard saw limited action his second year, entering only three games. Surprisingly, the big man, who weighed over 315 pounds as sophomore, with such huge potential was somewhat invisible to the public and his team.
“He was ridiculed early in his career for his body type and his weight both privately and publicly. He was this short, chubby guy with a lot of baby fat,” defensive linemate and close friend Darrell Campbell says.
Hilliard’s football coaches and Irish strength and conditioning coordinator Mickey Marotti knew they had a lot of work ahead of them in turning this sleeping giant into a dominate force.
“We pushed him and pushed him and pushed him over and over again,” Marotti says.
“We spent all of our time teaching him to work at the level that we knew he was capable of working. It was convincing him that he could and should be working consistently at that high of a level every day. He has gone from one of the softest players body-wise to the strongest defensive lineman we have ever had here during my eight years at Notre Dame.”
His teammates also knew that it was only a matter of time before Hilliard would come out of hiding and make a huge impact on the Irish defensive line.
“He worked so hard, and internally we could see him getting better all of the time, Campbell says.
“Then one day he exploded on the scene and turned into this huge, strong, muscular guy who started to dominate.”
Although it was not sheer domination in his third season with the Irish, Hilliard served in a reserve capacity until five games remained when starting nose guard Andy Wisne went down with a concussion before the Boston College game and Hilliard was pressed into action. He finished the 2001 season with 27 tackles, including eight for loss and two sacks. His eight tackles for loss ranked fifth on the team and Hilliard was slowly emerging from the shadows that had engulfed even his massive frame during his career at Notre Dame.
His breakout season was 2002 when Hilliard started all 10 games he played, recording 31 tackles including for five for loss and two sacks. Against Air Force he posted a career-high seven tackles and helped hold the high-powered Falcon rushing attack, which had been first in the nation, to a season-low 104 yards. In the 2003 Gator Bowl, although he was credited with only two tackles, he was all over the field in earning Notre Dame Most Valuable Player accolades from the Gator Bowl Committee. He also made an impact on special teams blocking a 32-yard field goal against Michigan and getting a hand on a John Navarre pass in which Irish cornerback Shane Walton intercepted in preserving Notre Dame’s 25-23 win over the then seventh-ranked Wolverines.
He also emerged as a team leader, serving as a game captain against both Purdue and Pittsburgh and playing over 212 minutes during the 2002 season. Hilliard had arrived on the scene and could not hide any longer.
” It just took Ced time to find a weight that he could make plays at all of the time,” Campbell says.
“Once he did that, the sky was the limit for him. He is so explosive. There is no one in the country that plays as hard and as physical as he does. He is so active and is finally getting the accolades he deserves. He is a first-team All-American in my book.”
The college football world also took notice as coming into the 2003 season Hilliard was named a third-team preseason All-American by Athlon and was ranked as the sixth-best defensive tackle in the nation by The Sporting News. Although he has been hamper by a high ankle sprain much of the season and missed the Pittsburgh game due to a freak allergic reaction that occurred right before the game, Hilliard still has 13 tackles, including a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He also has been named game captain for the Michigan State game.
“Cedric has been everything you would ask a senior to be,” head coach Tyrone Willingham says.
“He’s worked hard every day to put himself in a position to help this football team. In some cases this season, he has not been at 100 percent, but he has given his best every single day and that is what you expect from a senior and a leader.”
There is a lot of football yet to be played in 2003 as the Irish play one of their biggest games of the season today against Florida State and fight for a postseason bowl invitation, but Hilliard can’t help it if he, at times, starts thinking about the future and what it might hold. He hopes the National Football League scouts, especially the ones from the Dallas Cowboys (his favorite team) are seeing him.
But if not, that is all right. He is set to graduate from Notre Dame in December with a degree in sociology from the College of Arts and Letters. He has dreams of being a teacher, wanting to educate the masses in learning to embrace all types of cultures, especially focusing on the struggles Americans experience with diversity. A huge fan of rap music, Hilliard could use his knowledge of the art in his teachings or maybe even achieve his ultimate dream of becoming a rapper – of course using the moniker “Big Ced.”
Whatever he decides to do after his stop at Notre Dame there is one thing for sure – Cedric Hilliard is not hiding anymore. In fact, he is front and center for all to see.