- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 1, 2010

CLEVELAND (AP) - His hog-nosed facemask is unlike any in the NFL, just one of the many things separating Peyton Hillis from the pack of running backs.

With a straight-ahead, stop-me-if-you-dare smashmouth style, Hillis has emerged as an unstoppable force in his first season with the Cleveland Browns, who acquired him in a trade never envisioning he would emerge as their best offensive threat.

Soft-spoken off the field, Hillis is downright demonic when he’s gets the ball.

“Dude’s a beast,” said Browns linebacker David Bowens.

Thus, the facemask.

“It looks like it has tusks,” Hillis says in a distinct, Southern twang in describing the unique cage that protects the face of this football-crazed city’s newest star. “It brings me back to my college days at Arkansas. It’s ugly, but I like it.”

Cleveland has fallen for Hillis the same way he drops linebackers.

At 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, he’s a hulking hunk, who on the brink of surpassing 1,000 yards, has quickly made the Browns‘ female fanbase forget about quarterback Brady Quinn’s model looks. Quinn, by the way, is the one Cleveland traded to Denver in March for Hillis.

Hillis is also a guy’s guy. Dressed in rattlesnake-skinned cowboy boots, jeans, a camouflage jacket and a tattered baseball cap, Hillis is the antithesis of many pro athletes right down to his favorite hobby _ hunting 400-pound, wild boars in the woods back home.

“You get a team of boys together, a bunch of dogs, you lay ‘em (the boars) up against a tree and shoot ‘em or cut ‘em,” Hillis explains matter-of-factly. “Pretty simple.”

Bringing down Hillis, on the other hand, is anything but easy.

Knees churning, cleats kicking up dirt and grass, he’s a terror to tackle. On his way to rushing for 131 yards in Sunday’s win over Carolina, Hillis powered over an unfortunate Panthers safety at the 2 before going in for this third touchdown, and 11th this season, joining Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly as the only Cleveland backs to score that many.

But Hillis isn’t only three yards and a cloud of debris and dust. He’s remarkably agile and has perfected a hurdle to elude defensive backs who try to cut out his legs.

“Not only does he bulldoze people,” Browns center Alex Mack said, “he can jump over them, too.”

Hillis will enter Sunday’s game in Miami with 905 rushing yards and 414 receiving yards on a team-high 46 catches.

The Browns thought Hillis could help them. They had no idea he would carry them.

“I thought he would be pretty good and a great addition, but he’s been outstanding,” coach Eric Mangini said. “He just shows up, works like crazy. He’s a great guy, loves being here and plays his heart out every week. He runs people over, catches everything we throw to him, blocks well.

“Yeah, he’s made for Cleveland.”

And Cleveland seems made for Hillis.

The buckle of the Rust Belt, it’s where generations of families spent their work weeks in factories and steel mills and their Sundays in front of the TV or down on the shores of Lake Erie watching the beloved Browns. Of course, times have changed, but there remains a strong identity to athletes who give it their all without complaint. It’s a lunch-pail town.

And that’s something Hillis sensed as soon as he arrived. He felt the pride, the passion and the connection between himself and the fan base.

“I feel like I can relate to fans on a personal level,” said Hillis, whose No. 40 jersey is popping up all over Northeast Ohio. “They’re hard-working people, they love football and they don’t ask for much. They just want to see their team play. This city’s hungry for a winning team.”

On Sunday, there were banners hanging over the railings of Browns Stadium honoring the new hero. “Peyton’s Place” read one. “House of Hillis” was another.

And through it all, Hillis is aw-shucks humble. He’ll routinely answer reporters questions with “Yes, sir” or “No, ma’am” and the 24-year-old, who was teammates with running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones when they played for the Razorbacks, goes out of his way to compliment his teammates.

Following Sunday’s win, the deeply religious Hillis stood at the podium and gave glory to God. Then, he thanked fullback Lawrence Vickers, who helped open a few holes.

There’s something else rare about Hillis _ he’s white. You have to go back to Craig James in 1985 to find the last white running back to eclipse 1,000 yards. It is a position long dominated by African-American players, but Hillis has become an exception.

However, his teammates don’t see color when they watch Hillis pulverize his way to a first down or a touchdown, leaving a wasteland of defenders in his path.

“It’s something we really don’t talk about,” Bowens said. “He’s a good running regardless of his color.”

Hillis was mostly used as a fullback in college, paving the way for McFadden and Jones, who both became first-round draft picks. Hillis, on the other hand, was still around in the seventh round when the Broncos selected him with the 227th pick in 2008.

He began his pro career buried on the depth chart in Denver, but injuries to others gave him a chance and he rushed for 343 yards and five touchdowns before being put on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Last season, he made only two starts and seemed to be a forgotten man.

The Browns, though, knew about him. Mangini had faced him with New York in ‘08 and remembered Hillis being more than a handful.

“We were pretty good,” said Bowens, who played for the Jets under Mangini. “He ran the ball right down our face. We didn’t expect that. I knew he was tough, and when we got him here, man, I was happy.”

Hillis entered training camp as Cleveland’s No. 3 back, behind rookie Montario Hardesty and Jerome Harrison. He showed flashes during the preseason, making a memorable run against St. Louis by breaking six tackles on a 9-yard run.

He gained just 76 combined yards in his first two games, but broke out for 144 in Week 3 at Baltimore and had 102 the next week against Cincinnati. Hillis rumbled for a career-high 184 against New England, steamrolling through Bill Belichick’s defense.

“With Peyton, the best stat would be yards after contact,” Mack said. “He gets so much after that first hit. Our job is to give him a clear space as far as possible and everything he does after that is what he’s all about. He gets extra yards every time.”

Hillis is taking it all in stride. After Sunday’s win, he was asked about joining the company of Brown and Kelly.

“Absurd,” he said. “I’m nobody.”

That’s not the case anymore. He’s piling up yardage and fans by the week. In fact, on Sunday, Cleveland Indians manager Manny Acta attended his first NFL game. He came away impressed by the passion of Browns fans and the drive of one particular player.

Peyton Hillis,” Acta said, “is the man in Cleveland.”

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