Hilliard Family Coping with Losses After House Fire

Fatt Boys Sports Bar is hosting a March 20 benefit for Lex Hilliard and his family

By Dillon Tabish
Lex Hilliard. Beacon File Photo

The chaotic scream of fire alarms echoed throughout Lex Hilliard’s home as he stepped out of the shower. Wearing only a towel, he rushed downstairs. The living room was ablaze.

“The room was lit up. I tried to put it out, but it happened so fast. There was flames everywhere,” he said, recalling the evening of Feb. 19.

“I’ve had dreams about it every single night since.”

Within a matter of minutes, Hilliard was standing helplessly in his front yard watching his home in West Valley burn. His wife, Rebekah, and their four kids were away, and he was able to rescue his two dogs. But the family’s two cats remained trapped inside, along with the family’s possessions and livelihood.

“The windows were breaking out. I could hear them popping and cracking while I called 911,” he said. “I tried to go back inside and find the cats. I kicked in the front door to try to give them a way out. It was way too hot to go back in.”

The fire department responded within six minutes of Hilliard’s call. But the flames had already swept the home where the family has lived for nearly three years. The cats were lost, along with almost all of the family’s belongings. Many irreplaceable items from Hilliard’s NFL career were destroyed, along with his kids’ toys and family photos. The walls of the home remained standing but the interior was fully scorched.

According to Hilliard and an investigation by the fire department, a log had fallen out of the family’s fireplace earlier in the day and started a small fire, but even after the family suppressed it, some of the embers remained hidden and quietly simmered before erupting into a large blaze that night.

Now Hilliard, the all-time great Kalispell athlete who defied the odds as a star running back at Flathead High School and built himself an NFL career as a backup and special teams player before watching it abruptly end to injury three years ago, finds himself at a familiar place in life.

“I’ve been tested throughout my life with adversity. You think everything is all good and then you break something on your body or something like this happens and you have to go back to the drawing board. You have to figure it out. You can’t lay down in the ditch and cry about it,” said Hilliard, who works at LaSalle Sand & Gravel and is an assistant coach for the Flathead football team. “My family is depending on me. My kids are depending on me. I have to keep it together for them.”

Hilliard, his wife and their four kids, ranging in ages from 16 to 5, are staying with a friend in Bigfork.

“You just keep pushing forward,” he said. “I keep reminding myself that I have my health. I have my kids’ healthy.”

While Hilliard works to figure out his family’s future, the community he inspired over the years has already stepped up in many ways. Kyle Samson, a teacher and the head football coach at Flathead, has been receiving private donations for the family, and a 50/50 drawing was held at a recent Flathead basketball game.

Hilliard’s mother, Leslie, is organizing a fundraiser for her son’s family. A benefit for the Hilliards is being held at Fatt Boys Sports Bar in Kalispell on Sunday, March 20. The event starts at 3 p.m. and will feature a spaghetti feed and silent auction. Donations will be appreciated.

The soft-spoken kid from Kalispell holds a special place in local sports lore. As a junior for the Flathead Braves, he set a school record by rushing for 1,348 yards. By his senior year, he was recruited by Notre Dame, Oregon State and California, among other schools. He chose to stay close to home and attended the University of Montana, where he took the Big Sky Conference by storm and developed into one of the all-time great Grizzlies.

But in the midst of a record-breaking career in Missoula, he ruptured his Achilles tendon and was forced him to sit out an entire year to rehab. He bounced back and rushed for 1,132 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior. The Miami Dolphins selected Hilliard in the sixth round of the 2008 NFL Draft and he carved out a professional career as a backup running back and special teams player over the next six years.

During training camp for the New York Jets in 2013, Hilliard suffered a major injury, fracturing his right scapula. He underwent surgery and returned to his hometown to rehab. The injury eventually signaled the end of his professional career. He has found a new job and has taken the opportunity to give back to his community by coaching youth football teams and joining the Flathead staff to shape a new generation of athletes.

For more information about the March 20 benefit, contact 249-3403.

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