Hilton healthy, ready for another big game

The scene is one that FIU coach Mario Cristobal easily recalls, some four years later.

There was his prized recruit, T.Y. Hilton, playing for Miami Springs High, ripping balls out of the sky. Scoring at will. Cristobal turned to the coaches with him and said, "Fellas, this is the guy who's going to change our program."

Cristobal had a little problem. Florida was at the game scouting Hilton, too. Ole Miss and West Virginia were after Hilton as well. FIU had no weight room, no real facilities, no stadium at the time. It was a fledgling program playing in the shadow of the University of Miami, the Gators, the Seminoles, the Dolphins.

But Hilton, a Miami native, hit it off with Cristobal. "He struck me as a man who wanted to create his own footprints," Cristobal says now. Hilton had a tough time choosing between the Panthers and West Virginia. So tough, that he needed a little bit of intervention to help him make a decision.

Hilton placed an FIU cap and a West Virginia cap on his bed. He then had his infant son crawl toward the caps. If his son picked up the FIU cap, he would go there. If he picked up the West Virginia cap, he would go there. Little Eugene Junior picked FIU. Not once. But eight times.

"I never told him I put a Snickers bar behind that cap," Cristobal jokes.

The decision is one that has impacted not only Hilton but the FIU program. Hilton is no doubt the best player in school history, having rewritten the FIU and Sun Belt record books. This season, he set a career high with 64 receptions, and was selected to the Sun Belt first team as a receiver, kick returner and all-purpose player. Hilton owns the school and league marks for receiving yards (3,443), receiving touchdowns (24), all-purpose yards (7,351) and kickoff return yards (2,819).

FIU, meanwhile, is in the midst of the best two-year run in school history -- winning its first Sun Belt title last season and a program-record eight games this season while making back-to-back bowl appearances. Hilton will take the field for the Panthers for the final time Tuesday night against Marshall in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., with yet another chance to make a huge impression on the national stage.

His son, now 4, will be there watching as his daddy closes out his career -- one that Hilton thought would be possible when he arrived at FIU in 2008.

"I knew I could through hard work, because hard work always pays off," Hilton said in a recent phone interview. "Coming in, I took myself to a different level. I did things differently, went back to the fundamentals, and did a lot of conditioning, and that took me to where I am now."

Hilton began the season on a huge tear, and got national headlines after catching seven passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Louisville in Week 2. But the following week against UCF, Hilton strained his hamstring. He tried to play through the injury, but it bothered him for the next month. After beating the Knights, FIU dropped three of its next four games and was in a serious bind with its best player hobbled.

"When I was running, the injury was pulling me back, not letting me do more things I was capable of doing," Hilton said. "I couldn't go in and out of cuts, so it was very painful. But I was able to play through it a little bit just to help the team any way that I could."

Hilton says he is completely healthy and "200 percent" ready to take on his final game. After that, a trip to the Senior Bowl awaits, and then most likely a spot in the pros.

"I'm trying to go out with a bang and let people know my talents and what I'm able to do," he said.