ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — A celebration of life will be held today for former Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman Jr. and the team’s Walton-Penner ownership is flying out a contingent of his former teammates to be there to help comfort his family.
The Broncos, win or lose, are family and Hillman was loved by his former teammates. What made this gesture particularly meaningful to several players making the trip is CEO Greg Penner and the team owners didn’t know Hillman but still made arrangements to ensure he was honored.
> The video above is from Dec. 22, 2022.
“All of us as Broncos, it means something to us to be Denver Broncos and the fact that the ownership group in one year can understand that and go far beyond out of their way to coordinate to allow us to attend Ronnie’s funeral, there’s no words for our gratitude towards the Walton-Penner family,” said Ryan Harris, who blocked for Hillman as both a right and left tackle in 2015 when the Broncos won Super Bowl 50 and Hillman was their leading rusher with 863 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Hillman died from a rare form of cancer on Dec. 21. He was just 31 years old.
“He wasn’t here long but he didn’t waste it,’’ said Orlando Franklin, a right tackle and left guard for Hillman from 2012-14. “You measure a man by the size of his heart and his heart was unbelievably big.”
Hillman’s service will be held at 11 a.m. today at the Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood, Calif., according to the Hillman family Instagram page. A gathering of up to 2,500 people is expected with the Broncos well represented. The team has been in regular contact with Hillman’s mother Carla since her son passed away three weeks ago to help with arrangements.
Former quarterback Peyton Manning and the Broncos put together a group of players to fly out of Denver by private jet this morning to the service. The Broncos’ contingent will include former players Emmanuel Sanders, Derek Wolfe, Joel Dreessen, current player Brandon McManus, who has been with the team since Hillman’s third season of 2014, Manning, Harris and Franklin, and player development vice president Ray Jackson.
“It’s really good of the Broncos, for sure, for putting this together,’’ Franklin said. “Patrick (Smyth, the Broncos’ chief communications officer) reached out to me last week – really awesome. It’s great they did this for us.’’
Hillman was 20 years old, the youngest player in the NFL, when he was selected by the Broncos in the third round out of San Diego State in the 2012 draft. It’s not easy adjusting to professional football at such a young age and injuries also held Hillman back in each of his first three seasons.
But a more mature and stronger Hillman played in all 16 games in 2015, starting the final 10, when he had his breakout season.
“One of the better teammates you could ask for,’’ Harris said. “One of the tougher teammates, fastest teammates. With his size opponents often tried to make an example of him and they found out otherwise. From when he first came in until we won the Super Bowl to see how much he had grown as a player and as a pro, that’s why he was a champion and that’s why (President) Barack Obama spoke his name at the White House.
“That Super Bowl 50 team was the best set of teammates I’ve ever had and Ronnie was at that the top of that list of guys I loved to hang out with. Thankfully, I got to see him at the Los Angeles Super Bowl (last year) and told him I loved him. It will be good to be around Ronnie’s family and tell them how much he meant to all of us.’’
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