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Prep football: Moose Lake's Lilya is an inspirational player

MINNEAPOLIS -- The main event at U.S. Bank Stadium on Friday was Minnesota state high school football. But one game -- the Class AA semifinal game between Pipestone Area and Moose Lake/Willow River -- featured something extra.

Moose Lake/Willow River 16-year-old Danny Lilya, confined to a wheelchair for most of his life because of a congenital spinal defect, suited up for action as he always does on Friday, readying himself to hold for field goals and extra points.

Already the subject of many television stories and newspaper articles, Lilya received the National Spirit of Sport Award from the National Federation of State High School Associations earlier this year. His coach, Dave Louzek, says the Rebels don’t treat Lilya any differently than any other member of the football team. And yet, the junior son of Dan and Sheryl Lilya continues to be an inspiration.

Sheryl told The Globe Thursday that Danny, the fourth in a line of five children and the youngest boy, has been extremely active -- and quite precocious -- his whole life.

“He played football since elementary. The elementary coach didn’t exactly know what to do with him, but he told us that Danny had a good head on his shoulders. So he gave Danny the plays. He knew Danny wanted to be part of the team, so he gave Danny the plays and he memorized them,” said Sheryl.

Danny’s job then was to be a kind of assistant coach, in charge of drawing up plays.

When young Lilya was a ninth-grader anxious for anything he could do with the football team, his coach inserted him defensively into a game on the very last play on the line of scrimmage. The offense took a knee on that play, but being on the field was a thrill just the same.

After that game, said Louzek, Danny came up with the idea of being the holder for field goals and point-afters.

“Being a competitor, he really wanted to be involved in a meaningful way,” remembers Louzek, who has always stressed to his players that winning is secondary to inclusion. Danny, in fact, is not the first special needs kid who’s had a place in the football program.

“Goal No. 1 is for the kids to have fun,” Louzek said. “Kids like Danny fit right into that philosophy.”

Danny, said Sheryl, still doesn’t understand why he’s become so popular with television stations and newspaper reporters. Perhaps that’s because his disability was never really treated as such.

“We didn’t treat (the kids) any differently, even when they were little,” Sheryl testified.

In fact, she recalled that when Danny and his older brother Michael were younger, they used to fight a lot. Their punishment for fighting was to be forced to press their noses against a wall for time-out while touching (which usually meant holding hands).

Precocious? Typical teen-ager? Danny has his driver’s license now. His mom says he’s already been cited twice for squealing his tires.

A lover of sports, it’s not just football for Danny Lilya. He is a nationally competitive sled hockey player and the youngest member of the Minnesota Wild’s adult sled team. He also plays wheelchair softball and manages the Moose Lake varsity boys hockey team, of which Michael is a player.

After Friday’s 11:30 a.m. game with Pipestone Area, Danny and his parents had to hurry. He was supposed to perform in an NHL Sled Classic game at 3:30 at the Plymouth Ice Arena.

“It’s gonna be tight,” said his mother.

Danny’s father, Dan, a disabled veteran of four of the five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, is understandably proud of his youngest son, who was recently named Military Child of the Year by the United Heroes League. Sheryl is mighty proud of him, too, and pleased that nothing is holding Danny back.

“He’s just like anybody else,” she says. “It’s just that his legs are wheels.”

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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