A Father's Legacy: Chiefs LB Justin March-Lillard Shares His Incredible Story | Chiefs.com


A Father's Legacy: Justin March-Lillard Shares His Incredible Story

The third-year linebacker lost his father last November

By BJ Kissel

Chiefs Reporter

Father's Day means something different to everyone.

For Kansas City Chiefs third-year linebacker Justin March-Lillard, the day will bring a flood of emotions this time around.

It's the first Father's Day he'll spend without his own father, Randy, who passed away last November, and it's the last Father's Day he'll be without his son, as he and his wife, Paige, are expecting later this summer.

"I've been wondering how I'm going to take it," Justin explained last week of what Sunday will be like. "It will probably be tough in some aspects, but my siblings and I will celebrate our dad."

Justin and his father

Randy and Justin

Justin, who is affectionately referred to as "Bubba" around his family, grew up with three brothers and a sister in Danville, Illinois.

As a kid, he played every sport imaginable-football, baseball, basketball, and whatever it was-practice, or a game-Justin's father was ever present.

"He was always there," Justin noted. "No matter what, he was there. In today's society, not a lot of fathers are in their children's lives-particularly where I come from. He wasn't just somebody in the household or just a father figure, he really was a father and a dad. That meant the world to me. There were things that I could talk to him about that I wouldn't talk to anyone else about.

"When life was good or when life was bad, he wouldn't judge me about anything and he was always there to listen. When he did say something, he always knew the right thing to say. That's what I miss most."

As a kid playing baseball, Justin recalled how he'd hit a home run every year in the Father's Day tournament-adding he might have to find a field somewhere around the Kansas City area Sunday afternoon to honor his dad with a few swings.

It's not a stretch to say Justin's father is the reason he's where he's at today. He was his biggest fan, and the one who instilled a love of sports for Justin as a young kid.

He fought health issues for most of Justin's life-beating lymphoma and prostate cancer years ago, along with battling heart disease and being a diabetic.

Simply put, Randy Lillard was a fighter.

But he finally succumbed to complications associated with his final battle-once again with cancer, and the lessons Justin learned from watching the grace in which his father handled these adversities throughout his life are largely how Justin became the man he is today.

I know this is such a bad time, but I have a surprise for you that might be some light in the darkness.

- Justin's wife, Paige

After earning one of the starting linebacker positions for the Chiefs last year, Justin, who joined the team as an undrafted free agent out of Akron in 2015, was placed on injured reserve for the second year in a row after breaking his hand five games into the season.

Justin and Paige

Two offseasons, highlighted by promise and possibilities, derailed by injuries. The year before it was a knee injury suffered in the preseason.

In the back of his mind, Justin knew last year before his injury that his dad was struggling back home. Randy had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July and was going through chemo and radiation treatments.

This latest adversity for Justin led to a moment he might not have otherwise had. When he broke his hand and was placed then on IR, he was able to go home and spend more time with his father.

"When he was first put on life support (in November), I left Kansas City four days before he passed away," Justin explained. "So, I had been there with him a couple of days and my wife, Paige, had to stay in Kansas City because of work. She called me on a Saturday morning and was like, 'I know this is such a bad time, but I have a surprise for you that might be some light in the darkness.'

"At the time, I didn't know what that meant, but after I hung up the phone, she sent me a picture."

Paige found out she was pregnant with the couple's first child.

"I don't even know what made me take that test," Paige explained, "but I'm just so happy that I did and that we were able to tell [Randy]."

I got to sit with him, talk to him and tell him that I was going to be a father. It was just him and I in the room and his face lit up."

- Justin on telling his father he was going to be a father

"I got to sit with him, talk to him and tell him that I was going to be a father," Justin explained of that moment. "It was just him and I in the room and his face lit up. He was on life support and was coming in and out of a coma, so, he hadn't been moving much until I said that. He looked at me, grabbed my hand and he couldn't say much because he had a tube down his throat, but I felt his energy.

"It was kind of a passing of the torch type of thing."

Justin was able to share the biggest news of his young life in the last hours of his father's.

On November 19, 2016, Justin's dad passed away-less than 24 hours after that conversation.

"It's like he knew it was OK to let go at that point," Paige said.

In July, Paige and Justin are expecting a baby boy, who will carry the middle name of Randy to honor his father.

"It meant everything," Justin explained of being able to share the news. "With him and I being so close and for me to be able to tell him that I'm having a kid myself. I was scared, like I don't know what to do with it, but he looked at me like, 'You know exactly what to do.'

"He gave me such a great example. I'm thankful that I got to tell him because it just reassured me that I'll be the man that he was one day."

The relationship Justin had with his father was special.

"It's been rough, just because when things do happen in my life, like if I meet personal goals or if I have a rough day, I can't just call and talk to him," Justin explained.

[Randy] talked to Justin before he talked to me. He told him that he only had so much time left. He didn't want me to worry and he felt that Justin could handle it, which he did. He took care of everything.

- Justin's mother, Michelle Lillard

When the Chiefs called to offer Justin a contract following a standout four-year career at Akron, there was no bigger champion for him than his father, who expressed and preached the opportunity before him-sharing that God always had a plan at a time in which his son needed to hear that message.

Justin while playing at Akron

Justin had hoped to be drafted.

And during the darkest hours of his life, Randy leaned on Justin to handle the toughest news their family could receive.

"[Randy] talked to Justin before he talked to me," Michelle Lillard, Justin's mother, explained. "He told him that he only had so much time left. He didn't want me to worry and he felt that Justin could handle it, which he did. He took care of everything."

Despite his health problems and walking with a cane for a good majority of Justin's life, Randy was the reason Justin first got into sports. That was their thing. He never coached his son, but he would always share what he saw with him when he got home that night after practice or a game.

The best game of Justin's college career came with his father in the stands against Michigan. It was a big opportunity for Akron-a Mid-America team-to be playing in the "Big House" against a Big 10 powerhouse program.

Justin remembers his father's words to him after making the long drive to Ann Arbor for that game:

"You better get a pick-six for me after I made that drive," he laughed.

Early in the fourth quarter, Justin picked off his second pass of the game off Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, and this one he took back 27 yards for the touchdown-pointing to his father in the stands at the end of the play.

You better get a pick-six for me after I made that drive."

- Justin's father after driving to see him play agianst Michigan

Battling his own health issues at that time, Randy was there for his son to witness what Justin calls the greatest game he's ever played. Justin was able to give his father the game ball after the game-a memory he recalls now like it was yesterday.

"The thing I remember most is it was never about him having pity for himself," Justin said of his father. "He was always about asking others how they were doing and making sure they were doing well."

"His dad was a huge people person," Paige explained. "He was friends with everyone. At his funeral, there were all different kinds of people there. You could tell his dad just really loved people."

"He fought for so long, and he raised four boys into four men and one girl into a woman," Michelle added. "They have their own lives and their own memories of him now."

In a way, Justin's latest injury was a blessing. He had over a month to share with his dad and have the conversations he wouldn't otherwise had if he were still playing.

"At the time, I didn't really see it that way (as a blessing) until everything happened over that next month," Justin explained. "I was wondering what I had done wrong and played that 'Why me?' type of game at the time. I was thinking how everything was starting to go in my favor and how I was picking things up on the field.

"It ended up being a blessing in disguise even though I didn't really see it at first."

When Justin first went to see his dad after being placed on injured reserve, he remembered the way in which he father carried himself.

"We were in his hospital room and he didn't look as good as he was sounding, but you could never tell by how happy he was," Justin said. "We sat there and he had some tea while I had some ice cream and we just talked about life. We talked about everything – it wasn't just about football."

A lot of people don't get that time with their loved ones at the end, and Justin made sure to make the most of his.

The lessons he learned over that month and even in watching him during the years preceding his father's passing are what Justin will take with him to the next chapter in his life.

"To always be kind to others," Justin noted. "That was the biggest thing he taught me. Also, just to always be happy, because there's so much of life to look forward to. Whether football is here or whether you're in a different career, it's about treating people with kindness. There's a lot of people who are in much worse situations than you, so be thankful for the things that you have.

I'm ready to do everything I can to help this team win and be the player that Chiefs Kingdom wants me to be. It's about taking that next step. I feel more than ready."

- Justin on his mindset this season

"I think a lot of that is something that's instilled in you when you're younger. You kind of follow what you see, and that's what he was. That was kind of a lesson that he didn't have to verbalize because he showed it. He was always kindhearted. Even with how sick he was, he was able to open up doors for older people and still greet people at the door at church. He was still incredible even being as sick as he was."

One of the things Justin spent a lot of time talking with his father about in the last days of his life were about "being the best" he could be-something that truly resonated with him.

"I couldn't say that I was doing everything that I could to be the best athlete and the best person that I could be," Justin explained. "Once he passed away, it kind of hit home with me and I realized what he really meant. I changed my diet, I lost some weight that I had put on from my first injury and I just took on the mindset that life is a lot less stressful knowing that there's peace out there. It's about knowing that it's not always about football and that you have to live beyond that.

"Football is my life right now and it's about giving my all to that so that I never look back and wish I would have done more. I also never want to find myself in a situation where I lose someone and wish I had said more. It's about not leaving things unsaid or leaving actions undone. I feel like I'm a different player than I was before. Making plays is one thing, but I'm seeing things from a different perspective.

"I'm ready to do everything I can to help this team win and be the player that Chiefs Kingdom wants me to be. It's about taking that next step. I feel more than ready. I appreciate every single play and I want to play hard for myself, for my dad, for my family and for all the fans."

Michelle sees many similarities in Justin and his father.

"He's a fighter for everything," she said of Justin. "He doesn't give up."

It's a constant reminder every single day for why I do what I do on the field and off the field.

- Justin on his tattoo of his father (tattoo done by Jeremy Taylor at Skin Quest Tattoos in Kansas City)

Justin has chosen to honor his father in many ways, both with how he lives his life and how he chooses to be reminded of him.

After he passed, Justin got a portrait tattoo of his father.

"It's a constant reminder every single day for why I do what I do on the field and off the field," Justin said of the tattoo. "I always know he's right there. If I'm ever having a bad day, I can just look down and I'm really not mad anymore. It's something that's peaceful for me and something I can look at and go back to that place and say, 'Man, I'm so blessed in life.'

"That was his thing, how living was a blessing. We always think we have more time or more conversations. I always thought that I was going to be able to talk to him again and say things that I maybe didn't get a chance to tell him and stuff like that, but that's the crazy thing about it. We can't change time or go back in time, but we can appreciate the time we have and the current moment."

Paige has seen a change in Justin since his father's passing.

"He definitely appreciates things a lot more," she explained. "He knows how special time is and how special opportunities are whether it's with football or with family-he's just really appreciating time with the people he loves. You can really tell he's taking nothing for granted."

As his son gets set to enter the world later this summer, Justin, who Paige said often talks to the baby when they're home together-is prepared to take on his new role.

"The best thing about him is obviously being in the league is hard and every day is a new challenge and there's a lot of pressure and everything, but he never brings work home with him," Paige explained. "He's always in such a good mood and always happy to see me and talk to the baby.

"It makes it easy on me. I know he's going through a lot, but he never really shows it. He's going to be an amazing father. He's just so selfless, and he has so much love and a big heart."

"He's going to be a good dad," his mother noted proudly. "The kids are not going to want for anything. He's always going to be there. I told him, 'No matter what, your dad was always there. You ought to be there for your son just the way your dad was there for you.'"

With Father's Day serving as a bittersweet time for their family, Justin understands it's a time to celebrate his dad and prepare for the biggest role of his life-one in which he feels he was given the perfect mentor.

"My goal is to be the type of dad he was," Justin concluded. "That'll be hard to do, but that's what I'm shooting for."