Commentary | Joe Hills' Arena League heroics earn him an invitation to Carolina Panthers camp

May 5, 2013 

This time, things might go right for Joe Hills.

This time, he did not make the phone call. In the NFL, that can make all the difference.

Seeking help for quarterback Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers reached out to Hills and invited him to their three-day rookie minicamp, which begins Friday.

It's the reason Hills wasn't catching passes for the Arena Football League's Tampa Bay Storm on Saturday night.

He was in the right place -- at home, resting.

"I couldn't afford to get hurt," he said.

We're with you, Joe. We understand.

The AFL is a place where players bring their neatly packaged dreams, hoping they can find a buyer. It's how Kurt War

ner earned his way into the NFL when he wasn't bagging groceries.

"Staying healthy is the most important thing," Hills said, speaking from experience.

The Palmetto High graduate worked two jobs before the AFL season, driving a delivery truck and selling shoes to support his fiancée and two children.

The call from Carolina couldn't have come at a better time. AFL players, with the exception of quarterbacks, earn about $1,000 per game.

Hills was in the Tennessee Titans camp two years ago after he finished his career at Tennessee State.

He made it through the preseason but was hampered by a leg injury and was cut.

Now he is a man on fire. No better time to go!

Heading into this weekend's action, Hills led the AFL in reception yardage (769), was second in touchdown catches (19) and ranked among the leaders in receptions (48).

At 6-foot-5, 210 pounds with soft hands, the 25-year-old has never looked better.

"It's a plus that Carolina called. I am going up there to let it all hang out and not hold back," Hills said. "I don't even know if I get paid. They said I would sign a contract. I don't know what their situation is, and I don't care who they bring in. I am just going to go out there and compete."

When he was with the Titans, Hills saw what an NFL work ethic looked like. It's different than anything he experienced. Guys are fighting for their lives with money at stake. You don't slack off.

After he got released, Hills put what he learned to good use. He made himself quicker and stronger and improved his pass-catching skills. If he could've made himself taller, he would have.

The Panthers need receivers to help their best pass catcher (5-9 Steve Smith) and Newton. Those two won't be there next weekend. The camp is for rookies and guys who have no more than a year of experience.

"I was hoping to eventually get the call," Hills said. "I didn't know when it would happen. When it comes, you are surprised, but it has always been the goal. I was excited to hear somebody still wanted me. I've been putting in a lot of work."

Hills feels fortunate the Storm signed Adrian McPherson at quarterback. The 30-year-old is looking like the iconic signal-caller he was for Southeast High more than a decade ago when he was named Florida Mr. Football.

Heading into Saturday night, McPherson had thrown 28 touchdowns with only one interception. Most impressive, he leads the league in rushing (233 yards) and rushing touchdowns (17), which is unheard of for a quarterback in the AFL, where the field dimensions are similar to an NHL rink.

"AD is awesome. He is what everybody says he is," Hills said. "His scrambling and running has made things easier, giving me time to get open. He brings another dimension that makes my game better."

Hills was more known for basketball at Palmetto, where he is the No. 2 career scorer. He has always been a humble guy, but never short on confidence.

"I always to go to practice thinking I am the number two guy and not better than anybody," Hills said. "I can't explain my numbers this year and give credit to my teammates."

Hills is on the AFL exempt list and can return to the Storm this season if things don't work out with Carolina.

"I could probably play arena ball for the next 10 years, but you want the NFL. If you make an NFL practice squad, it pays about $5,000 a week. I hope it goes well (at Carolina), but if not I will keep at it. When you get to be about 28 or 29 then they consider you old."

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 94-745-2112. Follow him on Twitter at @ADellSports.

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