This article on 2008 Lacrosse Magazine Person of the Year Kelly Amonte Hiller appeared in the December 2008 issue.
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Kelly Amonte Hiller, here with daughter Harlee, and her team adopted cancer patient Jaclyn Murphy, a relationship that ultimately led to the formation of the Friends of Jaclyn foundation that aligns college teams with children battling brain tumors.
© Anne Ryan
“I’m looking for the expansion of the sport and,
when this next university gets interested in adding the sport,
their coaches are going to want to work hard, and that’s
going to be their edge — that they write more letters than I
write or they make more phone calls than I make. That’s their
only way to separate themselves.”
It’s a stance that benefits coaches and programs, arguably at the expense of the recruits. Amonte Hiller counters that the IWCLA proposal puts unnecessary travel and financial burdens on recruits, especially ones from nontraditional areas.
The recruiting debate seems symbolic of Amonte Hiller’s occasional frustration with the sometimes-parochial lacrosse community and her full-throated opposition to anything that limits the game.
“Sometimes we think that we’ve done so much; we’re the fastest growing sport,” she says. “But we can still get so much better and we can still go so much further.”
Amonte Hiller wants to see the women’s lacrosse scholarship allotment increase from 12 to 13.5, on par with women’s soccer. She wants Northwestern lacrosse to be as popular as North Carolina women’s soccer, so the ‘Cats can do for lacrosse what the Heels did for soccer in the mid-1990s (i.e., become media darlings and earn tons of free publicity for the sport).
She wants to be the rising tide that raises all ships.
Jaclyn’s First Friend
The ripple effect of Amonte Hiller’s success is evident in Evanston. Before the lacrosse boom, the Northwestern athletic department was a slightly sleepy place with a single championship to its credit — men’s fencing in 1941. It’s tough for a small private school to compete in the Big 10 Conference, but recently things have been on the upswing. No other Wildcats have won a championship just yet, but Northwestern women’s tennis ascended to a No. 1 national ranking in 2008, the first cold-weather program to do so. The softball team went to the Women’s College World Series. Men’s soccer and men’s golf were both ranked No. 6 in the nation at press time, and football was in the top 25.
“There’s no question that she set the bar very high,” says Mark Murphy, Northwestern athletic director from 2003 to 2007 and current general manager of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. “She was very helpful for me to say, ‘Look at what our lacrosse team has accomplished in such a short period of time.’”
Amonte Hiller’s talent for thinking big has transcended the lacrosse field, thanks to Jaclyn Murphy, a young lacrosse fan diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a malignant brain tumor, in March 2004 at the age of 9.
Dennis Murphy, Jaclyn’s father, balks at the idea of Amonte Hiller as a polarizing figure.
“Yeah, she’s very selective of who comes into her circle of friends,” he says. “But I can’t even possibly put in words what she’s meant to my family.”
The ninth floor of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City houses the famous clinic’s pediatric cancer ward. Dennis describes the ninth floor as “the most depressing place on earth.” It’s a floor full of sick kids enduring treatments just barely better than death. But when Jaclyn goes in for a round of chemotherapy, she’s bombarded with phone calls and text messages from the Northwestern girls.