Meet Mike Hilton: Foot Locker applicant in '16, Steelers starter in '17

PITTSBURGH -- Mike Hilton had been in Pittsburgh for about two weeks when a number with a 404 area code appeared on his cell phone.

A Foot Locker in Atlanta had accepted his application and planned to hire him as a sales representative. Cut by two NFL teams, Hilton was out of football prospects and needed side money, just enough to pay for training and food.

"I kept telling myself, 'Injuries can happen and somebody will give you a call,'" Hilton said.

That call came in December from the Pittsburgh Steelers, who offered him a spot on their practice squad for the final weeks of the season. On Dec. 13, the team officially added linebacker Shaq Riddick and Hilton.

He politely turned down Foot Locker, then used his quick feet to surprise everyone in the Steelers' locker room over the next nine months.

Hilton's unlikely rise in a Pittsburgh defense loaded with first-round picks is emblematic of the NFL dream, an undersized, undrafted playmaker pushing his way onto the field.

Hilton played 82 percent of the Steelers' defensive snaps in Sunday's 26-9 win over the Minnesota Vikings, bursting off the edge for a timely blitz to stop quarterback Case Keenum on third down. The former Ole Miss Rebel secured a spot on the 53-man roster with two sacks and a pass deflection in the preseason.

How he did it, Hilton says, is an exercise in playing big.

"I try to use my physicality and strength -- you look at me, you won’t expect me to come up and tackle the way I do," said Hilton, who's a generous 5-foot-9. "I try to use that to my advantage. Also my short-area quickness helps."

Hilton believes he would have been drafted had he been 5-11. Every team stuck to the same script in pre-2016-draft meetings: "We like you, but ..."

"I already know what the but is: My size," he said.

He spent training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who released him. The New England Patriots signed him to their practice squad Sept. 6, 2016, then released him eight days later.

But the Steelers liked what they saw in Hilton's Ole Miss and preseason film and figured he was worth a flier. Teammates have noticed what he did with it.

"He’s been an underdog, so he’s a fighter," safety Sean Davis said. "He’s competing daily. ... Being around a guy like that, intensitywise, you have to match that."

William Gay is a longtime starter who's now the fourth corner behind Hilton, Joe Haden and Artie Burns. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler recalls the chatter among coaches after Hilton kept executing the defense to their liking: "Hey man, why don't we play this guy?"

Mike Tomlin obliged.

"He’s made plays. We don’t try to overanalyze it," Tomlin said. "We try to put guys in a position to make plays, and when we do and when they do, we acknowledge it. That’s what we’ve done throughout this process with him in particular. We’ve given him an opportunity to make plays. He’s largely made those plays, and he’s ascending in his role within our group because of it."

Hilton isn't sure what Gus Bradley or Bill Belichick didn't see in him that Tomlin did. He doesn't really care, either. He's grateful for the past opportunities and knows NFL rosters churn hundreds of fringe players each year. Not everyone sticks. But Pittsburgh has been a known landing stop for unheralded talents. James Harrison, Gay and Robert Golden are among defensive veterans who were not drafted.

"It’s just a different feel, a great organization," Hilton said. "Not downing any other organization. This organization is just welcoming and a lot guys here who are undrafted or low drafted know they can play."

Protecting his spot will require Hilton to fly fearlessly into bigger receivers. That's exactly Hilton's plan to avoid filling out applications again.

"It shows you're willing to do whatever it takes for your team to win," Hilton said of his style of play.