Former Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman has passed away after a battle with cancer, his family has announced.
He was 31 years old.
Hillman, who was drafted by the Broncos in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, was a member of Denver's 2013 and 2015 AFC Championship teams and was a key part of the team that won Super Bowl 50. During that 2015 championship season, Hillman was the Broncos' leading rusher, as his speed and quickness provided electric plays on the ground.
"We are deeply saddened by the untimely passing of former Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman," the Broncos said in a statement. "A key contributor during the winningest four-year period in franchise history, Ronnie was part of two Super Bowl teams and led the Broncos in rushing during our Super Bowl 50 championship season. Soft-spoken with a warm smile and quiet intensity, Ronnie was drafted by the Broncos in 2012 and grew into a dynamic player and well-respected teammate. Ronnie will be fondly remembered by our organization, which extends its heartfelt sympathies and condolences to the Hillman family during this difficult time."
A native of Long Beach, California, Hillman blossomed into a promising football prospect and credited the game with being an important part of how his life unfolded. He took part in rapper Snoop Dogg's youth football league, and later, as a pro player, Hillman said it was momentous for him.
"He changed my life," Hillman told the Denver Post in 2016. "Once I started playing on those teams, I stopped getting in trouble and focused on ball."
As a junior in high school, Hillman led La Habra to its first undefeated season and a title win in the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section's Southeast Division championship game. In the process, Hillman was named offensive player of the year on the All-CIF Southern Section team for the Southeast Division. The next year, La Habra moved to the Southwest Division and won a title for a second straight year, and Hillman earned offensive player of the year honors once again.
In college, Hillman was a revelation for San Diego State. In each of his two seasons, Hillman rushed for at least 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns, and in all, he recorded 38 total touchdowns and 3,243 rushing yards.
The Broncos didn't have to look far to see Hillman's talent. In two games against the Air Force Academy, Hillman averaged more than 180 rushing yards and two touchdowns against Colorado Springs' cadets.
After such a productive collegiate career, Hillman made the tough decision to declare for the NFL a year early.
When the draft rolled around, the Broncos jumped at the chance to pick Hillman, trading up in the third round to secure his rights. Immediately, Hillman joined a team with immense expectations, as the Broncos had recently signed Peyton Manning in free agency, and Hillman embraced the opportunity
"I was probably 6 years old when he first got in the league," Hillman said at his first Broncos training camp. "Playing [with] Manning and Willis [McGahee] and those guys is an honor."
In his first season, Hillman largely served as a reserve option behind the veteran McGahee and Knowshon Moreno. Against the Ravens in the playoffs, Hillman gave a glimpse of his potential as a workhouse, as he totaled 103 yards from scrimmage on 25 touches.
In 2013, as the Broncos' historic offense led to a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII, Hillman continued to compete as a reserve, now working behind Moreno and 2013 second-round pick Montee Ball.
In the years that followed, the Broncos searched for an answer at running back, and in 2015, they found a combination that worked with Hillman and C.J. Anderson sharing the load. Hillman, a conventional speedster, and Anderson, a tough-to-tackle bowling ball, were a lightning-and-thunder tandem that gave defenses fits.
That season, as Denver gritted out close wins, Hillman provided memorable plays that were also important ones for Denver's postseason hopes. His 72-yard touchdown against the Vikings in Week 4 was the fourth-longest rushing touchdown in the NFL, and his 23-yard score in Week 17 put the Broncos on top to secure home-field advantage through the playoffs as the AFC's top seed. Hillman earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his performance in the final week of the regular season.
In all, Hillman was Denver's leading rusher in the regular season as he ran the ball 207 times for 863 yards and seven touchdowns in 10 starts. As Denver's offense worked to find continuity with Peyton Manning battling a foot injury and Brock Osweiler starting seven games, Hillman's contributions in the ground game proved vital for the Broncos' outlook heading into the postseason.
As the Broncos advanced to Super Bowl 50, Hillman basked in the moment that would be the crowning achievement of his career.
"Just being able to make it here, honestly," Hillman said a week before the game when asked what the most interesting part of his career had been. "You have a dream as a kid, now you're playing in the NFL."
Following the 2015 season, Hillman signed with the Vikings in September of 2016 and spent the first portion of the season in Minnesota before joining the Chargers for the final stretch of the 2016 slate. Hillman finished his career with 494 carries for 1,976 yards, 12 touchdowns and six 100-yard rushing games.