EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -- Receiver Ike Hilliard attended the Giants' veteran mini-camp this week, almost shocked that he was still a member of the team with whom he spent the first six years of his career.
"To be honest, I didn't think I would be back," said Hilliard, who was re-signed to a five-year contract by the Giants after yet another injury-filled season. It ended with a shoulder injury during a 17-3 loss to Philadelphia on Oct. 28.
"I wanted to be here, but what I wanted and what I thought would happen are two different things. I didn't think they'd want me back. After all, I had five surgeries (two toes, neck, thumb and shoulder) in six years. I would have understood if they didn't want me back. Hey, they put up 30 points per game without me. Why would they need me?" he said.
In his heart, the 27-year-old Florida product wanted to remain with the team that selected him in the first round (seventh pick overall) of the 1997 NFL Draft.
"It was definitely my first option," Hilliard said. "I didn't want to start over. I've spent six years here and I've developed good relationships. It was going to be hard to let go."
Hilliard said he was convinced he was not coming back when he met his friend and former teammate Jason Sehorn at the airport as Sehorn was boarding a plane for St. Louis to sign with the Rams after being let go by the Giants.
"I figured the same thing was going to happen to me," Hilliard said after completing the second day of the optional veteran camp Tuesday.
While Hilliard debated free agency, he thought about his options. One team that expressed some interest was Washington, where his college coach from Florida, Steve Spurrier, currently resides. Another possibility was Jacksonville, which is still searching for quality receivers.
"I spoke with some teams," Hilliard said. "I spoke with Coach Spurrier. It was always a question of where I wanted to go down the road, but in my heart, I always wanted to stay here."
Quarterback Kerry Collins said he's happy that Hilliard is back.
"He's about as reliable and as dependable a receiver as you'll find," Collins said. "He has shown no ill effects of the shoulder and he's going to do a lot for us. I'm glad he's back."
Coach Jim Fassel said that while he had locked horns with Hilliard in the past, he wanted to have the sure-handed receiver return.
"Ike and I talked privately in the offseason," Fassel said. "I told him that I wanted him to be here and I knew that he wanted to be here. We've had our differences, no question, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and I like him. I wanted him here."
"I know he fought for me," said Hilliard, who was limited to just 27 catches for 386 yards and three touchdowns in seven games last year. "I appreciate that. I think I'm in a better place mentally than where I was when I came here. I've matured a lot and have a better understanding of Jim. We've developed a better relationship over the years."
Fassel believes that the injury woes that plagued Hilliard in the past will not hamper him in the future.
"Ike's really going to help us," Fassel said. "He's what we call a smooth target. He gives us an added weapon. No doubt, when you put a guy like Ike into the picture, he's going to make plays."