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It's truly a shame this writer can't root for Mike Hilton in the Super Bowl

Is former Steeler Mike Hilton a friend, or enemy? There isn't an easy answer.

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Once a Pittsburgh Steeler, always a Pittsburgh Steeler.

I have read or heard numerous comments insinuating that specific belief about former Steelers slot cornerback Mike Hilton leading up to Super Bowl LVI, where Hilton's current Cincinnati Bengals team will do battle with the Los Angeles Rams for the right to stamp their fingerprints all over the Lombardi Trophy.

Trying to decide if Hilton is a friend or an enemy of the Steelers varies by the individual, and the answer can be polarizing. Last week on our Steelers Hangover podcast, BTSC podcast producer Bryan Anthony Davis asked Tony Defeo and myself that very question. Tony and I had completely different answers, but our feelings about his time with the Steelers are understandably similar. While Tony still considers Hilton a friend who he is comfortable rooting for in the big game, I can never root for Hilton again as long as he plays for the Bengals. The Bengals are the enemy, and he is also by association.

I believe that the majority of my Steelers Nation family share similar feelings about the man. I have nothing but the utmost respect for all his accomplishments achieved in a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform. He truly is an inspirational story, and his NFL success reads like a made for TV movie script. Undrafted and undersized, a free agent with merely marginal speed. He had quick stints with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the New England Patriots, but failed to make either roster because he was too small to be a safety and too slow to be a corner. His professional fate changed when he was signed by the Steelers and moved to slot corner.

I wrote multiple flattering articles about Hilton during his Steelers tenure, usually because of his unquestioned, and often unmatched, effort. He was maddeningly inconsistent in coverage to start his career, but has steadily improved over the years. Even with the struggles in coverage, two attributes of his game could never be questioned: His effort and his courage. He has the heart of a giant trapped in his diminutive frame. He regularly takes on blocks where he is giving up over 100 lbs. to his opponent. Playing slot corner at the highest level isn't for the faint of heart.

The Steelers went into last offseason with tons of needs and precious little salary cap space due to a reduced cap thanks to the effects of the pandemic. Tough decisions had to be made, and there is no way to bring everyone back the Steelers would have liked to see return. Mike Hilton was one of those cap casualties. According to reports, he wasn't even offered a contract.

I feel certain that was because they knew they couldn't offer anything close to what he would receive on the open market. A ridiculously low offer would have been disrespectful toward a player the Steelers hierarchy respected very much. He was no longer a fringe level NFL player, playing on a series of one-year contracts. He was one of the best slot corners in the league, and he had earned his financial security through hard work and dedication to his craft. As we know now, he signed a 4-year, $24 million dollar contract with the Bengals last offseason.

Life changing money and security for Hilton and his family. No rational Steelers fan should begrudge him a penny of that money, or for signing the contract. I couldn't be happier for him and his family. He earned every cent through his blood, sweat, and tears.

Hilton spoke openly this week in numerous interviews leading up to the Super Bowl about his respect for the Steelers, that he had no hard feelings about how things ended, and how much he appreciated the organization that gave him his big chance. Nary a bridge burned as far as I could tell.

However, I will never be able to root for him as long as he has those stripes on his helmet. Similar to how I felt about Rod Woodson winning a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. Once Woodson retired, it was like he had never left.

Hilton has an incredibly difficult assignment in the Super Bowl as he will undoubtedly be tasked with covering the most dominant receiver in the NFL this season, Rams WR Cooper Kupp. Just how dominant are we talking here you may ask? He was the triple crown winner; leading the NFL in receptions, receiving yardage, and touchdown receptions. He even received a single vote for 2021 NFL MVP. It was as good a season for a wide receiver the league has ever seen. Kupp has been unbelievably, almost eerily, consistent.

The matchup seems like a mismatch at first glance. Hilton has improved in coverage, but it seems highly unlikely that he can slow down this magical season for Kupp. I wouldn't be too quick to count out Hilton in any matchup, knowing how he has always attacked daunting tasks head on and overcome seemingly impossible odds to make his NFL dreams a reality.

It's a shame I won't be able to root for him, even if the nostalgic side of me might smile just a little somewhere deep inside if he somehow manages to shock the world, yet again.