Even with the season Sam Hilliard is having – a team-leading 19 home runs and counting for the Albuquerque Isotopes – there is no hiding the joy that overcomes Jim and Tamara Hilliard when they see their youngest son hit yet another ball out of the park.
I was lucky enough to see the joy beaming from the eyes of the Fort Worth couple on May 29 at Isotopes Park. There and then, on the first pitch Sam saw in the bottom of the first inning against the Reno Aces, he sent a Braden Shipley pitch over the right-center field wall for what was home run No. 17 in a breakthrough season for the 25-year-old prospect in the Colorado Rockies organization.
“He hits it a mile,” said Jim. “It’s just that translating that batting practice power to a game has been a process. Hopefully he holds on to it. It seems he’s figured it out.”
After Sam hit that 17th home run, his aunt Claudette, Jim’s sister, told me, “You have to stay now.”
So, I did. And I talked with one of this season’s adopted Albuquerque sports families for about an hour.
We talked about their travels to see their son play, about his two older brothers and all they do, about my daughter, about raising a family, about the importance of family dinners and about the beauty of the Sandias overlooking the ballpark.
When Sam struck out in the third inning, Claudette said, “OK, you can go now.”
And I did, but the memory of seeing their eyes light up for Sam’s home run will stick with me.
It was pure. It was genuine.
And, yes. Sam Hilliard can, as his dad said, hit it a mile. It’s a gift he comes by honestly.
“He’s where I get all my athletic ability from,” Sam said of his father last year in the Hartford Courant when playing for the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats. “He was always there to help me, take me to practice, to games … he instilled in me the importance of work ethic. There’s nothing free. You’ve got to earn everything you can. I credit him with instilling in me those traits.”
Jim, 66, is a former University of Texas linebacker and retired orthopedic surgeon who passed on to his three sons plenty – a passion for reading, an appreciation for a well-cooked meal, faith, a strong sense of family, dry wit and, with Sam in particular, a love and physical ability to excel in sports.
All are traits still strong in Jim.
Except one that is starting to slowly fade.
On Nov. 2, 2017, Jim Hilliard was told by a doctor they believed he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It wasn’t until March 2018 that, through the process of elimination, the diagnosis was confirmed.
By then, it wasn’t a surprise.
“Back the summer before that (summer of 2017), I started to notice stuff,” said Jim. “I was very suspicious about six to eight months before that (official diagnosis). … But I guess the enemy that’s known is better than the one that’s unknown. So, I think it’s probably better to know for sure.”
Knowing only does so much. There is no cure for ALS. It can lead to death within months, or one can live more than a decade with it. Most life expectancies range from 2-5 years after diagnosis.
But there is no reversing the harsh reality of ALS.
“You get weak. You just start to get weak everywhere,” Jim said during that May 29 conversation 18 months after his initial diagnosis and the first trip he made where he felt he wasn’t able to navigate the stadium steps to get down closer to the field.
“Your breathing muscles start to get weak. It’s motor neurons. The nerves that control the muscles gradually die. So your muscles just start to gradually get weaker and weaker.”
Tamara Hilliard, along with the help of family, a strong church community and support from her local ALS community, tries in her own way to spread awareness and raise money for the disease.
Tamara “is the activist,” Jim says. She has started the Team Hilliard campaign, both online (als.net/teamhilliard) and on social media (@TeamHIlliardALS), and is donating proceeds from T-shirt sales to the ALS Therapy Development Institute. It has raised in the neighborhood of $80,000 so far.
The Hilliards believe more aggressive research can lead to advancements in slowing the progression of the disease or, hopefully, one day figure out how to beat it.
For now, it remains a cruel disease – both for those diagnosed and their families.
In fact, his father’s diagnosis is something Sam has so far decided he doesn’t want to talk about publicly, including for this column.
“I sure didn’t want to – for a long time,” Jim said. “I’m not sure I want to now, but you’re here.”
Jim’s Major League-ready brand of dry humor has been his way to put people at ease around him for years, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Some never get to a point where they’re comfortable talking about it.
“What I would really say from what I’ve learned and what we’ve experienced is to get behind your local (ALS) chapter,” Tamara said. “Because the families are what need the support. If people want to support Sam in some way, obviously giving to the research fund – that isn’t going to us, it’s going to the research fund. But support your local chapters because those are who support the local families. They do so much, like help with chairs or walkers or equipment for showers and just understanding.”
Joe Cordova, Executive Director of ALS Association New Mexico, said there is never an easy, or right, way to approach a family in need of their services.
“But we always reach out to them and let them know we’re here when they need us, even if they aren’t wanting to talk right away,” Cordova said.
There are three support groups set up around the state – in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces – for families and friends of those diagnosed with ALS.
“For most people, if you don’t know somebody who has it, you don’t really know what it is,” Tamara said. “There’s just not a lot of people who have it.”
In New Mexico at any given time, there are 100 to 110 people diagnosed with ALS, according to Katie Krouch with ALSA New Mexico.
The state chapter also has a loaner program for walkers and wheelchairs – and grant money available to those in need of modifications to bathrooms or to build ramps around their home when an ALS patient needs to use a wheelchair to remain mobile.
As shown in the 2016 award-winning documentary “Gleason,” centered around former New Orleans Saints football player Steve Gleason, the disease can take its toll on a family.
But a family’s strength can also grow in the face of adversity.
That’s the Hilliards.
While faith can be challenged at a time like this, Tamara said the family’s “has only intensified” in the face of Jim’s battle with ALS.
“Each of our sons bear the stamp of their father in unique and different ways,” Tamara said.
And watching Sam work toward his Major League call-up with the Rockies, as well as watching all three of his sons continue to grow and thrive in their lives, is something Jim doesn’t plan on giving up soon.
“That’s what dads do,” Gleason said at the end of that 2016 documentary. “They pass stuff on – the best of themselves to their kids.”