Dylan Ilario didn't plan on becoming a student coach.
The West Islip senior dreamed of starring in football and lacrosse, but three times those dreams were torn apart along with the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. His spirit, however, remained unbreakable.
"I never really defined myself as an athlete. I always wanted more out of life," said Ilario, who is headed to Penn State. "I saw myself more as a leader than as an athlete."
So did West Islip lacrosse coach Scott Craig, who recently earned his 400th win but never had a student assistant. "We brought him in with the idea that he'd work with the juniors and sophomores rather than with his senior peers," Craig said. "But the thing that surprised me was how he has talked to his senior peers about the opportunity they have that he doesn't have. How they need to appreciate it and not take it for granted.
"To be able to still embrace that leadership role even though he's not on the field is a great maturity thing for him. And it's great to see the other guys on the team respond. He's still a high school kid. They tease him. They give him nicknames. But you can see how much they respect him. He's a kid we never wanted to lose from our family."
Senior goalie Jack Kelly, a close friend of Ilario's, said: "He's an inspiration to all of us. If you're having a bad day, you see him come out to practice every day with a smile on his face and you think about what he's been through. None of us have been through that. He's got a lot of pride. That's why he does this every day when he doesn't have to."
In Ilario's mind, however, he does have to. Coaching heals the wounds. He recalls, sometimes choking up with emotion, all the details of his ACL history. All the drives to a rehab facility in Garden City four days a week. All the hours spent in the weight room that have pumped him up to a 6-3, 205-pounder who looks like the fearless running back and defenseman he would have been.
He remembers the eight months of rehab after the first knee injury, which was suffered when he was a freshman playing JV football. He skipped football season as a sophomore to be ready for lacrosse and has total recall of the day he tore his ACL in the same spot during an indoor practice. Thirteen months of rehab followed, as a determined Ilario wanted college recruiters to see him play lacrosse in his junior year.
"In March, first day of practice, I was fine. My knee felt good. Running sprints. Cutting fine," Ilario said, eyes bright. "Then a week into practice, I tore my ACL again. I pretty much threw in the towel as a player right there."
His eyes moistened as he remembered that his mom was at the gym that day and she and assistant coach Jon Reese brought him home.
"I was just sitting there, all choked up. I knew this was the end of my athletic career,'' he said. "I'd been working for more than a year for this and it was all gone. But I looked coach Reese in the eye and I told him, 'No matter what just happened to my knee, this isn't stopping me from achieving what I want to do in life.' "
Maybe he couldn't play sports again, or attend West Point and serve in the military. "It was definitely a dark time in my life," he said. "But I got over it pretty quickly."
That's because he has so much more to give, and because Craig was there with an outlet for Ilario's boundless spirit.
This was no token favor, either. Ilario doesn't break down video or get involved with strategy -- "Mr. Craig just got his 400th win. He's had a little success, you know," he laughed. But he runs the practice drills for the underclassmen, grabs a stick to warm up the goalies if necessary and, perhaps most importantly, gives impromptu pep talks.
It started with the Chaminade game March 31, an annual non-league matchup of two national powers. "I went to bed the night before, angry and upset that I wasn't going to play," he recalled. "I remember growing up, I'd always watched the Chaminade game on TV. I remember thinking, 'Someday that's going to be me. I'm going to be out there.' And now I wasn't going to get that chance. So I decided to give a speech before the game."
The Lions suffered their only loss of the season that day, 7-6, on a goal with 13 seconds left, but Ilario had made an impact. "I had guys coming up to me after the game and saying, regardless that we lost, how much the speech meant to them and how much they respect me," he said. "It was really hard, but I could see tears in kids' eyes. That meant a lot that I could connect with them as peers. Now I do it before really big games."
Kelly said the Lions have welcomed Ilario's input. "He is 100 percent part of the team and he means a lot to every kid here. Everyone looks up to him. He's a role model. Most of his speeches are about, 'This is the day. It could be your last. Don't let it pass.' He's mature way beyond his years."
Ilario's words offer proof of that maturity. "The situation I'm in now, I'd never change it for the world," he said. "I'm a stronger, better person now than I was three years ago. I wouldn't change all my injuries, all my adversity for anything. The journey and the lessons I've learned are just incredible."