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Hilliard Is Back After Neck Injury

At some point in training camp, the hit is going to be made on Ike Hilliard and the New York Giants will know whether the receiver is back from the neck injury that ended his rookie season and almost his career.

The hit didn't come on the opening day of practice Saturday at the University at Albany. Something else just as anticipated happened.

On the opening play of a seven-on-seven passing drill in the morning practice, Hilliard ran a stop-and-go pattern on Phillippi Sparks and left the veteran cornerback in his wake.

Quarterback Danny Kanell then lofted a deep pass down the right sideline that Hilliard coasted under for an easy catch, drawing cheers from the more than 500 fans in attendance.

If it were a regular-season game, it would have been a bomb for a touchdown an ingredient missing from the Giants' offense since the days of Homer Jones, roughly 30 years ago.
"It's always fun going deep," said Hilliard, the seventh overall pick in the 1997 NFL draft. "Hopefully, we can connect like that all year."

The Giants hoped Hilliard would energize the offense last season after drafting him out of the University of Florida. He won a starting job in training camp and appeared headed for great things.

But in the second game of the season, Hilliard was hit by Jacksonville safety Chris Hudson and sustained a sprained interspinous ligament between his sixth and seventh vertebrae. He had spinal surgery a little more than a week later and missed the rest of the season.

While the Giants posted a 10-5-1 record and won the NFC East title, Hilliard watched and later underwent rehabilitation.

"That injury was tough, to have something taken away from you that you enjoy doing or love to do," Hilliard said. "But I'm blessed. I thank God I have the opportunity to play ball again."

Hilliard is even looking forward to being hit again, even if it is just to stop the constant questions about being hit and how he'll react.

"The injury is in the past," said Hilliard, who had 126 receptions and 29 touchdown catches at Florida. "Of course everyone is waiting for that first lick, just like I am, but it's part of the game."

"I can't sit here and say I'm worried about getting beat up again or broke up again. I'm just ready to go out and play football."

While he did not enjoy being beaten, Sparks thought Hilliard looked pretty good on Saturday. He added the defensive backs are treating him just like any other veteran receiver.

"If he doesn't have a yellow jersey that means he is full go," Sparks said. "That means we have to hit."

Safety Percy Ellsworth said he worried about Hilliard until the team held a couple of minicamps in the offseason and Hilliard made a couple of diving catches.

"I don't think he is thinking about it," Ellsworth said. "He talked so confidently about it, I've stopped hinking about it."

The one thing that does concern Ellsworth is the expectations that many have for Hilliard.

"I try not to put too much pressure on him because I feel we are all putting too much pressure on him because he's supposed to save the Giants offense basically by himself," Ellsworth said. "I don't like talking to him about it, but he understands what he means to this team."

If Hilliard gives the Giants a deep threat, it will suddenly open things up for the running game and those underneath passes that coach Jim Fassel likes to see Kanell throw.

"I wouldn't call it pressure," Hilliard said. "I have to use that as motivation. Hopefully, I can become a big part of this offense. I am not a me-me guy. But if I can be a help to this offense, that's what I want to be."

Hilliard was doing that last year before the injury. The question for the Giants is can he do it following a serious neck injury.

"I feel good. I'm as good as I'm going to be," said Hilliard, who lost a little range of motion in his neck because of the surgery. "I'm enjoying it all again. I love playing the game. It's good to be back."

©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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