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Wheelchair Doesn't Stop Moose Lake Football Player From Playing, Inspiring

MOOSE LAKE, Minn. (WCCO) -- When you've won 11 section titles the last 17 years and gone to state the last 10 years in a row, the typical excitement over the hometown team is magnified even more.

"Rebel football in Moose Lake is pretty big," said Dan Lilya. "It's the biggest sport this town has."

They're one of the best high school football programs in the state.

And he's in a wheelchair.

But what seemed like an impossibility, serves as an inspiration in this northern Minnesota town.

"Just to be a part of that," Lilya said, "I think really he has a lot of pride."

He is Danny Lilya, the Rebels' holder for extra points and field goals – perhaps the least likely person in school to play football, who just might be the proudest Rebel of them all.

"Nobody really thinks that you can play football while disabled," Danny said. "But here we are now."

Danny's parents knew he'd never walk before he was even born.

"We had an ultrasound," said his mom, Sheryl Lilya. "And they were going, 'There's the five fingers, there's five fingers here. There's five toes, there's five toes. Do you want to know the sex?' We're like 'Yeah.' 'It's a boy, here's the face.' And then they went up and down the spine. And then she would pause. And then she'd go up and down the spine, up and down the spine on the ultrasound. And I said, 'There's something wrong, isn't there?'"

Danny was born with a broken back, caused by a spinal birth defect.

"They did a spinal reconstructive surgery when he was six months old," Sheryl said. "And he was in a body cast from six months to one. But he didn't ever know that he was any different until he was three."

He's been determined not to be, ever since.

Danny likes to remind people that he's just a normal kid – hangs out with friends, gets decent grades, occasionally goofs off in shop class.

"Just have wheels for legs," he said.

When you experience the world through a wheelchair, what seems normal to you can seem extraordinary to others.

Like being on the football team.

I mean, why wouldn't he be?

Which is why when a teammate suggested at the end of last season that Danny should be the team's holder, his reaction?

"I'm like, 'Yeah, I can do that,'" he said, matter of factly. "Talked to the coach about it, and he liked the idea."

"Part of Rebel football has always been including everybody," said coach Dave Louzek. "And we've had a lot of kids as a part of our program that have been what other places would consider non-athletes. We really try and create a family atmosphere here."

"He always says everybody has a role on the team," Danny said. "So, I guess I found mine. And it's just unbelievable."

Like a lot of small-school teams, the Rebels go for two most of the time. So Danny doesn't get into every game. The opposing coach and referees have to OK it too.

But when he does?

"When you finally do get in, it's just the best feeling in the world," Danny said, "being able to finally be part of a team that accepts you and likes you for who you are."

"They welcomed him with open arms," Sheryl said. "And it's something he can do with the boys in his grade and a few grades ahead of him and be part of a team, in our small town."

"The wheelchair kind of becomes invisible," said Danny's dad, Dan. "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."

"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."

Just like Danny Lilya.

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