RICHMOND — Ike Hilliard made a promise.
He had vowed to his late mother, and to himself, that he would finish what he started more than two decades ago. And, finally, after all these years, he has completed the journey.
The former NFL wide receiver and current Washington Redskins receivers coach earned his degree in criminal justice Saturday morning, walking in a graduation ceremony at the University of Florida that was 21 years in the making.
At 42, Hilliard became the first person in his immediate family to graduate college.
It was a bittersweet moment for the Louisiana native, who was the No. 7 overall pick of the New York Giants in the 1997 NFL Draft and went on to play 12 seasons in the NFL, the final four coming in Tampa Bay. It was his mother, Doris, who had impressed upon him the importance of identifying goals and seeing them through.
She died the day after Hilliard celebrated his 30th birthday.
“It would have been nice for my mom to be here to see it,” the Redskins assistant said in a phone interview with The Washington Post the night before the graduation ceremony. “But it’s a commitment that I made, and I promised her as well, that I would finish at some point. And that day’s here.”
Hilliard, who officially retired from the NFL eight years ago, had toiled away in secrecy soon after his playing career ended. Unbeknown to many of his colleagues and players, he began juggling online coursework with his coaching responsibilities starting in 2012, his first stint as a coach with the Redskins. He took a class in the spring, then another in the summer, and took off during the fall semester because of football season. Then he repeated the same schedule the following year.
Hilliard also had to juggle being separated from his family. He and his wife of nearly 17 years, Luly, have been commuting between Virginia and the couple’s residence in Miami for the past three years.
“Sundays after games, he drives home — he’s studying,” Luly said of her husband’s hectic offseason schedule in a separate phone interview Friday night. “After training camp — he’d be studying. We’d be halfway around the world on vacation — he’d be studying. This has been nonstop since 2012.”
Then she added with a laugh: “So between the six years it took him to get these 60 credits, plus the three years he was there [on campus], plus the time in between — this is a 24-year degree. So it’s a huge deal.”
Hilliard’s arrival in Gainesville, Fla., for Saturday’s 10 a.m. graduation ceremony was anything but easy, too. The Redskins’ plane landed in Richmond at 2:30 a.m. Friday following their 26-17 preseason-opening loss in New England. Four hours later, Hilliard was awake and en route to the airport where he boarded another plane. After connecting in Charlotte, he landed in Florida around 2 p.m.
The night before he walked across the graduation stage in front of a tightknit circle of 17 family members and friends — “It would be a bigger group, but he doesn’t talk about it,” Luly joked — Hilliard opened up about the significance of returning to his college campus. He set out to be an example to his five children, as well as the young men who gather daily in his meeting rooms and crave his tutelage on the practice field.
“My kids have a chance to see me walk across the stage and I’m praying it inspires them to do the same at some point as well,” said Hilliard, who, according to his wife, had his tuition paid through the “The Trust,” an NFLPA program that provides resources and earned benefits to former players during their post-career transition.
But it was Luly who encouraged the particularly private Hilliard to finally speak publicly about an accomplishment he worked tirelessly to achieve. It wasn’t simply about the love she has for him or the pride she feels in seeing him complete this journey. It’s because she knows her husband’s story can benefit young players who are embarking on their NFL dreams now.
“Because of what he does, and the industry he’s in, and he’s around these young guys, it’s super inspiring,” Luly said, while en route Friday night with her mother from the couple’s Miami home to Gainesville. “They need to hear this story because the amount of time that has passed doesn’t matter. … It’s not something that he talks about openly. He just put his head down and got to work. He didn’t want anybody to tell him to leave the building early because he had to study. He just wanted to do it on the hush-hush.”
Hilliard didn’t tell Redskins Coach Jay Gruden that he was back in school until this offseason, when he asked for the day off to attend his own graduation ceremony.
“Well I had to or else I couldn’t be here because we have practice,” Hilliard said with a chuckle, adding that he also informed defensive line coach Jim Tomsula and the offensive staff members of the reason behind his absence this weekend.
This milestone was the culmination of decades spent focused on a singular mission. And it was rooted in a promise. To himself. To his mother. To his children. And for that reason, Luly couldn’t let the moment pass without recognition, nor could she let a teachable moment go unnoticed.
Neither could Hilliard.
“The young men that I’ve been fortunate enough to be around and share my experiences — my highs and lows, successes and failures — they would appreciate this,” he said. “I’m not really keen on this, but my wife is obviously a big fan of me talking about myself in this regard. I can’t do anything but be grateful for her for continuing to push me to go get this done.”
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