Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Lois E. Johnson
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Lilya's newfound fame


November 23, 2017

The Lilya brothers, Danny (pictured) and Michael, were in the battle for the Little Brown Jug with their teams, the Moose Lake-Willow River Rebels and the Barnum Bombers. The Rebels took the jug back home.

Danny Lilya, 16, a junior at Moose Lake High School, had a special honor recently. He was asked to speak at WE Day Minnesota on November 8 at the Excel Energy Center in St. Paul about his life and his interest in sports.

WE Day is described as a daylong celebration for 20,000 students from 550 schools across the state. Students earn their ticket through volunteer and charity work in their schools.

"The production was energetic and fast-paced, with speakers and artists coming up every couple of minutes to keep the screaming crowd riveted to the stage," it was stated in an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Lilya was introduced and rolled his wheelchair onto the stage. He was described as being "on a mission to prove that disabilities are no obstacles in the face of your dreams."

"If I told you that I was born with a broken back and that's why I am in this wheelchair, would you believe me," asked Lilya.

The crowd answered, "Yes!"

"Probably. If I told you that I spend my life using these wheels as legs, would you believe me?"

"Yes!" shouted the crowd.

"What if I told you I play on the varsity football team at my school, would you still believe me?"

"No!" shouted the crowd.

"My name is Danny Lilya, and I am a (Moose Lake/Willow River) Rebels holder for the extra points and field goals for one of the best high school football programs in the state.

"You probably wonder how. I can answer that for you.

"Recess - I used to hang out with my friends at recess. I stayed on the sidelines and desperately wished I could be out on that field.

"I was in seventh grade when my high school coach (Dave Louzek) told me there was a place for me on the football team, even if I was on the sidelines or a manager. For someone to make me feel so included in something I thought I wouldn't be able to do, that changed things for me completely.

"During the off-season, I came up with the idea of being a holder. I told my coach and he loved the idea; and I haven't stopped playing since. If I had stayed on the sidelines I would have never gotten out on that field and been on that team.

"I knew what I wanted; I was determined to make that happen. It doesn't matter what your obstacles are. If you put your mind to it, you can achieve it."

That was quite the honor for this quiet, soft-spoken high school student.

"I was nervous," he said in a recent interview. "Other kids and adults talked, too."

But it isn't only football Lilya plays. He is also on the Minnesota Wild Sled Hockey team. In fact, he played in the NHL Sled Hockey classic November 17 after he played football with the Rebels in the Class AA semifinals at U. S. Bank stadium.

Lilya's parents' lives are invested in the lives of their children. The oldest, Nick, is married and lives away from home. Their son, Michael, is a senior at Barnum High School and played on the Bombers football team.

Dan and Sheryl Lilya said they did not know who to cheer for when the Bombers and the Rebels met in a playoff game and battled for the honor of winning the Little Brown Jug.

The Rebels prevailed.

Daughter Elyse plays on the Lady Rebels junior varsity hockey team.

"Someone asked us yesterday, how do we do it," said Dan. "I told them this is all we do."

But Danny has become a hero for the community and area.

"He has been the subject of articles in the Duluth News-Tribune several times," said Sheryl. "And there has been an article about him in the Minneapolis Star several times. A reporter from CBS News wants to come to interview him but he has had to cancel twice when a big story happened."

Danny Lilya won the Spirit of Sport award last spring. He was honored at Moose Lake High School and then the family traveled to Providence, Rhode Island, in June for Lilya to accept the actual award.

Lilya also has been on the Rolling Twins team and appeared at Target Field to be recognized with the team, made up of players from across the nation, for winning the Wheelchair Softball World Series.

Lilya was also honored at a Minnesota Vikings football game six weeks ago as a Hometown Hero. "That was really cool," he said. "Jerick McKinnon gave me a football and Stefon Diggs played catch with me."

"Last fall, he was the Military Child of the year for the United Heroes League and was presented with an award at Target Field," said Sheryl. "Players from the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Minnesota Wild teams presented the award."

As he gets closer to graduation, Lilya is thinking about his future. He said he still has dreams about participating in the Olympics, but he is also interested in joining the military.

"I talked to Sen. Al Franken's office staff a couple of weeks ago," said Dan Lilya. "They said there is some talk about finding some role for people who are not normally accepted into the military. Danny wants to fly drones."

Danny Lilya admitted he had a drone, but crashed it on its first flight.

As he looks back on all of the honors and awards that have come his way, Lilya is in awe.

"It is crazy to be doing all of this at the age of 16," he said. "I've had a lot of cool experiences."

Dan is pleased with his son's reaction to the fame.

"He's pretty grounded," he said. "He hasn't let all of this go to his head. He has a lot of humility."

"He doesn't let the wheelchair hold him back," said Sheryl. "The whole town has been great."


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