The early days of Brian Hilk’s football career were like that of many children growing up in Toledo, Ohio, filled with spirited games and learning processes.
That meant there were a few bumps along the road.
One such instance came in second grade while playing for the Northwood Knights.
“We were ready to score, near the goal line, and I jumped offside. It cost us the championship,” said Hilk, who graduated from Trinity in 1987.
When Hilk’s family moved to Washington, he joined Brownson House and developed into a solid player.
By the time he was playing on varsity at Trinity, there were many good days, but also some unusual ones.
“One year, I was worried we couldn’t play (because), about two days before the season started, our coach, Dr. Terry Kushner, quit to take another job. There was talk the program would be cancelled,” Hilk recalled.
But the Hillers found a replacement in former head coach Bob Johnson, who was working as an assistant for Jim Render at Upper St. Clair. Johnson, who coached the Hillers from 1974 through 1981, returned to Trinity and filled the coaching void.
“I had a chance to go back (to Trinity). Jim (Render) didn’t want me to leave, but he knew it was a great opportunity to go back to a program that I loved,” Johnson explained.
The 1984 season was one to forget.
“We were 0-10. The soccer team shared a state title that year, 16 overtimes, no winner. We played tough teams in Quad-A football,” Hilk said.
As a junior, Hilk became a leader of a Hillers squad that found the road to success.
“We held training camp at the middle school,” Hilk said. “It was two weeks. No parents allowed. We were not permitted to go home. We practiced there and stayed there, sleeping in the gym.”
The Hillers’ turnaround began with a 5-5 record, after an 0-5 start. That momentum carried into next year.
“We were 9-0,” Hilk said of that 1986 season. “In the last game of the year, we were at home, hosting Canon-McMillan at W&J’s field. We were leading 20-0, but we lose 21-20 when a transfer player from Germany kicked a long field goal. In the WPIAL playoffs, we beat Derry. In the second round, we lost to Kiski, 28-20.”
The captain of the Hillers was Hilk, a rugged running back and hard-hitting linebacker. He was selected all-conference and all-state.
“Brian had the respect of his teammates,” Johnson said. “That respect made his teammates better. That also goes for the coaching staff. All the opponents we faced respected him.”
Many college football programs took notice of the linebacker who made tackles from sideline to sideline. Syracuse and Akron offered Hilk scholarships.
Former Pitt assistant and Penn Hills head coach Andy Urbanick, along with Trinity great Bob Junko, recruited Hilk for Akron.
“My uncle Ben told me that if I wanted to play in the NFL, go to Syracuse and play fullback. I chose Akron. (Syracuse was) wishy-washy when they heard Akron made me an offer,” Hilk explained.
“I liked the idea that Akron jumped from Division I-AA to I-A. It helped that Gerry Faust, who coached at Notre Dame, was the head coach. But it was Urbanick who convinced me to go to Akron.”
Hilk had four productive seasons with the Zips, being named captain of the defense during his junior and senior seasons. He was named the Zips’ Defensive Player of the Year in his final season. His playing career, however, did not end in Akron. He went north to start a pro career.
“I played for several teams in the CFL (Canadian Football League),” he said. “One year at Hamilton, one year in Toronto, one year in Shreveport. That’s where I met (former Cincinnati Bengals head coach) Forrest Gregg.”
That was when the CFL attempted expansion into the United States by putting franchises in Shreveport, La., and Baltimore.
“It was fun,” Hilk said. “I even played against Doug Flutie.”
But injuries slowed Hilk and the emotion he had for the game ebbed.
“I could have played for 10 more years. I just didn’t want to,” said Hilk, who once set a CFL record with four tackles for a loss in one quarter. “I made $72,000 a year in the early ’90s, which is not bad for playing a game I love.”
Johnson ranks Hilk among the best football players to come out of this area.
“The best I’ve seen was Doug Kotar. But Brian Hilk’s intensity, he gave 100 percent every time. He was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen or coached.” Johnson said.
Hilk was inducted into the Washington-Greene chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.
Bill DiFabio writes a bi-weekly column on local sports history for the Observer-Reporter.