KALISPELL — Under the bright stadium lights earlier this month, Lex Hilliard watched the Jets warm up for their football game.
Except instead of the colossal professionals from New York, a different pint-size team of green jerseys surrounded “Coach Lex” — rambunctious 8- and 9-year-olds wearing shorts and mouth guards.
It was game night in the Flathead County flag football league and the fields at Conrad Complex were buzzing with excitement. After a series of pregame drills, Coach Lex called his team of 11 players into a huddle. He squatted down so that he was eye-to-eye with the youngsters and offered some final advice: play as a team, and, just as importantly, have fun.
That’s how it all started for him — 20 years ago, as a 9-year-old learning the basics of football and soaking up the action on the green fields near Woodland Park.
“The flags still look the same,” he said later. “It’s kind of weird going back to those fields and seeing the same things. That’s where I grew up.”
The Kalispell native is back home, his journey as a football player arriving full circle.
Hilliard, the star from Flathead High who became one of the all-time great Montana Grizzlies before earning a place among the NFL elite, is now writing a new chapter of his inspiring legacy.
At 29 years old and facing potential free agency at the end of the season, the 5-foot-11, 235-pound fullback is attempting a comeback from major injury once again.
The shoulder blade is one of the sturdiest parts of the body. Most people who break it are involved in a high-speed car accident.
Hilliard fractured his in the NFL equivalent: crashing through a gridiron maze of players fighting to survive in the fierce world of professional football. On the eve of his sixth season — a hallmark achievement for a sixth-round draft pick out of Montana — Hilliard fractured his scapula in training camp. He went from being able to bench press 385 pounds to struggling to hold the bar.
The New York Jets placed the fullback on injured reserve — out for the entire season — and sent him to surgery.
After surgery he had a choice: rehab at the team headquarters or heal back home.
There was no question.
Within days of his procedure, Hilliard returned to his roots in Kalispell where he is healing up and sharing his passion for the sport with a new generation at the same time.
“It’s good to be back,” he said. “I wanted to take that opportunity to come back and spend time with my family. I haven’t been back home this time of year forever. I’m thrown off a little bit still.”
After returning a month ago, Hilliard looked into signing up his son, Lex Jr., for flag football. The season lineup was already established and the teams were filled up, so Hilliard offered to coach if they would create a new one.
“It’s fun to get out there and be able to teach the kids things that I’ve learned along the line of playing football all my life,” he said. “I want them to have fun out there and to know that it’s all about playing as a team. Sometimes it’s hard to see that as a kid. Maybe you’re not getting the ball at a certain play, but you’re still important.
I’m trying to instill that in them: what’s best for the team is best.”
Five days a week Hilliard is also working at Orthopedic Rehab in Kalispell, regaining his strength with one goal in mind — returning to the NFL. That will mean proving the naysayers wrong as he did in college, when he suffered a ruptured Achilles, another major injury with a difficult recovery.
“Some people said I wouldn’t be back when I tore my Achilles. I did and played my whole senior year,” he said. “I played the whole season with a torn rotator cuff and torn labrum. I just played through it. I pride myself on playing through those major things and being able to come back from it.”
Since graduating and being drafted in the 2008 NFL Draft, Hilliard has become a respected workhorse. Over his career, he has 163 total rushing yards and two touchdowns, but has been considered a prime special teams player and sturdy fullback who fills a key role.
He’s also become an inspiring player from Montana who has gone on to achieve the rare dream of playing in the NFL.
“You’d never think he would run with such savagery because he was such a laid-back guy and soft spoken and a real nice kid,” said Grady Bennett, Glacier football coach and a former Flathead coach of Hilliard’s. “He was always big and powerful. Sometimes you know a kid is going to get to the next level and commit himself and work hard. I knew that would happen for Lex.”
Hilliard has already surpassed the average lifespan of an NFL player. He spent four seasons in Miami, appearing in 48 games for the Dolphins as a backup running back and special teams player. Last year Hilliard bounced around for short stints with Minnesota and New England before landing in New York, where he signed a one-year contract in the offseason.
“It will come back, slowly,” he said. “My shoulder is starting to respond again. I just have to build from the ground up again. It’s small steps, but you have to crawl before you can walk.”