Danny Lilya is a lifelong Minnesota Vikings fan, so he’s used to dealing with disappointment. But unlike a typical fan, Danny knows what it takes to rise above challenging circumstances—in Danny’s case, paralysis from the waist down—and achieve his goals.
“My first memory of the Vikings is from third grade, in 2009,” Danny recounts. “They made it to the NFC Championship game. At school we all wore Vikings jerseys and put Vikings pictures on our lockers.”
As any Vikings fan remembers, the outcome of that game was rough.
Needless to say, Danny awaited last Sunday’s game against the Eagles with hope and trepidation. And, like all Minnesotans, the team’s loss left him with obvious disappointment.
But on February 4, Super Bowl Sunday, Danny will make sure a piece of Minnesota—and the Vikings—are represented at U.S. Bank Stadium when he attends big the game with his brother, dad and high school football coach.
An All-Sport Athlete
Danny lives in Moose Lake, Minnesota, a tight-knit community south of Duluth. He’s always been an athlete—hockey, baseball and football, to name just a few. Playing the sports he loves requires some adaptation.
“I want people to know that my wheelchair doesn’t define who I am,” Danny says. “I can still do everything that a normal teenager would do.”
Danny’s spent his whole life using a wheelchair. He can’t move his legs, the result of a congenital spine defect. He underwent spinal reconstructive surgery at 6 months old and again at 1 ½, and spent most of his first two years of life in a body cast. Danny also underwent orthopedic surgeries to correct his clubfeet and straighten his tibias.
A Worthwhile Drive
Then Danny’s parents, Dan and Sheryl Lilya, discovered Gillette Children’s. They decided to permanently move Danny’s care from nearby Duluth to St. Paul, Minnesota. Danny sees Stephen Sundberg, MD and Marcie Ward, MD.
“Just the change from going from a regular clinic to a specialty clinic was huge, because he could see other kids, like him, who had different disabilities,” Sheryl says. “It was a much better fit even though it’s a farther drive for us.”
By this time Danny was 5. He looked up to his older brother Michael—the two are just 18 months apart. Michael had just started hockey and Danny wanted to play, too.
“My parents got a sled from the Duluth Courage Center so I could play Mini Mites with my brother. Everyone skated; I was the only one in a sled. In fourth grade, I found a sled hockey program in the Twin Cities,” Danny says.
In middle school, Danny became the offensive coordinator for the fifth and sixth grade football team. He joined the team in seventh grade and in ninth grade was invited to advance to the varsity team. However, much of his time was spent on the sidelines.
“Then, during the off season, we were trying to think of more ways I could get involved with the game and one of my teammates came up with the idea of me being the holder for extra points and field goals. So I talked to my coach and he loved the idea; he was totally on board with it,” says Danny. “From day one of practice of my sophomore season, I was on the field goal unit.”
Danny describes football as a brotherhood. “They see me as one of their brothers; I think the community sees me like that too. Like just another player for the Moose Lake Rebels.”
From Super Fan to the Super Bowl
In March 2017, the National Association of State High School Associations named Danny the recipient of its Spirit of Sport Award—he beat out more than 8 million high school athletes in the U.S. for the title. That fall, the Vikings also took notice of Danny, naming him a “Hometown Hero” during their Sept. 24 game against Tampa Bay.
“In December my parents were contacted by the Vikings again, saying that they wanted me to hold some field goals for the Vikings kicker, Kai Forbath,” Danny says. “And after the field goals they surprised me with two Super Bowl tickets. I was really shocked but really excited.”
Danny says he can’t wait to experience the Super Bowl, even though the Vikings won’t be playing in the big game. He planned to bring just his brother Michael until the NFL offered up two additional tickets, allowing Danny’s dad, Dan, and coach, Dave Louzek, to attend.
“I want other kids who have disabilities to feel inspired when they hear my story,” Danny says. “To figure out what they want to do, then to go out there and achieve it.”