KALISPELL – About three weeks ago, Lex Hilliard got off work at LaSalle Sand & Gravel and dashed home to take a shower with the intention of joining his family at Kalispell Regional Medical Center.
Rebekah Hilliard and four of their five children were already there, visiting Hilliard’s mother, Leslie Moeller, who had just undergone surgery for lung cancer.
Hilliard, the former University of Montana running back whose NFL career was cut short by injury in 2013, never made it to the hospital.
“Literally when I got out of the shower, fire alarms started going off,” Hilliard says. “I ran downstairs and the whole living room was lit up. I tried putting it out with my towel, but it was just blazing.”
He called 911, got the family’s two dogs out of the house, but couldn’t locate their two cats.
Firefighters were on the scene in six minutes, Hilliard says, but the fire consumed much of the family’s possessions – including photographs, and mementos from his playing days – and smoke damaged the rest.
The second-story shower he’d just been in crashed through to the first floor, as did the bathroom’s sink.
“We pretty much lost everything in the living room, kitchen, dining room, upstairs bedroom and bathroom,” Hilliard says.
The Hilliards were renting the house, he says, and did not have renter’s insurance.
“One of those things,” he says. “Even when we were living in Miami, never thought about having it.”
The culprit: A burning log that had rolled out of the fireplace earlier in the day.
Hilliard says he had doused the area with water and cleaned it up, but obviously missed a burning ember somewhere in the carpeting.
As firefighters fought the blaze, Hilliard called his wife at the hospital. They made the decision not to tell the children about the cats, which they would later discover had hidden, and died, in the bedroom.
“We just told the kids the cats had run away,” he says, but word has a way of spreading. A week ago, when the family was eating at a restaurant, their waitress told them how sorry she was about the fire – and added she was especially sorry to hear some of the pets had died.
“It’s been tough,” Hilliard says. “The good thing is my mom’s surgery went well, and she’s recovering quickly.”
Indeed, three weeks after undergoing surgery for lung cancer, Leslie Moeller is organizing a benefit for her son and his family Sunday at 3 p.m. at Fatt Boy’s Sports Bar in Kalispell.
News of the benefit has spread word of the fire wider, but Hilliard – who rushed for more than 4,000 yards and 50 touchdowns during his Grizzly career – says he’s heard from several former teammates and coaches, including his head coach at UM, Bobby Hauck.
The Hilliards are staying with friends in Bigfork, JD and Rachael Billmeyer, and Lex says he’s unsure what the future holds.
“To tell you the truth, I haven’t got that far,” he says. “I’m trying to make life as normal as I can for my family right now. I’m trying to accomplish that.”
He has five children. The oldest, Chantelle, is grown, but there are four still at home: 16-year-old Brayden, 14-year-old Dalton, 10-year-old Lex Jr. and Adriana, who is 5, and who lost all her toys in the fire.
Hilliard was drafted in the sixth round of the 2008 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins, where he was joined by Grizzly placekicker Dan Carpenter, who signed as a free agent.
On Dec. 27, 2009, Hilliard and Carpenter accounted for every point the Dolphins scored in a 27-20 loss to the Houston Texans.
All the points came after Houston had taken a 27-0 lead. Hilliard scored twice, on a 2-yard run and a 10-yard pass from quarterback Chad Henne. Carpenter kicked both PATs, and field goals of 27 and 38 yards.
After three years with the Dolphins, Hilliard played briefly for the New England Patriots in 2012, recording one carry for 2 yards, then signed with the New York Jets.
During the 2013 preseason he fractured his right shoulder blade, ending his career.
In addition to his day job, Hilliard is an assistant football coach at his alma mater, Flathead High School.