Vikings Specialists Help Surprise Paralyzed Holder with Super Bowl Tickets

Posted Dec 15, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — The snap was on point, the hold was perfect and the kick was good.

While the 33-yard field goal that played out Wednesday morning at U.S. Bank Stadium didn’t actually send the Vikings to the Super Bowl, it was a special moment nonetheless.

That’s because the holder on the play was Danny Lilya, a high school junior.

Lilya, who is paralyzed from the waist down, is the holder for the Moose Lake-Willow River football program. He filled in for Vikings punter/holder Ryan Quigley to team up with long snapper Kevin McDermott and kicker Kai Forbath for a few kicks.

And when the one that imaginarily sent the Vikings to Super Bowl LII sailed through the uprights, the trio of Vikings congratulated Lilya, who was unaware of a special message that had popped up on the video boards at the stadium.

“At first I didn’t notice it. He kicked the ball, and it went through, I was watching to see if it went through,” Lilya said. “Then I kind of saw the screen switch in the background, but I didn’t really pay attention to it because I thought the screen was kind of doing its own thing. 

“But then they started clapping and told me, ‘We’re going to the Super Bowl and to look up there.’ Then it was like, ‘Wow,’ ” added Lilya, who arrived at the stadium thinking he was just going on a tour and would meet the players.

On one of the best days of his life, Lilya was presented with two tickets to Super Bowl LII through the team’s Heart of a Viking campaign. Lilya and a guest will be in attendance at the sport’s biggest spectacle on Feb. 4, 2018, in Minneapolis.

The news took a few seconds to register with the 16-year-old, who excitedly uttered, ‘Holy ****,’ as he held two oversized replica tickets in his hand.

“Once he realized it was real, it was awesome,” Quigley said. “We tried to build it up a little bit … Kai hit the game winner to go to the Super Bowl. It was a special memory for him.”

Sheryl Lilya, Danny’s mother, added: “I know he’s excited because he’s almost speechless. And he’s never speechless.”

Lilya was born with a broken back, and his parents knew that he would never walk. Instead of being aligned, his T-12 and L-1 vertebrae were off kilter and there was excess spinal cord fluid in the area. 

Yet despite having surgery when he was just 6 months old and being in a full body cast for the following six months, Lilya has thrived.

“Not everybody who is disabled gets the chance to play sports, much less able-bodied sports,” Lilya said. “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,” Lilya added. “My teammates treat me like a normal person, not like I’m in a wheelchair.”

Lilya plays sled hockey, softball and track, but has a special passion for football.

Although Lilya saw the field a few times as a freshman, he approached Louzek, the Rebels Head Coach, at the end of his ninth-grade season with a special request.

“He got on the field as a defensive player, end-of-the-game and last-play-of-the-game type situations,” Louzek said. “At the end of (his freshman) season, he came to me an said, ‘Coach, I’d really like to play an important role on this team.’ He had the idea of being a holder for us.

“Danny is such a great kid,” Louzek added. “In school, he’s a great student, and on the field he’s such a great teammate. He’s very deserving of this honor.”

Lilya has been the Rebels holder the past two seasons, playing a key role for the program. But he might just be the best holder in the state now that he spent time with the three Vikings specialists.

Not that Lilya needed many tips.

“I didn’t have to give him much (advice),” Quigley said. “He had it pretty down pat … he knew where to put his hands and how to catch the ball.

“From a fan’s perspective, it’s one of those things that is kind of overlooked. There’s a lot that goes into holding, it’s a very difficult skill to master but he’s done it,” Quigley added. “We made all of our kicks, he was putting them down no problem. That’s tough to do with an NFL snapper, those guys don’t snap it slow.”

Added McDermott: “He was a great holder! Good hands … big hands. He was making me look good.” 

Lilya said he would have been perfectly happy with meeting players and watching the specialists’ usual Wednesday morning practice at the stadium.

But the fact that he is going to Super Bowl LII was hard to put into words. 

“Unforgettable,” Lilya said. “This is a day I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”

The emotional moment also made an impact on the Vikings players, who noted they won’t forget a special day with an extraordinary teenager.

“This is what it’s all about. This is just one of those incredible stories that makes you take a step back,” Quigley said. “You realize how lucky and grateful we are. 

“He came in with a smile on his face and not a worry in the world,” Quigley later added. “He’s going places.”

Added McDermott: “It’s great that we have the Super Bowl here this year, and that we get to do things like this for some of our most die-hard fans who really deserve it. And Danny absolutely deserves it.”