By Vin Gallo
This story is in memory of Sarah Kilby
“There were no NFL heroes of her world. There were no Red Sox or Patriots – her sports hero was Tyler. She lit up when his name was called. She was shy around him. He was her Tom Brady.”
The 300 Violin Orchestra blared across Stagg Field. A deep rumble of murmurs from a crowd of 3,700 slowly erupted into a chorus of cheers as the 7-0 Springfield College football team emerged from the depths of the sports complex.
The Pride were on top of the world again. For the first time since 2006, Springfield entered its Homecoming game without a loss. Garbed in maroon and dark gray camouflage, the No. 22 team, averaging 44 points per game on a nationwide high 448 rushing yards, thundered across the hunter green turf.
Leading the Pride run-on again, as he had for the previous three home games, was four year halfback Tyler Hyde. Sprinting through the mild autumn breeze ahead of his teammates, the senior had his right arm raised, clutching a helmet firmly by its face mask. The sun beamed off the gray sharpie scrawled all over the brownish-crimson armor.
Hyde’s legs were turning with purpose and with reckless abandon, but his face behind his mask was calm, his brown eyes reflecting a man deep in thought. Hyde halted at the end of the Springfield bench as the rest of the team swarmed the sidelines. He turned to the trainer’s table and placed the helmet on the red leather, facing toward the field. In a slow, reflective motion, the ‘back stuck his fingers through plastic coated metal bars, kissed them, and ran them down the right of the helmet’s shell. Then he turned away to the gridiron to fight his latest battle.
Football is a warrior’s game. But for Hyde, it was never about taking a play lightly in fear of health, and it certainly isn’t about statistics.
Do it for Luke.
Do it for the team.
Do it for Sarah.
Do it for everyone but yourself.
As a freshman in the fall of 2014, Tyler Hyde found out immediately that he wasn’t playing the same game of football he had been playing for 12 years in Southington, Conn. Everything changed, and quickly. For an 18 year old, 5’10, 180 lb running back, Division III ball was a different animal. Hyde’s senior year line of 1,200 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns for the 12-1, 2013 Division LL Connecticut State Champion Blue Knights, was left for the high school history books. None of that mattered anymore. He was playing for the Springfield Pride, the team otherwise known as the Brotherhood.
“It’s a lot faster of a game when you get here,” explained Hyde. “Just about every kid playing was one of the best players on their team in high school. I thought my high school team ran a fast pace. But when you come to college, you learn what fast pace really means.”
From the first day of preseason to the final down at Worcester, a loss to WPI, Hyde’s rookie year was grueling. The season, starting in the heat of August, and ending beneath the chill of November, garnered no playing time. Hyde didn’t play a snap on Stagg. There was no glory, no stats. His first year featured him getting hit over and over again every evening at Irv Schmid Complex on the Pride’s practice field. The 2014 Springfield Pride finished with a 5-5 record. It was a long, long way from Southington.
“He was a very good player [in high school], and he had a really hard time as a freshman and sophomore,” said Jeff Hyde, Tyler’s father. “He almost didn’t want to play anymore. It’s tough [as a freshman], you’re starting all over. It’s hard. You’re coming in, you’re getting yelled at – it’s an adjustment.”
Three years ago, Hyde found himself on the brink of putting down the pigskin for good. But even during his most difficult time playing football, there was still a calling he felt from the sport he had stuck with since six years old.
“I wasn’t sure,” admitted Hyde. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to play anymore. But to think back to that now, I can’t even imagine a life without football. It makes me a better person and I don’t know where I’d be without it.”
The Brotherhood of Springfield Football carries a mindset of extreme unselfishness. It is a mantra that the team believes it was able to perfect along with its triple option, to claim a 10-0 2017 regular season record and an NCAA Tournament berth. The Pride preaches to its players to play for the man next to them and disregard the statistics and glitzy roles. Hyde came to realize that although he wasn’t playing, he could still help the efforts towards winning.
“[As a] freshman or sophomore, you learn to bring it everyday, because even if you’re not in a role to where you’ll start on Saturday, you’re making the kids who are starting the next game even better,” he said. “It’s 100 as one.”
As Hyde grew as a player, he reminded then head coach Mike DeLong of a familiar halfback he coached during his first three years at the helm. Jeff Hyde was a member of the Pride between 1983 and 1986.
Although Tyler didn’t buy into his situation right away, DeLong never saw a cease in his work to break onto the Springfield depth chart. And there was plenty of potential. As strong of a runner as Tyler Hyde was, there was another area of offense he excelled in. Blocking. There are no stats for it, but it’s vital with a run heavy offense.
“It’s not all about the game … it’s about grooming young men into better young men. I always thought he was like that before he went to Springfield College. He genuinely cares about people.” – Jeff Hyde on his son’s compatibility with Pride football’s mission
“Like all of our young running backs, they need to transition into the system and Tyler worked really hard to do so,” DeLong said. “It’s a part of playing college football. For a player to get onto the field, it’s competitive. It takes time and it takes mental toughness, and Tyler’s a tough kid, both physically and mentally.”
A lot has changed since Jeff Hyde suited up for the Brotherhood. The triple option of today that decimates defenses was in its early stages back when he sprinted the field. What has always been there however, is the humanic compassion the team demands from its players. All through the college recruitment of Tyler Hyde, Ithaca College came guns blazing. He would have been the No. 1 option there. Stardom with the Bombers would have been a sure thing, and would have certainly resulted in a career line heftier than 641 yards and four touchdowns. But Tyler chose a different path, his father’s alma mater, and Jeff always believed his son was destined to be apart of something bigger with the Springfield College mission.
“With Springfield [football], even back [when I played], it was all about doing the right thing and character,” Jeff explained. “It’s not all about the game. [Competition is] a big part of it – but it’s about grooming young men into better young men. I always thought [Tyler] was like that before he went to Springfield College. He genuinely cares about people.”
Dan Kilby had never been to New England. Growing up in West Grove, Pa., an hour outside Philadelphia, he knew Springfield, Mass. as the location of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But he knew little about the campus nestled within the heart of Massachusetts’ third largest city. A young Kilby spent his childhood participating in just about any sport in season. He always had an interest in the realm of physical education and health fitness. Through a high school coach, Kilby was told that Springfield College, an institution rich in history, wrapped along a lake called Massasoit, and Western New England’s cradle of coaches, had the education he was searching for.
In 1988, Kilby made the 279 mile journey to the birthplace of basketball. It was the following fall when he met Kate Kenton, a freshman from 40 minutes down the Connecticut back roads in Ellington, Conn. Ten years later, the two married in 1999, and settled eastward of their alma mater in Cumberland, R.I. where they would begin to raise two daughters, Sarah and Leah.
Following his graduation, Kilby found employment at Cybex, an international fitness equipment manufacturer. It was there where he developed a strong friendship throughout the course of 20 years, with co-worker and fellow Springfield College alumni, Jeff Hyde. Jeff, who was also raising a family, would tell tales of coaching his son Tyler through youth football in Southington. Dan and Kate Kilby finally met the boy in his sophomore year of high school.
“[We] first started meeting Tyler and watching him play once he got to the high school level [of competition],” said Dan Kilby. “We’d go watch the games and socialize afterwards. My first impression of him was that he was a little reserved, but that was because he didn’t know me that well at the time. He had the [hints] of the typical Springfield College man – very respectful, very polite, and a good young gentleman. You could tell his parents raised him well.”
Tyler Hyde first met Kilby’s daughter, Sarah, at his high school graduation party, two months before continuing his family’s legacy at Springfield (his father ‘86, and his sister Caitlin in ‘14). He was set to face a new and relatively unforeseen challenge in fighting for position on the Pride’s football team. But Sarah was a girl who had been fighting her entire life. Sarah Kilby was born with Shwachman–Diamond Syndrome, a rare congenital condition that causes impairments in the development of bone marrow as well as pancreatic insufficiencies. She constantly lived under the threat of becoming dangerously sick.
Hyde extended his greetings to the daughter of his family friend and pressed on his journey. However, it wouldn’t be good-bye.
“I didn’t see [Sarah] for a couple years after that,” said Hyde. “That’s when [her health] started to get worse and worse as time went on. As Sarah spent more time being treated, that’s when we grew a lot closer. We’d talk all the time. As she struggled I was just kinda there for her and her family.”
Hyde acknowledged throughout the time he knew Sarah, the fight she put forth created the image of her seeming perfectly healthy.
“They knew what she had, they’ve always known that,” Hyde said. “But she was healthy at the time I met her. It honestly seemed like she was healthy through most of the time that I knew her, even when she was getting treatment.”
All through the end of his sophomore season, and throughout his junior year, Hyde would make the trip as much as he could up to Boston Children’s Hospital to visit Sarah whenever she was sick, or receiving treatment. With the combination of school, the football season, and hospital regulations, visits were typically limited to about once every month. Though when he did visit, Hyde would always find himself bewildered at what would be constantly playing on Sarah’s TV.
“She was this little girl who was in love with Golden Girls,” recalled Hyde with a smile. “She’d watch a show about grown adult women and it just blew my mind. Every time I’m scrolling through the channels and that shows on, I’ll always stop and watch it for 5-10 minutes. She was much more grown mentally for her age. She was one of the sweetest girls you’ll ever meet.”
“It honestly seemed like she was healthy through most of the time that I knew her.” – Tyler Hyde on Sarah Kilby
When Hyde couldn’t visit, he’d still be sure to keep the texts and Snapchats flowing. There was not real pattern to them. It was always at spontaneous points that surprise Sarah without fail.
“She felt so lucky to have a connection with such a handsome, nice man,” said Kate Kilby. “I’m sure she thought, ‘someday I hope I get to have somebody like that in my life.’”
Whenever she was healthy enough, Sarah would pay a visit to Stagg Field to watch her idol in action. It had taken some time, but Hyde had finally broken on to the big field for good.
“Sarah couldn’t play sports because of [Shwachman-Diamonds]. She didn’t watch sports too much either,” said Dan. “There were no NFL heroes of her world. There were no Red Sox or Patriots – her sports hero was Tyler. She was a shy 13 year old who lit up when his name was called. She was shy around him. He was her Tom Brady.”
Hyde wished for Sarah to be picked up by more than his presence alone. For that to happen, he’d need some help from his 99 other brothers.
“Last year during my junior season I brought [her health] up to the team,” explained Hyde. “I wanted it to inspire the guys to back her as well. I wanted [the team] to give her courage, give her strength, let her know that we have her back. Like the brotherhood that we are, we just wanted to look out for her.”
As the 2016 season proceeded closer to the winter, Sarah’s condition worsened. It became quickly apparent that her situation was becoming graver with each passing day. But the Pride refused to leave her side. Hyde vividly remembers his final visit to his friend. He brought a football for her, and a blanket to protect her from any chills her condition caused. Then, there was one last gift. A maroon Springfield Pride helmet. Tattooed to it, were the voices of encouragement each player scribed in gray sharpie: ‘Have a day!’ ‘Crush it!’ ‘Keep fighting Sarah!’
“I remember telling her before I left that I loved her,” said Hyde. “I told her that she was a fighter, that she was going to make it. I told her that I couldn’t wait to see her again. I just prayed for her, prayed with Dan and Kate.”
Kate remembers her daughter cherishing her Springfield possessions. Especially the helmet.
“I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of all these young gentlemen rooting for her to be better,” Kate said. “Tyler helped give her a whole team’s love, support and care for her. They all know how hard she tried. They were there. Every one of them.”
Sarah Kilby passed away on December 15, 2016 after a 14 year long battle with Shwachman-Diamond Syndrome. They miss her terribly, but her family is proud of her for the fight she put forth every minute.
“When she was in the hospital, she only asked me once if she was going to die,” said Dan Kilby. “I told her no. And she never complained after that. Not once. The pain that the bone marrow transplants caused her – she’d cry, but she never once cursed herself or cursed ‘why me.’ She didn’t quit. She fought until the end.”
Like clockwork, the 2017 season the following year was born in the humidity of August and demanded hours upon hours of work on the practice field and deep inside the weight room. This time around, the expectations to win were higher than ever in the Pride’s first inaugural season into the NEWMAC. But it was okay. They’d be getting a boost.
“When the season started I gave [the helmet] back to Jeff and I told him let Tyler take it and let the kids know how much they meant to her,” Kilby said. “Whenever it’s a late lifting session and its tough to get one more rep, just turn to the helmet.”
“Some play for themselves, some are playing for the girl in the stands. I play for Sarah.” – Tyler Hyde on Sarah Kilby
Sarah Kilby will be at Tyler Hyde’s side forever. Hyde said he never forgot her from the moment they met when he was a rising college freshman.
“I’ve had her initials on my wrist tape every game since I met her. It’s a tribute to her to show that she’s there to protect me every time I step out onto the field,” he said in November. “After her funeral and wake Dan asked me to hold on [to the helmet]. Now we take it out to the field with us every game. And it’s worked so far – 8-0. She’s part of that. Everyone plays for a different reason. I’ve always told everyone, play for your ‘why.’ Some play for themselves, some are playing for the girl in the stands. I play for Sarah.”
The Kilby’s were touched, sometimes to tears, when they watched Hyde carry their daughter’s honor out to the field each Saturday. “Seeing him run onto the field with it, I just wish she could see it,” said Dan. “It would blow her mind that Tyler’s still doing this for her. I’m so proud of him. He’s just a great kid. It brings us joy that a college kid would do that. Tyler’s a true SC man.”
To this day, Hyde continues to give it his all toward bringing happiness to those who look up to him. In addition to Sarah, he has also been there for the Pride’s Team IMPACT teammate Luke Bradley, who has also needed to endure bone marrow transplants during battles with leukemia.
“I’ve seen Luke in [Sarah’s] same situation. It’s scary. It’s something that really opens up your eyes,” Hyde said. “Being with Sarah and being with Luke, it’s taught me to embrace every single day, no matter how bad. When you see someone going through what they’re going through, you realize that they wake up every morning, and they don’t have a choice. They have to start fighting right away. We have the pleasure of waking up and saying, ‘ah I want to roll over, I don’t want to do it today.’ They don’t have that luxury.”
Cumberland, R.I., November 4, 2017. Before snapping his laptop closed, Dan Kilby scanned across his desktop wallpaper depicting his family with the Springfield College football team. He had finished live streaming another satisfying Pride victory, with Maine Maritime being the latest victim, this time by way of a 62-0 trouncing. Tyler Hyde, the hero of Kilby’s oldest daughter, had finished with one of the best stat lines of his senior season: two touchdowns on 118 yards rushed. Kilby knows Sarah is proud of her friend.
Dan thinks of her a lot. He’s a man who works a good amount from home. Kilby always considered Sarah a homebody, someone who always kept him company even when working.
Although she is gone, she is still with her family. There’s memorabilia all across the house, both from the Kilby’s and from the family that lives on 263 Alden Street. There are helmets scattered across the home, some with Pride ‘S’ others with the throwback Chief logo. On all of them are the names of the undefeated 2017 football team.
Then there’s photo albums in opened boxes accompanied with hundreds of letters from the players and others words of encouragement from Springfield. Dan said he is yet to gather the wherewithal to read them without being overcome with emotion.
The jingle from the collar of the Kilby’s year old therapy dog, Percy, rings off the walls that hold the cherished family photos and memories. On the fridge is a photo of Sarah flashing ‘one of her best smiles ever,’ with Tyler.
“She battled,” said Dan. “Every day of her life. From birth to December. It could have been a random winter day when a cold turned into pneumonia. She knew what Shwachman-Diamond was, and she knew it was serious. But she liked her uniqueness. She’d say, ‘I don’t want to be cured. It’s who I am.’ I told her, ‘Okay, but there’s still potential.’ And she said, ‘No. I’m me.’”
“I’m sure she thought, ‘someday I hope I get to have somebody like that in my life.'” – Kate Kilby on Tyler Hyde
That night Kilby scrolled through the photos on his phone. There was a certain video clip that caught his eye. The time stamp was October 31, 2016 at Boston Children’s Hospital. Halloween. Due to her condition, Sarah had been too sick to trick-or-treat. So, her father had interviewed her. Kilby pressed play.
Sarah was groggy from the medicine, her eyes and face drooping with fatigue. “Do you want to go to sleep now?” asked her father.
“No,” said Sarah. “I have to go brush my teeth.”
“You don’t have to,” said Dan. “You’re sick, just go to bed.”
“Nope. I have to brush my teeth.”
With that, she lifted herself from bed and willed herself to the bathroom. She needed a walker, and her hair was beginning to leave her head. But the little girl still hummed a song while she ran the faucet for her toothbrush. Once again, Sarah had Shwachman-Diamond beat.
The Kilby’s car ride home was silent after an emotional visit to Stagg Field for Springfield football’s homecoming game. As Dan drove, Kate slept beside him. In the passenger seat, sat their younger daughter, Leah, her earbud wires falling in front of the ‘6’ of her Tyler Hyde jersey.
“…a special place. The love that the whole school shows for a girl who not many people knew is just amazing … There’s an instant connection … It’s like you meet your long lost brother or sister.” – Dan Kilby on Springfield College and the connection between its alumni
Leah misses her older sister greatly, but Dan says he is proud of how strong she and Kate have been through Sarah’s passing.
“Kate and Leah have been my rock, for sure,” he said. “Leah and Sarah were great friends. They’d knock on the wall at night, and probably snuck into each others rooms. I don’t know how [Leah] does it. I know that at 11, I don’t know how I’d have done it.”
Springfield had captured win number eight over Catholic. More importantly however, the Pride emerged victorious on Sarah Kilby Day. After the game, Tyler Hyde presented the game ball to the family. “I love you guys,” Hyde had said. “You mean the world to me.”
Cheers and applause from the crowd streaked the sky as Dan and Tyler embraced.
“[Springfield College] is a special place,” Kilby said. “The love that the whole school shows for a girl who not many people knew, is just amazing. When you meet alumni from Springfield, it doesn’t matter if you’re 57 or 97, or graduated in 2007 or 2017. There’s an instant connection, and you’re almost friends with them immediately. It’s like you meet your long lost brother or sister.”
The Kilby’s haven’t heard knocking on the walls since their daughter passed. Not yet. But if it’s possible, if anyone can do it, it’s Sarah, a fighter who embodied the spirit of Springfield College.
“She’s an amazing girl.”