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updated: 11/14/2013 10:25 PM

By being himself, Hilgart inspires those around him

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    JOHN STARKS | Staff Photographer


Kevin Hilgart laid prone on Carthage's Art Keller Field on the Red Men's senior day game against Wisconsin-Superior. A solemn, gathering crowd encircled him, awaiting the ambulance. Rain fell on his face to blend with tears as Hilgart realized 17 years of competitive soccer had come to a shocking end.

The senior midfielder's left foot jutted out at a grotesque angle behind him, a routine slide tackle gone horribly wrong. Broken tibia, dislocated ankle, torn ligaments that subsequent surgery required a metal plate and eight screws to reassemble.

Above the hush Hilgart heard voices advising him to try to remain calm. He breathed deeply, turned the tables, tried to lighten the mood.

"It's not supposed to be there?" he said of the mangled ankle.

Hilgart, a 2010 Geneva graduate who was the Western Sun Conference's MVP and a Vikings team captain as a senior, has the gift to transform potentially painful situations into unifying and positive experiences for him and those around him.

"He really is a magical personality," said Carthage associate athletic director Dr. Gary Williams, also Hilgart's first-year adviser.

A young homosexual man -- a gay male athlete, more curious and contemptuous even nowadays -- Hilgart tired of hiding that part of himself. During the process of "coming out" to his parents, his teammates, his friends and classmates, Hilgart courageously removed that burden from his shoulders and created an environment of acceptance. Starting with himself.

"I think there's not enough representation in the media (of gay athletes) and I think that there are stigmas and just different things that are societal norms that pull people back from being the entire person that they should be, that they're born to be, and that they want to be," said Hilgart, 21, a graphic design major with a minor in communications.

"I think my story could actually help others because not only did I come out to my friends, to my family, I had to come out to three different soccer teams within the span of a year," he said.

Hilgart's feelings of homosexuality fully surfaced around middle school. As far back as first grade, he said, cutely, he felt John Stamos' "Uncle Jesse" character on the "Full House" television show had a certain appeal.

Broaching the topic publicly weighed on his mind daily for a year, Hilgart said over the phone from Kenosha, Wis. He first approached his older sister, Kelly, during the 2009 soccer season with Geneva. His father, Bruno, recalled his son needing to tell something to him and his wife, Mary, about a month later, before Geneva's regional final victory over St. Charles East.

Kevin had always hidden his true nature, seeing girls in high school and the like. His parents naturally expected a typical 17-year-old tragedy, an unplanned pregnancy. Kevin's truth followed; pregnancy obviously was not the topic. And the roof didn't cave in.

"They were so supportive and loving," Kevin said. "They cried a little bit, but only because I had to keep it a secret for so long."

He called it both the best and the scariest day of his life. He wishes he'd done it sooner.

"It wasn't so much that I had to, it was just more for me," he said. "I just realized one day that in order to excel in any aspect at life I couldn't keep an entire part of myself secret from not only the world but to myself. When you deny yourself to the world you're really denying yourself to yourself. There's nothing OK about that."

Hilgart broke the news to friends and to both soccer teams he played for during high school -- Geneva and the Campton United Navy club he helped to a 16-Under State Cup and fourth-place national finish in 2008. He admits his peers may have been shocked but he never encountered, or stood for, bullying and negativity.

"I don't let that happen, or get affected by it," he said. "I will turn the conversation about it to a joke or a sarcastic comment, or I'll just be above it."

His true friends didn't care, and supported him. Hilgart said he actually gained friends by the disclosure. Because of him, two people told him they'd also come out and wished they hadn't feared to do so earlier.

Freshman year at Carthage had its challenges, mainly the typical first-term adjustments. Through one-on-one meetings with his new teammates and the all-pervasive social media, Hilgart's sexual inclination was out with and without his help.

Initially some may have been uncomfortable. Over time Hilgart's character and hard work on and off the soccer field made it a nonissue. As Hilgart wisely noted about interpersonal relations, a key is to "embrace your differences."

"Slowly it started to become part of the team's culture, that this is Kevin ... He's our teammate, and he's our friend," said Dr. Williams, also Carthage's director of Student Success. They've remained close since Hilgart's freshman year.

Williams has known exactly one openly gay male athlete in his 17-year career at Carthage. If the Red Men did have a problem with Hilgart's sexuality, Williams said the four-year letterman's demeanor, work rate and care for his teammates "broke that wall down."

"It really is like a little family," Williams said. "I can't say that about every team I've coached, and I can't say that about every team I've seen here. They're never going to forget each other, and they're never going to forget this season. That's what this stuff is supposed to be about."

After destroying his ankle on Carthage's senior night Hilgart left the emergency room to discover 52 text messages on his cellphone from family and friends who either saw or heard about the fateful play. He's received countless emails and Facebook posts from well-wishers he's inspired. A Twitter hashtag, #prayforkevo, circulated throughout the Kenosha campus.

Despite his surgery two days prior, in severe pain Hilgart traveled to the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin semifinal match at Elmhurst College. Before Carthage's 2-0 victory (they lost in the finals to Wheaton), Elmhurst coach Dave Di Tomasso shook his hand and congratulated him on a great career, wished him well in the future.

As Dr. Williams said: "People got to know Kevin for who he was."

Soccer player. Teammate. Student. Friend. One of us.

"Just being gay isn't the most interesting about me," said Hilgart, comfortable in his skin.

"I think that people tend to have certain stereotypes when it comes to homosexuality, but I just think that there's something to be said for being your entire self and being OK with yourself," he said. "Even if you're not homosexual or anything like that, so many people are not OK with themselves, and for people to see someone who's like a million percent confident in themselves, it can really inspire people."

Couldn't happen to a nicer guy

This space couldn't be more pleased to hear Kaneland graduate and Wheaton North boys track assistant coach Jim Martin will be among seven coaches inducted into the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame on Jan. 11. Nearly 40 coaches were nominated this year.

At Kaneland, Martin's sixth-place finish in the 220-yard dash in 1965 was the first all-state track honor by a Knight, according to Illinois High School Association records.

Martin has coached track for more than 40 years, most of them at Wheaton North. A specialist in hurdles, sprints and relays, he's helped produce 30 state medalists and eight state champions. A former head coach both of Falcons boys track and cross country teams, Martin served as mentor for current Wheaton North coach and fellow ITCCCA Hall of Famer Don Helberg. Those two have helped direct Wheaton North to 10 DuPage Valley Conference titles, eight sectional titles and third-place state finishes in 2002 and 2004.

Always smiling, Martin also is an expert gardener who knows the right places to buy the best seeds for the tastiest tomatoes.

Follow Dave on Twitter @doberhelman1

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