CLEVELAND (BVM) – EA Sports’ Madden NFL series is the best-selling sports video game of all time and it’s not even close with the franchise generating more than $7 billion since its debut in 1988 and second-place FIFA being the only other sports video game series to sell more than $100,000 in its lifetime. With more than 130 million copies sold over its first 30 years, Madden has become not only synonymous with the start of the NFL season but with video games as a whole.
One of the most famous players to ever grace the video game’s cover is former Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis. Unlike many of the other players who have once been the featured athlete on Madden, Hillis never made an All-Pro team or even a Pro Bowl. So how did this bruising running back make the sports industry’s most illustrious cover and what happened after?
Early life and high school football
Hillis’ journey begins in his hometown of Conway, Arkansas, where he became a star both on the gridiron for the Conway High Wampus Cats. The running back earned all-conference and all-state honors as both a junior and senior, but it was his senior season that people remember most.
That year, Hillis rushed for 2,631 yards and 29 touchdowns on his way to being named the Landers Award winner, given to the state’s best player, a SuperPrep All-American and a Parade All-American.
He was ranked as the No. 2 fullback in the country and No. 2 player in Arkansas in the Class of 2004, making him one of the more sought-after players in the region. Years after his time playing in Conway, the city named a field in his honor.
The fullback decided to stay close to home with his college choice, joining the program at the University of Arkansas. There, Hillis was part of a backfield that included running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, two All-Americans and future first–round picks.
Though not utilized as much in the running game as his backfield partners, Hillis’ versatility is what shined as he played running back, fullback and H-back which helped him to register 2,154 career scrimmage yards and 23 total touchdowns, with 1,195 and 11 of those scores coming from the air. In 2007, Hillis helped the Razorbacks set a new program record for rushing yards in a single season with McFadden rushing for 1,830 yards and being named the Doak Walker Award winner as the nation’s top running back and Jones rushing for 1,162 yards in addition to the fullback’s own 347 yards.
Early NFL career
Following his four seasons at Arkansas, Hillis was drafted in the seventh round, Pick No. 227 overall, in the 2008 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos. In his first season in Denver, though he started the year at the bottom of the depth chart, injuries in the backfield thrust Hillis into the starting lineup where he led the team with 343 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns.
While it seemed Hillis was destined to be the team’s starting tailback in the 2009 season, new head coach Josh McDaniels would use him sparingly, only giving him 13 carries which he took for 53 yards on the year.
Fortunately for Hillis, a change of scenery would come when he was packaged in a deal that sent him to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for quarterback Brady Quinn. The Broncos‘ loss quickly became Cleveland’s gain as the fullback turned halfback would explode on the scene during the 2010 season.
That year, Hillis rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns while catching 61 passes for 477 yards and two scores. All those numbers would be career highs for Hillis throughout his NFL journey.
Hillis rushed for 1,177 yards, caught 61 passes for 477 yards, and scored 13 touchdowns that season. pic.twitter.com/KtnbxO6KDv
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) August 13, 2020
In March 2011, EA Sports announced a partnership with the ESPN program “SportsNation” to present a five-week, bracket-style voting campaign to determine the Madden 12 cover athlete. Each of the NFL’s 32 teams were represented in the bracket with the best player from each squad in the game representing the franchise. For the Browns, that was Hillis.
Rated as a 10-seed on his side of the bracket, Hillis rode a tidal wave of support to help him defeat 7-seed Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, 2-seed Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, 6-seed Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles and 1-seed Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to make it to the final round against Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick who was the 3-seed on the other side of the bracket.
Hillis overwhelmingly defeated Vick in the final round, winning with 66% of the final vote. With the win, Hillis became the first Browns player to ever be featured on a Madden cover.
“The Browns rallied behind [me] because they looked at the season that I had and they showed their love for me,” Hillis told NFL Network. “It was something where they had a glimpse of hope and something to be proud of.
“I don’t think I probably deserved it, there were a lot of better players than me that year, but for the Browns community, the Browns family I represented it well. I’m very blessed to have been on the cover because they put me on it and I will wear that on my shirt and be proud of it until the day I die.”
Unfortunately for Hillis, the supposed “Madden Curse” would strike his career down early. In his next season with the Browns, the running back would only play in 10 games, rushing for 587 yards and three touchdowns with 22 catches and 130 yards receiving yards. In the 2012 offseason, Hillis signed a one-year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs but didn’t fare much better in his lone season there with only 309 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Hillis then signed with the New York Giants where he spent the next two seasons, but never returned to top form as he totaled 362 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns, 23 catches and 183 receiving yards over 16 games in the Big Apple. He retired in 2015 after playing in 81 games with 34 starts registering 2,832 rushing yards, 1,050 receiving yards, 23 rushing touchdowns and three receiving touchdowns.
The former Madden cover athlete has mostly stayed out of the limelight in his retirement years. Though he hinted at the idea that he would come out of retirement just to suit up for the Brown one more time in 2020, it seems that Hillis is enjoying his retired life.
I’d come out of retirement to play just one more season with the @Browns
— Peyton Hillis (@thepeytonhillis) September 18, 2020
Now, Hillis spends time with his girlfriend, actress Angela Cole, whom he starred alongside in the 2021 film, “The Hunting”, his first acting credit. He has also recently popped up on Instagram, creating his first post in July. His second post on the page shows Hillis playing Madden with his 9-year-old son Orry, showing that the running back still has a soft spot in his heart for the game that has given him international fame.