Ed Thompson: You've had a long road to get to this point since breaking your fibula back in November. How is everything going for you now?
Tony Hills: It's been pretty good. It's been like an amazing ride, really. Being able to meet all the people I met at the combine, all the coaches, all the players. We had our pro day, and I was able to go out there and do the bench press. I talked to the coaches and some of the GMs and scouts to let them know I'm still doing well, and that I was still going through the healing process. But I wanted them to know that by April 7 I'll be able to go out there and perform and do whatever they want me to do as far as drills and things are concerned.
Thompson: How'd the bench press go for you on your team's pro day?
Hills: It went well. I think they originally had me doing something around the lines of 20 or 21, and I did 24 reps. I feel strong about that. I did feel like I could go a little more than that, though. So I plan on retesting it at my pro day. For the most part there, it went well. I can't wait to get back to playing football.
Thompson: For fans that might not be familiar with it, talk a little about the injury and what you've been doing in rehab.
Hills: Playing against Texas Tech, I fractured my fibula on November 10th of 2007. From there, I had surgery and went to the Michael Johnson Performance Center in McKinney, Texas in January. I started rehabbing and training. We did things like ankle mobility because I was in two casts for a couple of months. We did calf strengthening and squats and a lot of leg and lower-body workouts. We also got me back into the running side of things, all of the things that I needed to do to be an effective tackle. I also got the chance to work with Tyson Walter, who played offensive line for the Green Bay Packers, and I talked to Mark Columbo to get his take on the whole combine and draft process. That's pretty much been my whole experience and training method. I'm continuing to do training here in Austin, Texas so that by the time April 7 gets here I'm ready to go.
Thompson: How did you handle that injury from a mental and emotional standpoint? You're trying to get yourself ready for a pro career, and then you have that injury. It had to take an awful lot of courage and fortitude on your part.
Hills: I definitely felt like it was very unfortunate. But at the point in time when I did have the injury, I made the decision to not feel sorry for myself and that I was going to take whatever means necessary for me to get back. It's not as hard to come out of things when you have the supporters that I have. I have a great family that is behind me and supports me 100 percent in the things that I do. When you have them pushing you, it makes the whole return process a lot easier.
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Thompson: Was there anybody amongst your teammates who really stepped forward and gave you a lot of strength?
Hills: I can't really single out one person. The whole team was behind me. They're a great group of guys that are looking forward to the season coming up this year. Shout out to the Longhorns! They're a great group of guys, and they were all behind me and told me that I'd been through worse than this. And to just keep doing what I was doing, and that they were pulling for me and praying for me. So I had a lot of support. I got a lot of letters from fans and people around the Austin area telling me not to worry about it and that they believe in me. When you have support like that of the fans and your family, it makes it pretty easy to come back.
Thompson: As you look back on your career, what is it that you're most proud of?
Hills: Persevering. That's the biggest thing for me in my career. I came in going through a rough time in high school with a knee injury, and I overcame that. I moved my position from tight end to tackle and was able to overcome that and play pretty well. Going through what I've gone through now with this injury, too. I just make sure that I go out and do the best I can each and every week. Anything that comes up, I'm able to overcome. And that's the biggest thing I can take from my career so far.
Thompson: Talk about making the transition from tight end. What was the biggest challenge for you?
Hills: Pass protection. I was in a run-oriented system at Nelson High School at Houston, Texas. We did a lot of run blocking, so that wasn't a problem. But pass protection is a whole other art. You're used to going against linebackers and DBs, and the majority of the time you're out on a route and rarely blocking. And now you have to switch up your whole style. You go from running to a kick slide with a lot of short steps. You're blocking guys that are now almost the same size as you, where it used to be if you couldn't outrun a guy you were more physical than he was. That whole art of pass protection — knowing to keep your shoulder pads square, not giving the inside up to the defensive or giving them short edge. All of those things that it takes to be a great offensive tackle were the hardest thing.
Thompson: I know you've got a terrific reputation for your work ethic. How key has that been to your rehabilitation?
Hills: That has been the key factor in my rehab. Knowing that you only get out of a workout what you put into it means I try to make sure that I get the most out of that day whenever I work out. Because at the end, if you cheat a rep or anything like that, you're only cheating yourself. Especially in my situation, where people have their doubts about how healthy I am because I've had injuries in the past. I don't have any room not to get better and not to continue to work hard.
Thompson: I know you have those long arms, so talk about how you use them and your handwork to your advantage.
Hills: That started here in Austin at the University of Texas. I worked with Donnie Maib, who is a strength coach and a martial arts instructor. We did a lot of hand-to-hand work, and Bruce Johnson and I did a lot of hand plays and grip work. I learned about putting my hands in the right area and striking the inside of the shoulder pads. We did things in a repetitious fashion to make sure that it becomes natural and it's not something that I have to think about. I put in those long hours and worked with him in the summer after practice. It was one of those things that started to become natural, and I could see it develop on the field. It helped me become a better tackle also.
Thompson: You were a team captain, earned a leadership award, and were also selected as the Outstanding Offensive Lineman from your team. What did those awards mean to you?
Hills: They mean everything. Any time you go into any job, any business, you want to make sure that you're the best at it and you do whatever it takes to help the company, or in my case the team, do better. I always tried to help anybody who needed it. I think the thing that separates me from a lot of people is that once I start to reach the top level of the totem pole, I never lose my focus. I was always asking questions and trying to learn. I never thought I was too good. I always wanted to know what it is that I can do to better myself because that also betters the team. For them to give me an award, that's not an award that the coaches vote on. That's an award your teammates vote on. Even to this day, I value it. And I want to make sure wherever I'm drafted, I carry that same attitude. And who knows, years down the line, I might be winning the same award. It'd be nice.
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Thompson: I know you do some great work with children as well, Tony. You visit patients at the Austin Children's Hospital, and you helped out at the Children's Miracle Network Telethon. What is it that drives you to reach out to kids like that?
Hills: The way I grew up. Growing up in my environment, I watched people making bad decisions because they didn't have any role models. I thought that if there was something that I could do with the influence I have from being a University of Texas football player, it could be encouraging kids to stay on the right path. I encourage them to stay in school, graduate, and continue on with their education by making right decisions and right choices. I felt like that was something in my heart to do, and it still is. It's something that I want to continue doing if I get the chance.
Thompson: As you've had the opportunity to talk to some of the coaches and scouts from these NFL teams, what is it you're telling them that you think makes them realize you're going to be a success at the next level?
Hills: I'm a big believer in walking the right path as far as staying out of trouble and working hard. I let them know that they can check my track record. Talk to whatever coaches you need to talk to, and watch whatever film you want to watch. The same way I play the game is the same way I play my life. I treat the game with respect, and it's the same way I treat anybody that I meet. Right now, I think the biggest thing that they want to see — and obviously they want to see numbers — but they want to see if I'm going to be healthy. They want to know whether I'll be healthy and can go into camp and perform. And the answer to that question is yes. I've been healing rapidly from this injury that I've had and have been getting great reports from the doctors. The thing that they're telling me is to just give it some time, and I'll be right back to normal. That's the best thing that I can tell them right now.
Thompson: Who were some of the teams that came up and talked to you the day after the school's pro day?
Hills: I talked to the Steelers, the Eagles, the Redskins, the Seahawks, the Jaguars, and the Vikings. I also talked to pretty much all the teams out there at the combine, like the Texans. They're saying that they know I'm a good player and a good kid. They just want to know how the injury is. So when April 7th comes, I'll make it be known that one of my personal goals is to put all the questions to rest.
Thompson: Did you have an opportunity at the combine to do any of the 15-minute interviews face-to-face with the coaches or GMs?
Hills: I did a lot of informal ones, but I did do a lot of the face-to-face ones as well. Once again, I met with the Vikings, the Steelers, the Bears, and so many teams it's hard to put names and faces together. I felt good with all the meetings, and it's whoever wants Tony Hills to be in their organization at this point.
Thompson: You're hearing from some great teams, and it's obviously a terrific reflection on your talent. What are you most excited about doing on April 7th?
Hills: Everything. They have that question about whether I'm healthy. I'm going to go out there and compete and do what I can do. Nothing more than that. I'm just going to go out there and be Tony Hills. Either they'll like me or they won't. What they see is definitely what they're going to get.