TAMPA — Ike Hilliard has seen the seasons come and go, withstood the training camp challenges from younger players year after year, and one thing never changes.
"I'm still ticking," the Bucs wide receiver said. "Still foolin' people."
Fooling is hardly the case. In his 12th NFL season, the former Florida Gator standout and No. 1 draft pick of the Giants figures to play a key role in Tampa Bay's offense, even with new addition Antonio Bryant apparently unseating him for the starting flanker job across from veteran speedster Joey Galloway.
Hilliard may not be the flashiest receiver in red and pewter, but No. 19 remains one of the most reliable as the team heads to New Orleans for its season opener Sunday.
Last year, in his third and most productive season with the Bucs, Hilliard caught 62 passes for 722 yards. He frequently flew under the radar, coming through in the clutch. Since joining the Bucs as a free agent, 61 percent of Hilliard's catches (80 of 131) have gone for first downs.
"I've been blessed to be going into my 12th year," said the 32-year-old from Patterson, La. "It comes down to the preparation part of the game, being accountable to my teammates and being fortunate to make those plays in certain situations. It gets on enough game film to allow me to be around for another year."
Even if he's not a starter — and he wasn't his first two seasons as a Buc — Hilliard says his goal is to continue to work hard and take advantage of every opportunity.
"He's a reliable guy who's been playing a long time," said wideout Michael Clayton. "He knows exactly what to do in all situations and is phenomenal when it comes to recognizing coverages."
Said running back and fellow Gator Earnest Graham, "People can lose sight of what he does because he's a quiet guy. But he's always been fantastic. He's a football player. Every team needs a guy like that."
Hilliard made a lasting mark at Florida with 126 receptions for 2,214 yards, ranking fourth in receiving yards, and his 29 touchdowns tied him for second all time with Jack Jackson behind Chris Doering's 31. His career prompted the Giants to make him the seventh overall draft pick in 1997.
He played the next eight seasons with the Giants, leaving as the fourth-ranked receiver in team history with 368 catches and seventh in receiving yards with 4,630. His numbers would have been better if not for injuries. As a rookie, he started the first two games but was placed on injured reserve with a neck injury, ending his season. He also lost time to injuries from 2000-03.
"Some people have said I haven't lived up to being a seventh-round pick and so forth, but the only other receiver from my draft class still playing that I can think of is Derrick Mason (of Baltimore)," Hilliard said. "There's something to be said about that. I missed a lot of football due to injuries. That's probably been the big knock on my career. But I'll leave it to (the media) to assess my career."
In addition to his 31 career touchdown catches, 499 catches and 5,973 receiving yards, Hilliard has been remarkably consistent. He has at least one catch in all but seven of his 145 games. And there's his knack for producing first downs.
"I think you have to tip your hat to Coach (Jon) Gruden for that," he said. "He's the one who calls the offensive plays. He allows me to go out and make those plays. He can get you in the right situation with the sophistication that we have."
The question of how effective the Bucs' receiving corps is hovered over the team during the preseason. But Hilliard gives the unit high marks. "It's the most talented group I've been around in 12 years," he said. "Our guys do a lot of different things and have a lot to offer. And Antonio's going to be a great asset."
Hilliard is looking forward to returning to Louisiana and relieved that Hurricane Gustav didn't cause problems for his family and friends there. He savors playing in the Superdome.
"It's always great to go back home and play," he said. "My hometown is only about an hour and 20 minutes away. I think a lot of people from Louisiana are still mad at me because I went to Florida. But my family will definitely be there."
Just like Ike, 12 years and counting.