Allen Park — It's a cliché in the NFL — Lions coach Jim Caldwell used it the other day, in fact — and it's regularly used for its numbing effect. A lot like a painkiller, actually.
The injury rate in the NFL is 100 percent, they all say. But what is left unsaid, all too often, is just how much it hurts not to play this game.
Corey Hilliard was grappling with that Wednesday, as he made his way into the locker room on crutches, plopped down on a stool and tried to make sense of a season-ending injury that occurred in Week 1. Maybe even a career-threatening one, too, as tests Tuesday confirmed the right tackle suffered a Lisfranc injury with ruptured ligaments in the middle of his right foot in the opener against the Giants.
"I'm still kind of shell-shocked," said Hilliard, who'll undergo surgery next week and faces several months of recovery and rehabilitation. "I mean, this doesn't feel good. …
"It's hard to explain. You try to figure out why this happened, when you're in a position to start and help the team. You try to figure it out, but you just … I mean, life throws you stuff like that. You just have to deal with it."
'I'll hold up'
Like most NFL players, the 29-year-old Hilliard has dealt with disappointment before. Originally a sixth-round pick of the Patriots in 2007, he bounced from there to the Colts to the Browns and finally to the Lions, who signed him off the Browns practice squad in December 2009.
In his first seven seasons, he started a dozen games, with more than half coming last year after Jason Fox went down with a groin injury in the season opener. But after losing out to LaAdrian Waddle in a battle for the starting right tackle job this summer, Hilliard was called on almost immediately against the Giants when Waddle suffered a calf injury on the second series of the game.
Hilliard was flagged for a false-start penalty on his first play, but settled in after that and played the rest of the game. Because that's what you do as a backup, even if it means playing through agonizing pain.
Hilliard's injury occurred on the Lions touchdown drive with just under 5 minutes left in the third quarter. His leg was caught awkwardly under Giants linebacker Jon Beason at the end of an otherwise nondescript running play, and when the 6-foot-6, 300 pound lineman got to his feet it felt like he'd stepped on a roofing nail.
"As soon as it happened, I knew it wasn't good," he said. "I've never felt that kind of pain in my foot."
Still, he limped back to the line and finished the series — Matthew Stafford scored on a 5-yard scramble three plays later — before heading to the sideline and telling trainers he needed his right cleat spatted — or taped — for support.
Then he talked with Stafford and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, letting them know he wasn't quite right. Hilliard said he might need some help in pass protection — "That was my main concern because a strip sack could turn the game around like that," he said — but that he was otherwise good to go.
"Do whatever you gotta do," he told the coaches. "I'll hold up."
"We really didn't have a choice," Hilliard explained Wednesday. "I wasn't trying to be heroic or nothing. But we didn't have another tackle. So I kind of had to stay in there."
The Lions were prepping tight end Brandon Pettigrew to take his place, just in case. But if Hilliard said he could play, he'd play. And he did, playing every snap of the 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that sealed the 35-14 victory.
Afterward, Hilliard dismissed concerns about his injury with the media. And it wasn't until he woke up Tuesday morning "and couldn't walk" — "My wife had to help me around the house," he said — that he realized just how serious it might be.
He was holding out hope he might just miss a month, or maybe two. But a battery of tests — X-rays, an MRI and a CT scan — confirmed the Lisfranc diagnosis. After surgery, he won't be allowed to put any weight on his foot for a couple months. Then he'll probably be in a walking boot for another month or two.
That's not what you'd expect from a guy who "was able to finish the game," as coaches like to say, in lieu of an actual medical report. And it's possible he did more damage by continuing to play Monday night.
But you didn't hear any of that talk Wednesday.
"That's a warrior right there," said Dominic Raiola, the veteran leader of the offensive line.
Fellow lineman Rob Sims also called it a "really gutsy performance," while Stafford agreed it was "pretty inspiring" and that Hilliard's teammates "appreciated" his "sacrifice." Caldwell talked about Hilliard "setting a precedent." And so on.
Hilliard was quick to shrug off those compliments, saying, "My inspiration was them. That's why I didn't come." And he continually reminded reporters he'd done what a lot of NFL players do each week.
"That's just competitive nature," he said. "You never want to throw in the towel. You always want to try and get back and play."
He knows he won't now. Not this season, at least. And for a guy who'll be a free agent this winter, coming off an injury like this, there are no guarantees beyond that. Only months of rehab, and an uncertain future.
"I guess it'll hit me," Hilliard said, "when I'm sitting at home watching the game on Sunday."