VERMILLION — There’s a particular quote Stephen Hillis likes to borrow.

It was originally attributed to Franklin Roosevelt, but Hillis remembers his father, who served in the United States Navy, always saying it.

‘A calm sea never made a skilled sailor.’

Or in other words, it’s the obstacles in life that define you.

“It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you respond,” Hillis said.

Little did he realize, Hillis would be thrust into a situation where those words were necessary to overcome a significant personal challenge. He was forced to respond.

Hillis, a Hartington (Nebraska) native, had a specific plan for his life: He was going to play Division I college football at the Air Force Academy and someday become a pilot. It’s what his grandfather and both parents has done, and Hillis was going to follow in their footsteps.

Then came shocking news.

Hillis, who had already battled back from a knee injury, was informed he has Type 1 diabetes.

He wasn’t going to be able to live out his military dream, so Hillis had to find a new path in life. That led him to the University of South Dakota, where’s now a freshman linebacker for the Division I Coyotes.

“This is a great example of someone taking a different path than what they thought it would be,” said Chad Cattau, who coached Hillis at Hartington Cedar Catholic High School.

All you can do is trust in the process, no matter where it takes you.

“He was so excited to join the Air Force and begin working on his life goals there, but God had a different plan for him,” Cattau added.

— — —

There had been zero indications that Hillis might have had diabetes.

His mother, after all, is a doctor, “so she would have known.”

The first sign that something wasn’t quite right came when Hillis lost 15 pounds in the week leading up to fall camp — which featured regular weigh-ins — at Air Force.

“I definitely wasn’t trying to do that, so I figured something was wrong,” he said before USD’s practice

Not even a binge of pizza and chicken wings one weekend made a difference. Hillis kept losing weight.

He had never faced a medical condition. All of those years when Hillis was a three-sport standout at Cedar Catholic (he is a 2017 graduate), he never had issues. Instead, he had plenty of success.

Hillis was an all-state football player, an all-state basketball player and a school record holder in the 200-meter dash in track.

Life changes directions, though.

Now he’s in a position where he has to monitor what he eats and has to match his insulin to his carb intake.

“Fortunately here (at USD), we have Gatorade and everything to keep you good,” Hillis said.

— — —

Rather than sulk about having to be discharged from the Air Force Academy last year, Hillis embraced another of his passions.


He wasn’t ready to be done.

He took a visit to USD last fall and realized he could still follow his football dream much closer to home — Vermillion is 32 miles from Hartington.

“I really liked it here, so I decided this was the place for me,” Hillis said.

“Football has always been a dream of mine, and I’m just happy to continue that,” he added.

As a freshman in USD’s pool of linebackers, Hillis certainly has an up-hill climb to see the field this fall, but he’s already made a mark on the program.

“He’s a great kid; a great young man,” head coach Bob Nielson said Wednesday.

Not to mention a natural leader.

Or, as Nielson put it, “the kind of guy you definitely want representing your program.”

It’s high praise that is warranted, according to Hillis’ former coach.

“I have great confidence that he will be a model student and athlete for USD,” Cattau said. “Someone with his character and attitude will succeed in everything they set out to accomplish in life.”

Follow @jhoeck on Twitter

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