Wes Hills walked into the Cardinals locker room on Thursday night with an ear-to-ear grin and a football cradled tightly against his right forearm.
Most of his teammates had long since departed following the team’s 17-13 win over the Chargers in their preseason opener, but the undrafted rookie running back was in no hurry to leave.
A year ago, Hills was playing football at Division II Slippery Rock in western Pennsylvania. Now he was an hour removed from scoring a touchdown in an NFL game and had the memento to prove it.
“I’m holding this ball all the way to the hotel,” Hills said, eyes beaming with pride. “Sh--, I might hold it if I go get food tonight. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
The preseason slate may be a necessary evil to Cardinals veterans, but for players like Hills and Tyler Sigler, it is so much more. Sigler, an undrafted rookie safety out of Division III Wheaton College who needed a tryout to earn a spot on the roster, also had an unforgettable play in the game, picking off a pass in the third quarter.
He returned the interception 52 yards and then got mobbed by wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and inside linebacker Jordan Hicks as he returned to the Cardinals sideline.
“A lot of the older guys were giving me chest bumps and jumping on me,” Sigler said. “Jordan Hicks gave me a big hug and said, “That’s awesome.’ It was special.”
Sigler was so caught up in the excitement of the moment that he lost track of the football. Luckily, fellow rookie safety Dieonte Thompson grabbed it.
“He’s one of my closer buddies on the team,” Sigler said. “He picked it up and ran over and handed it to me. He said, ‘Keep this.’”
When Hills and Sigler were in college, their football games weren’t televised. Thursday’s game was beamed into living rooms across the country on NFL Network. That was due to the Kyler Murray effect, and in truth, most casual fans were probably tuned out by the time Hills and Sigler had their moments.
That didn’t matter one iota to them.
“This has been my dream since I was a kid,” Hills said. “To come out here and be able to score in my first NFL game – preseason or not – it means the world to me.”
In the middle of Hills’ interview, linebacker Dennis Gardeck – himself a former undrafted free agent – yelled ‘Slippery Rock, stand up!’ from across the room, and it looked like Hills might start floating on air.
The whole night was a fairytale, beginning with pregame warmups.
“You get out on the field and the fans are cheering you on,” Hills said. “Being your first NFL game, the lights are bright. I come from a small school, so we don’t have cameras on the field like that. I’m letting it all sink in, like, this is an NFL game. My emotions were up and down. I couldn’t wait to show them what I could do.”
Hills finished the game with eight carries for 37 yards and the touchdown. Sigler had three tackles and the pick. Try telling them the preseason is meaningless.
“This is something we’re fighting for,” Sigler said. “It’s our livelihood, our job. It’s really important to us. Some people go to work day-to-day, and I’m sure there will be a time and a place for me to do that, but I’m going to try to do this as long as I can. Those plays are important to me.”