Without a doubt, Danny Lilya has a big fan in the Minnesota Vikings. What other teenager can say that about an NFL team?
Lilya, who was born with a broken back due to a spinal birth defect, is paralyzed from the waist down, yet he’s a four-sport athlete and one of the most reliable football specialists at the high school level. He’s the holder for extra points and field goals for the Moose Lake-Willow River football program, one of the best in Minnesota.
“Not everybody who is disabled gets the chance to play sports, much less able-bodied sports,” Lilya told the Vikings. “For me to be able to play high school football … a huge thank-you to my coach, Dave Louzek.
“It’s helped me gain independence because I’m not playing sports with other wheelchair users. It’s me all on my own. My teammates treat me like a normal person, not like I’m in a wheelchair.”
His father, Dan, confirmed that to WCCO.
“The wheelchair kind of becomes invisible,” Dan said. “Even the community, when they see him wheeling across the field, I don’t think people really see the wheelchair anymore. He is every bit a part of that program as the able-bodied athletes that are out there.”
After learning about the 16-year-old’s story, the Vikings invited Lilya in December to watch one of their special teams practices. That was a treat in itself, but then the unthinkable happened.
He was welcomed onto the field to hold for Vikings kicker Kai Forbath, who went 3-for-3 on kicks thanks in large part to the teen’s sure hands. After the last kick went through the uprights, a message flashed across the scoreboard at U.S. Bank Stadium: “Congrats Danny Lilya. You are going to the Super Bowl.”
In complete disbelief, he was surrounded by the team’s three specialists and handed the coveted tickets.
WCCO’s David McCoy asked.“Where are your seats?”
The teen said, “It doesn’t say yet. Not on my couch.”
Here’s a look at the surprise:
In addition to playing football, Lilya competes in sled hockey, softball and track.
“A wheelchair doesn’t define you,” Danny said. “If you want to do something but you’re disabled, if you have the right mindset you can still go out there and do it.”
His Vikings may not be in the big game, but their decision to send him to the Super Bowl is one worthy of a Lombardi Trophy.