Winning The Super Bowl — In Italy
A few years back, fans of novelist John Grisham got a chance to read something a little different from his usual fare of legal thrillers when Grisham penned a sports novel titled Playing For Pizza. While many of us enjoyed the story about an American football player who plays professionally in Italy, former Punahou and UCLA star Dalton Hilliard took it a step further. He lived it.
Hilliard, a standout for the Buffanblu when they won the HHSAA football title in 2008 and then a two-year defensive starter for the UCLA Bruins in college, helped guide his Italian Football League team, Milano Seamen, to Italy’s Super Bowl title in 2014.
“Ironically, the team we beat for the championship was the Palermo Panthers — that’s the team in the novel,” Hilliard tells me.
Hilliard was one of only two Americans on the team, which by Italian rules only can play one American at a time, and only on one side of the ball.
“When I joined the team, we had a scrimmage and we were a little shorthanded, so they asked if I could play running back for a few plays,” Hilliard, who was a star offensive and defensive player at Punahou, recalls. “On the first hand-off, I take it 80 yards for a touchdown. On the second hand-off, I go 76 yards for a touchdown, and the third time, I take it 74 yards for a TD. After that, they ruled I had to play defense only, since that was my regular position.”
During his one-season stint in the IFL (the league runs from February until July), he had a banner year in the defensive backfield and on special teams. He had two games in which he had three interceptions each, and he also finished with five punt returns for touchdowns. By league rules, he wasn’t allowed to return kickoffs.
Hilliard is back in the Islands now at his parents’ new home in Kaa‘awa and he hopes to advance his professional football career by trying his luck at UCLA’s NFL Pro Day next month. He says his experience in Italy and the surrounding areas in Europe and the Middle East was one of the highlights of his life.
“I always wished that I had been able to study abroad, so this was my chance to live it,” he says. “When we had a break in our schedule, I got a chance to tour around. Italy is beautiful, and so are France, Croatia and Egypt. I went with my American teammate to see the pyramids — that was absolutely an amazing experience, something I’ll never forget.”
He said another highlight of his touring was participating in Battle of the Oranges, a festival in Ivrea, Italy, that turns into a three-day “food fight with about 5 million oranges,” he says. “It’s the celebration of the death of a very bad king.”
Hilliard said he truly appreciated the people of Italy, as well as their food.
“It’s so family-oriented there, just like Hawaii. I felt very welcomed,” he says. “The food was incredible.” He said his favorite dishes were panzerotti (similar to a stuffed pizza pie) and pasta carbonara.
He also mastered enough of the language to get by. “My mom lived in Spain for several years and so I knew Spanish. The Italian language isn’t too far off from that, so I was able to pick it up relatively quickly,” he explains.
“I’ve definitely been blessed to have this experience,” he adds. “It was my first time out of the country and something I’ll always cherish. I’m looking forward to what lies ahead.”