Lilja’s NFL experience benefits son, Warren football program

George Vincent Lilja (born March 3, 1958) is a former professional American football offensive lineman who played for several National Football League teams over the course of (eight) seasons. He is also a former collegiate All-American center for the Michigan Wolverines football team. He was a member of the 1980 Big Ten Conference Champions who played in the 1981 Rose Bowl.

That’s the opening paragraph of George Lilja’s Wikipedia page.

Here, in Warren, he’s just dad.

A dad who works at Warren General Hospital and is a volunteer coach for his son’s freshmen football team.

“It’s a win-win around here, because my son is there,” said Lilja.

“Duke” Lilja is a ninth-grader at Warren Area High School, and a lineman – like his father was.

Football has given the father and son something special to share, even if Duke doesn’t invest as much time as his former NFL lineman father did when he was his age.

“I started football around seventh grade,” said Duke, having just completed his third year, as a back-up on Warren Area High School’s freshmen football team. “I wanted to meet new people and try to make friends.”

Prior to moving to Warren, Duke had only played lacrosse.

But he does admit to bragging to his friends – when he lived in Ohio – that his father used to play for the Cleveland Browns.

“At first when I played football I kind of pictured it as a social thing, and didn’t really look for dad for advice,” said Duke.

So dad was dad, unobtrusive and supportive.

As time passed, “I told him I’d really like to stay with it,” said Duke of football. “Dad helped me at home and stuff (with technique).”

There gradually became a wonderful relationship between Lilja and freshmen coaches John Hamm and Kevin Reagle, who have coached Duke on teams in seventh, eighth and ninth grades.

Like Reagle says of George Lilja, “it’s not often you are standing next to a guy that stood next to Bo Schembechler on the sidelines,” and played in front of a hundred thousand people at Michigan Stadium.

Reagle said he embraces the fact that Lilja can pass along his experience of playing in the NFL to this young group.

“I’m never involved in X’s and O’s,” said Lilja. “Kevin and John did a fabulous job with (the team). I’m there to motivate and encourage those kids the best I can. I think they appreciated someone to come back and share. As far as coaching goes, I love the fact I’m able to give back, which was a great experience to me. I have more fun than the kids.”

Being a former NFL lineman has its benefits.

“As an NFL alumni, we occasionally get information sent to us,” he said.

On the NFL Foundation website, Lilja was made aware of a grant available for former NFL players who coach to assist non-profit youth or high school football programs. Through Lilja, Warren’s varsity football team secured a $5,000 grant from the NFL Foundation to help pay for new uniforms and weight room equipment.

Lilja was also invited to attend a four-day high school football summit at the Canton Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, last July with 20 other NFL players and over 400 high school football coaches.

“I represented Warren Area High School as an ambassador to youth sports, promoting safe ‘Heads Up’ football (a way of safer tackling at the youth level being supported by the NFL).”

The fact Lilja has long been a part of Christian athlete groups and writes and speaks about his Christian faith makes it so much more than a “win-win” for Warren Area High School.

“I tell fathers to coach their sons; there’s nothing like it,” said Lilja. “Those kids were just a joy to be around this year. It was great to see the chemistry come. I think the best part about coaching is seeing them grow up and advance their skills.”

Much like his own son, Duke, who admits, “I’m not built like a lineman.

“But I’ve been working hard on technique, now I just have to work on strength,” said Duke.

Something he’ll surely work on with his father’s support.