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They don’t think of it like this, not the grown son nor the adoptive father, and while the story is in no way theirs alone, it’s a story about roads and about journeys and about destinations unimagined yet somehow gloriously real.
Along two roads that will never meet, two roads separated by some 7,000 miles, came two dark and desperate moments five years apart that thrust both father and son against the gates of hell.
The son, Emmanuel, remembers not so much his spot on his road, but his story. Born without legs below his knees, he was cast into the road by his birth mother. Emmanuel, a helpless infant, thrown into the road like garbage. This was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, toward the end of 1997.
“I was born with no legs, and my mom, she couldn’t take care of me, [so] she throw me away,” is the way he tells it. “She didn’t like me [because] I was handicapped. I was too much trouble. She throw me in the middle of the road, like when a car passes, somebody can hit me and I can die.”
Emmanuel Hilton, recent graduate of Blackhawk High School, soccer player, wrestler, WPIAL Hall of Fame honoree, tells it that way to anyone who cares, tells it without the effluvium of anger, tells it that way, he says, because it’s the truth. He was rescued to a Congolese orphanage.
“A long time ago I used to not like talking about it,” he said the other night in the cushioned pews at Chippewa United Methodist Church, where his adoptive father is Pastor Gary Hilton. “Whenever I was in the orphanage, they teach us to be honest, to tell the truth to anyone. I don’t feel bad about it anymore. I just tell people who I am. I’m not gonna feel sad. I’m not gonna cry; I’m not like that anymore. It’s a long time ago. [But] if someone asks me, I’m just gonna say it.”
Absent any clinical psychology, this is the critical component of why, as Pastor Hilton explains, Emmanuel has no bad days. Ever. Anymore.
“What impresses me about Emmanuel is his absolute refusal to be down about anything,” says the pastor. “He has a spirit that transcends anybody I’ve been around. Even when he’s down, he’s still up, compared to most of us.”
But in many ways, Emmanuel can’t be compared to most of us, primarily the ways in which he is unvanquished. An orphaned African with no legs who wound up playing goalie on Blackhawk’s junior varsity soccer team, wrestled for two years as well, graduated from an American high school just three years after he immigrated with no comprehension of the language or the culture, Emmanuel can be compared, narrowly, by the road he took, and the spiritual way in which his road paralleled Gary Hilton’s road.
You know Gary Hilton’s road, a road long since worn into quotidian familiarity; it’s the part of Route 28 that runs past the Heinz Plant on Pittsburgh’s North Side. In an earlier career, before he embraced his calling at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Hilton was a truck driver. Behind the wheel around 4 a.m. one day in 2002, his front tire blew, his truck jackknifed, his body shot through the windshield in the same sickening second his rig clipped an overpass, and there was the patriarch of a family not yet fully formed, not yet full imagined — thrown into the road.
A bones-broken, brain-injured recovery took two years.
“Obviously because of my position, the faith that leads my life, my perspective is different,” said the pastor. “I do see parallels there, but it all has to do with the spirit of God. Everything that has come along the way has been at the hands of God, and I believe that God in some way led me all the way to Emmanuel and vice versa.
“But I’ll tell you what really nailed it for me was that I saw a photo of Emmanuel, it was probably six years ago now, and Emmanuel had part of his femur sticking out of the bottom of his leg, half of his leg was still attached, and he was playing soccer, in Africa, in the dirt.
“Just a photo of him playing soccer in the dirt, the dirt, the dirt. I don’t know much about — I’m not saying I’m an expert on life or anything – but I know somewhere, that isn’t right. And he deserved to rise out of that dirt.”
Gary’s wife Michelle, whom he calls the driving force behind Emmanuel’s adoption and that of a younger girl from The Congo, Esther, saw the photo first in a church bulletin. Michelle wondered, as she’s put it, “What could happen if we just step out in faith and just give him a chance?”
Well, here’s what could happen, it turns out. Emmanuel could join Esther in America, and join the Hilton’s two grown biological children in a new journey, one for which Emmanuel provides an unremittingly blast of sunshine.
Now just a few months short of his 20th birthday, Emmanuel is so “up” he can brighten even in the drive-thru lane at McDonald’s, where he works.
“Usually I’ll go to pick him up, and there’ll be a long line of cars, and I’ll know, ‘Oh, he’s talking to people,” laughed Pastor Hilton.
“People like to talk to me because they love my accent, that’s the reason; I don’t know why,” Emmanuel said, likely because you don’t hear a lot of English launched from Swahili and filtered through schoolhouse French coming out of drive-thru windows in Beaver County. “They make long conversations. The manager is yelling at me in the back. ‘C’mon, there’s a line of cars,’ and I’m like, ‘I cannot help because they’re still talking. They’re interested, so they’re talking, and I’m really done talking.”
One person in the community he seemed never to be done talking to was Bryan Vitali, then the soccer coach at Blackhawk High, and some of those early conversations when Emmanuel lobbied Vitali to ask the athletic director to let him play were, in the literal sense, incredible.
“I guess when he first approached me — I don’t want to say I laughed at him; I didn’t laugh at him — but it was like, ‘Wait, you’re a goalie, and you have no legs?’” Vitali remembered this week. “I had nothing to go on, but the kid’s work ethic was incredible. We’d run laps on the track, and he’d do it in his wheelchair, and he was an inspiration for our guys. If they had a complaint, I’d just look at Emmanuel, like, ‘Basically, you have nothing to complain about.’
“He practiced every day. He was a backup goalie in a three-man rotation on our jayvee team. It was pretty incredible to watch him play. The WPIAL passed a rule specifically for him. If someone passed the ball back to him, he could play it with his hands.”
Emmanuel played without his prosthetics.
On his stumps.
In the grass.
Not the dirt, the dirt, the dirt.
And, of course, he wrestled, but that started with a misunderstanding.
“I thought it was like WWE,” he laughed. “Like I could be the John Cena [good guy] character. But I still liked it. There was a lot of sacrifice, but it was fun.”
Emmanuel Hilton’s sporting life really hasn’t been about how he managed it, given the circumstances, but about what he took from it. It reminds us, at a time when such a practical reminder surely couldn’t hurt, of what sports is for at its most organic level.
“At first in America, I was a little nervous, mostly the only people who would talk to me were teachers, and sometimes the French students,” Emmanuel said. “It was very hard because I didn’t understand English. I didn’t have a really good friend until I started playing soccer.
“That’s when people started being my friend, when everybody started liking me and being close to me.”
It was getting close to the time for Emmanuel to practice his singing with the church’s contemporary worship band. He loves to sing, going back to his time in the orphanage. “I was the conductor!” he laughs.
Now Emmanuel’s road hits an incline. There is no more school. He wants to live on his own. He wants a job where doesn’t have to stand on his prosthetics all day. He wants to coach or to counsel, in a place where he can blast the sunshine, but the uncertainty is daunting.
“It’s very difficult, confusing, crazy right now,” he said.
Several days in the past week, he’s taken a Beaver County Transit Authority bus into Pittsburgh just to get the feel of the city. He thrives on being around people, on figuring things out.
“Pittsburgh’s great, but very complicated,” he noted.
“I’m hard on Emmanuel in many ways, and he’ll tell you,” said Pastor Hilton. “But Emmanuel’s with us a short time, so you’re trying to fit in learning about this world we’re living in America, in the United States. The lessons are hard. They have to come quick.
“Like the trips to Pittsburgh on the bus. There might be time when you’re raising a kid to take a couple trips to Pittsburgh with him and teach him the ropes, but it’s like, ‘Emmanuel. Go in. Call me when you get there. Don’t give your money to anybody.’ We push him, but he responds. All the time.”
Now as the journey begins anew, Emmanuel has the kind of memories that don’t haunt him, but rather sustain him, fresh, luminous memories on which he thrives.
“I have a lot of moments, moments that were my favorites,” he said. “Every time we won at soccer, my teammates would come and pick me up and run with me on their shoulders, like whoooo! Then the other team would come and shake my hand and get a picture with me. People would ask if they could give me a hug. That was my favorite, ideal moment.”
There are plenty more to be found along the road by Emmanuel Hilton, who won’t be thrown away again.
Gene Collier: The sadly wondrous journey of WPIAL honoree Emmanuel Hilton have 1770 words, post on www.post-gazette.com at 2017-07-17 10:02:32. This is cached page on USA Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.