Locked-out NFL player makes time for alma mater
A few familiar faces were still at the school, where Lilja was among its first students. His sixth-grade tile still had its spot along a wall in the school’s hallway — though he said he now wished he’d have another shot at making a better one. And while Lilja hadn’t been inside the building in at least a dozen years, the place looked familiar with one exception.
“It feels a lot smaller than when I was last here,” Lilja said.
Lilja returned May 17 to speak to schoolchildren during an assembly about setting and following goals. Art teacher Paul Elo reached out to his former pupil earlier this year and served as moderator during the assembly, which ended with a brief question-and-answer session.
Elo’s crowd control faced its most onerous challenge when Lilja exhibited pride in one of his alma maters, Kansas State University. Though a few cheers met him, a faint chorus of boos could be heard.
That would be the most controversial the assembly became. Even when Lilja was asked why he was removed from the Shawnee Mission Northwest football team during his senior season after starting the previous three years, he was open and added insight.
“My school had a zero tolerance policy about drugs and alcohol,” Lilja said. “And I drank beer. Don’t drink beer, guys.”
Lilja rebounded from that setback by spending two years starting on the offensive line at Coffeyville Community College before receiving a scholarship from Kansas State in 2002. There he started 14 games over two years and was named second-team All-Big 12.
In 2004, Lilja was signed by the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent, but he was waived just before the regular season began. Before coming back home, Lilja would spend six seasons with the Indianapolis Colts blocking for quarterback Peyton Manning. Lilja started every game for the Colts during his second season in the league. The next year, he helped his team win a Super Bowl.
He wore the oversized and amply-studded ring at the assembly, promising to bring one back with an arrowhead on it.
He also told the audience the ring wouldn’t have been on his finger without the three things he wanted students to remember from the assembly: having dreams, working hard and helping others.
“This ring right here wouldn’t say Lilja on it, it wouldn’t be mine without the help of other people, people who care,” he said.
Lilja was joined by his wife, Jessica, whom he called his favorite teammate when the question was asked. Jessica also attended Shawnee Mission Northwest and the two are expecting their first child, a girl, in August.
Elo said Lilja’s message was referenced in the days following the assembly, as he said he wanted to remind students to be thinking about their aspirations — be it for the summer or in the longer term — with the idea of working toward those goals.
In Lilja, Elo saw a student who did just that.
“He’s been dreaming since he was a little kid,” Elo said.