Updated: January 26, 2014 at 8:49 am
In the moments after Air Force football practice, Troy Calhoun sometimes talks about a Mountain West opponent who mercilessly destroyed his Falcons.
Yes, we're talking about Ronnie Hillman, the former San Diego State mega-star running back now struggling at the end of the Denver Broncos bench.
At San Diego, Hillman combined dazzling speed with a surprising power. In two games against the Falcons, he collected 363 rushing yards and four touchdowns. In his two-season San Diego cameo, Hillman offered equal-opportunity thrashing of Aztec opponents, romping to 3,243 yards and 36 touchdowns.
Those happy nights and afternoons now seem long ago. Hillman has been banished to football purgatory for his fumbling. He started Broncos training camp as the favorite to stand beside Peyton Manning as the No. 1 running back.
Then a new Knowshon Moreno emerged. A tougher, faster, smarter, safer Moreno. Hillman moved down on the depth chart.
His tumble wasn't complete. Hillman fumbled in the shadow of the end zone against the Colts, dooming the Broncos to a loss and sending him to football exile.
The Broncos ride to the Super Bowl has produced joy across the Front Range, but there are sad stories, too. Von Miller wanders through the locker room on crutches. His season is over; his future in jeopardy.
Hillman knows all about a jeopardized future. The Broncos forgotten man was in a hurry, seeking to escape the Broncos crowded clubhouse.
But he was happy to take a quick trip to his football past.
"Calhoun?" Hillman said, a smile arriving. "Oh, yeah, Calhoun. He don't like me."
This is not true. Calhoun admires Hillman and believes in his talent.
"I just had a few good runs," Hillman said of his romps against Air Force. "You know, just a couple of them."
Hillman will deliver many more impressive runs, if he can learn to better grasp the football. Hillman inspired scorn when he fumbled against the Colts, and I heard from a couple dozen Broncos fans who wondered why coach John Fox showed such poor wisdom in trusting Hillman.
This is a strange slice of football. A quarterback can throw an interception, and his reputation as a nervy gunslinger remains unscathed, but a fumbler is seldom forgiven.
I am a Hillman apologist. I believe in his talent. And fumbling is not a forever thing. Just ask Moreno, a recovered fumbler who has tightly gripped the football this season on his way to leaping into the list of the NFL's top half-dozen running backs. Moreno transformed. So can Hillman.
Hillman endured two vicious, simultaneous hits at the 3-yard-line on the fateful fumble against the Colts. Yes, he should have lowered his shoulders, making him a less-inviting target, but few NFL backs would have retained their grip amid all the violence. Everyone pointed at Hillman after his fumble, but some fingers should have been pointed at the Broncos offensive line, which essentially surrendered to the Colts on that specific play.
Don't expect to see Hillman in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. Hillman fumbled at, yes, the goal line against Seattle in an August exhibition and watched his mistake returned 106 yrds for a touchdown. Hillman will spend Super Sunday watching and waiting on the bench.
He's not complaining. He knows he placed himself in football exile.
"When the opportunity comes, I'm going to take advantage of it," Hillman said. "Until then, I just play my role."
He was talking in a near whisper, but it was clear his confidence has not departed. The running back who tormented the Falcons is still there, waiting.
"I know who I am, you know," Hillman said. "Whenever that time comes, I'm just going to take advantage of it. I know my talent. I know eventually I'll get my chance again."
The Broncos forgotten man started a slow walk toward the exit. Don't worry. We'll see him again.