Written by: Chris Papastefanou
On a Wednesday evening, James Hilaire sits on the all-too-familiar train ride home from work talking about his soccer-playing days knowing that a luckier break would have landed him a spot on a professional team’s roster.
Hilaire, 28, was the 2nd ranked goalkeeper in the nation during his time playing for the University of New Haven. He attended the school on a partial scholarship after completing a two-year degree at Norwalk Community College. While still playing for UNH in 2008, he joined the Westchester Flames where he assumed the back-up goaltender position. Hilaire provided much needed goal relief on the field. Coach/Part-Owner Gus Skoufis said “James was a good player. The timing, more than anything, was unfortunate for him because we already had a goaltender at the time. He got some playing time with us but he definitely deserved more.”
Although he wasn’t the starting goalkeeper he knew that if he continued to show his work ethic and determination it would all pay off some day. “Every practice, I was there. Rain or shine. It wasn’t bothering me at all that I wasn’t starting… I knew that if I kept practicing hard, I would get the chance” he said. This was a chance James never got.
Playing in goal for the New Haven Chargers on September 28, 2004, Hilaire left the net and charged a Merrimack player for the ball like he had thousands of times before in his playing career but this attempt proved to be unlike any other. The opposing player’s knee struck Hilaire’s jaw as he dived to grab the ball, breaking it instantly but also bursting a vein in his brain, a fatal injury in most cases.
Hilaire was airlifted to Boston Medical Center to get him the kind of treatment he desperately needed. Doctors told Head Coach Joshua Krusewski that he would not make it. After surgery for his broken jaw and eight days in a medically-induced coma, James finally regained consciousness. “I was in bad shape when I woke up. I had my wife (Lindsey Fox-Hilaire) right by my side but I needed help and I didn’t care where I got it from. I never would have asked for help before my injury.” James found himself in a fight to save his life, rather than saving a goal.
Paralyzed on the right side of his body, James was confined to a wheelchair just to get around. After three weeks, he was finally able to start speaking again and was transferred to a rehab center in Connecticut for continued recovery.
James thanks everybody for being there for him and the support he received. “I thank my doctors, my coach, my family, my wife and most of all God. Me being alive is a miracle from God and I am so thankful.”
His soccer days aren’t over. James plans to play for the U.S. National Soccer Team in the Paralympic Games, a tournament much like the Olympics for people with physical disabilities. “When I got the call, I said ‘Absolutely, I want to do this’. My wife was supportive but my parents think I’m crazy to go play again.” Hilaire already tried out and made the team. In fact, he plans to travel to London in February for it.
The decision to play soccer again should not surprise anybody. When asked what he would do if he had a chance to go back in time before his injury Hilaire responded that he would not hesitate play soccer again, “not even for a second.”
These days, Hilaire is pursuing his career in Criminal Justice. James said that he works for Federal Law Enforcement but could not disclose exactly what he does. In addition, he wants to start a scholarship fund for students with disabilities to go back to school like he did a year after his injury and earned his degree with a 3.7 GPA. The name for the fund will be “Big Time Belief”.
A poem written by Hilaire after his injury reads “My dream was taken away from me in the blink of an eye/ But til this day, I thank God that I did not die.” His message is simple: “Always be positive, keep pushing and pray every day.”