One of the most inspiring athletes in Minnesota history will be on the field at U.S. Bank Stadium this week during the football state semifinals. Danny Lilya is a junior at Moose Lake/Willow River; the Rebels will meet Pipestone at 11:30 a.m. Friday in a Class 2A game.
Earlier this year Danny received the National Spirit of Sport Award from the National Federation of State High School Associations, the governing body for high school activities in all 50 states (below is a photo from the awards ceremony at the NFHS convention in Providence, Rhode Island; Danny is with his parents, Dan and Sheryl, and NFHS executive director Bob Gardner).
Danny has been the subject of many stories in newspapers, on TV and online. My favorite story about Danny was written in September 2016 by Louie St. George of the Duluth News Tribune. Here is Louie’s story…Moose Lake sophomore doesn’t let spinal defect keep him from football team
By Louie St. George
Duluth News Tribune
Sept. 8, 2016
MOOSE LAKE — One by one, the Moose Lake-Willow River football team spilled from its spartan locker room Wednesday, players slicing shortcuts through the lawn and toward the practice field, some 50 yards away.
Not Danny Lilya.
The 15-year-old Moose Lake sophomore propelled his wheelchair along the raindrop-splotched sidewalk — left, right, then right again — which led to a strip of pavement flanking the field. From there, he watched the Rebels prepare for tonight's home game vs. Elk River, Minn.-based Spectrum. His involvement typically comes later in practice, when he, Nick Wegge and Tyler Mehrkens work on point-after-touchdown kicks.
Lilya is the holder. Confined to a wheelchair most of his life, he is — at first glance — the unlikeliest of contributors for one of Minnesota's premier prep programs.
"I used to play recess football with my friends at school, but I guess I never thought that I'd actually be on the varsity team," Lilya, born with a broken back stemming from a congenital spinal defect, said on an overcast afternoon.
But there he was in last week's season-opening rout of rival Barnum, wheeling onto the field four different times to corral Mehrkens' snaps and set them up for Wegge, the kicker. The first two attempts fizzled; the next two were good.
Danny, wearing his apple-red No. 28 jersey, black face paint applied liberally, held from his knees. His wheelchair was moved about 20 yards behind the play by one of the game's officials, Dan Johnson. Keeping the laces out proved difficult. Danny's father, Dan Lilya, gave him grief for that.
An excited Danny Lilya bounced around on his knees after the first successful kick sailed through the uprights. A year ago, he saw game action for a down or two late in the regular-season finale vs. Hermantown. This was different, though. This was a scoring play.
"I was pretty excited because I've been watching them for years and years — ever since I was in kindergarten — and to finally be on the team and go out there during a scoring play was just amazing," Danny said.
MLWR coach Dave Louzek long has embraced an everybody-is-welcome mantra.
"I remember a few years ago he said there's always going to be a spot on the Rebel football team for Danny, whether we have to carry him onto the bus and put him into his seat or whatever," the elder Lilya recalled.
And how couldn't your heart swell?
Mehrkens says the Rebels don't treat Danny any differently. He's an integral part of the team, a teenager prone to the same "shenanigans with his buddies," according to his dad, and one who loves sports. His favorite subject in school is shop class.
"He may look different — he's got wheels for legs — but he's still just a regular person to us,"
Mehrkens, a junior, said.
Said Wegge, a senior: "I think it's cool because it shows other teams and other people, maybe someone else who has a disability, it might make them want to join and feel a part of a team."
It was Danny's idea at the end of last fall to be the holder. He was seeking an expanded role. Louzek was receptive. The Rebels cleared it with Barnum's coaching staff, plus the officiating crew, ahead of last week's contest. Louzek told the Bombers to rush as they normally would. Because of Danny's limited range of motion, Mehrkens has to be spot-on with his snaps. They're getting better.
Despite 166 victories and 11 Section 7AA titles in 18 years at MLWR, Louzek's is not a win-at-all-costs mentality. He stresses inclusiveness.
"I think a lot of kids that maybe don't quite fit that normal athletic mold do find a place here because we as coaches really emphasize the importance for these kids to accept everybody," Louzek said.
"We talk a lot about how everybody is important to this team, that everybody has a role on this team, and so over the years the kids have an understanding that if they come out for Rebel football, they're going to be welcomed. And we do find a way to make it meaningful for them."
Danny spoke decisively and matter-of-factly Wednesday while his nearby teammates, emanating a smell so distinct to anyone who's ever been around frequently used and seldom-washed football practice gear, continued to carve up their already-brown field. He firmly shook a reporter's hand.
Danny plays football for the same reasons others do. He loves the sport, relishes the camaraderie and grew up cheering for MLWR.
And he likes being active — an offshoot, perhaps, of spending much of his first two years in a body cast thanks to numerous spinal-reconstruction surgeries.
Aside from football, Danny is a talented and nationally competitive sled hockey player. He's the youngest member of the Minnesota Wild's adult sled team by about 10 years. He also competes with a wheelchair softball squad out of Brooklyn Park, Minn.
"We really haven't given him the option of not being active," Dan Lilya said. "There have been a lot of times where you want to as a parent ... you're looking at a child who has a disability and he can't keep up with the other kids, but you have to just try and pull back and let him try to figure out a way to make things work. I won't deny it: There have been a number of times both his mom (Sheryl Lilya) and I have sat there and had tears in our eyes.
"You want to reach down and grab him and pick him up, but you know that you're not always going to be there to do that."
Dan Lilya served in four of the five branches of the United States Armed Forces (all except the Navy). It opened the door for his son to recently be named Military Child of the Year by the United Heroes League, formerly known as Defending the Blue Line. He will be recognized at the Camo Gala on Sept. 17 at Target Field.
Danny Lilya doesn't use his wheelchair as an excuse. It's a lesson no Rebel can learn in a playbook.
"It's a good experience for the rest of the kids on the team to have that understanding," Louzek said. "In society, we all have different strengths, we all have different things that we can offer to make things better. For these kids that are able-bodied to work right alongside a kid in a wheelchair, I think is a great experience for them to see that, yeah, everybody does have things that they can offer and contribute to a team."