BEREA, Ohio - Peyton Hillis walked out of the Browns' locker room Friday carrying a playbook under his right arm. On Sunday, he hopes he's carrying a football. At long last.
Cleveland's besieged running back, who has missed the past six games with a severely strained left hamstring, could return to the field this week when the Browns (4-6) visit the Cincinnati Bengals (6-4). It's a surprising development considering Browns coach Pat Shurmur ruled him out when the week began and Hillis did not practice Wednesday or Thursday
But Hillis has made major progress in the past few days, and is on the brink of a long-awaited, and perhaps dramatic, return.
"I miss playing football," he said. "It's what I was brought up my whole life to do. I'm excited to get out there playing a game. I'm excited about winning games. I'm excited to see how I can play during this time. I'm excited I feel 100 percent again."
Hillis, whose fall from stardom has been as abrupt as his rise, is ready to resume his stormy season.
"I've just got to find a way to overcome all of this and be the player I used to be," he said.
Hillis practiced Friday for the first time since Nov. 4, when he re-injured his hamstring two days before a game in Houston. During the portion of practice open to the media, Hillis appeared to be fully healed. He carried the ball a few times, and near the end of the workout, Hillis caught a short pass and turned up field with a burst of speed.
Shurmur said it would be a game-time decision whether Hillis plays.
"Because he hasn't played ball in a long time, I think it's still important that I'm cautious with his return," Shurmur said.
In addition to possibly having Hillis back, the Browns will have running back Montario Hardesty, who has missed the past three games with a calf injury. With Hillis and Hardesty sidelined, Chris Ogbonnaya rushed for 115 yards last week in a win over Jacksonville.
Shurmur wouldn't be pinned down on who would start.
"If Hillis is available, he will be available because he's ready to play," he said. "Now, whether he'll start or not I'll have to decide that on Sunday. We have running backs coming back from injury so none of them can handle a full load and I think that's an important thing to remember."
It figures Hillis' return would be a spectacle. His second season in Cleveland has been nothing short of a sideshow since it began.
Hillis squabbled publicly with the Browns over a possible contract extension before both sides decided to table discussions. He missed Cleveland's game on Sept. 23 with strep throat, a decision he said he made on the advice of his agent. Hillis got hurt on Oct. 16 at Oakland, and two weeks later missed a Halloween party for needy kids, an absence he blamed on a miscommunication.
There was his meeting with some of the Browns' team leaders, who confronted him about being a distraction and missing treatments for his injury when he went to Arkansas last month to get married during a work week. Hillis then re-injured his hamstring in practice, two days before he had hoped to come back.
It's been a mess, one Hillis hopes to clean up.
"Things happen," he said, dismissing the suggestion his season has been a "nightmare."
"I guess when more people are looking at you everything seems more severe. I've got to be responsible and understand that as well, that no matter what you go through, you've always got to keep a good mindset and try to go through it as best you can.
"As far as this year, goes, I just look at like bumps in the road you have to overcome. That's in life with everybody."
For the past six Sundays, Hillis has been reduced to the role of cheerleader. It's been agonizing to stand on the sideline in sweats and watch. It's pained him not to be able to help his team.
"It's awful," he said.
Hillis believes his recovery was hastened by a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection into his injured hamstring. It's a treatment that involves extracting blood from patients and re-injecting just the plasma. The procedure is not prohibited by league policies, said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello.
"It's supposed to make you heal a lot faster than what it was and that's obviously what it did," he said. "It's been 2 1/2 weeks since the shot and I'm steadily improving day by day."
With his smash-and-dash running style, Hillis ran for nearly 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, his first with the Browns, who acquired him in a trade from Denver. He became an instant favorite with Cleveland fans, who helped vote him onto the cover of the Madden 12 video game, giving him national exposure.
But there's been nothing but problems this season, leading some to speculate that fame has gone to Hillis' head and changed him.
Hillis doesn't think so.
"I'm still same guy," he said. "You get a few bumps in the road and you have to rebound from that and do your best on and off the field. Hopefully you can go
out when you can and play ball and I don't care who you are, when you go out and you do well, it's going to make you feel better as a person and on this team."