At 9 years old, Italian Joseph Di Lillo lost his leg as a civilian casualty in World War II. He felt he no longer fit in at home or school. After months of self loathing, Di Lillo ran away and found purpose again playing soccer on a team comprised of handicapped children at an orphanage in Rome.
Now Di Lillo lives in Bryson City and hopes to impart the values he learned through soccer to children and young adults in the community, he said.
“He’s very interested in the kids’ welfare. He has a love for soccer, and he has a strong desire to teach that to the kids around here,” said Julie Richards, who has coached a clinic with Di Lillo. “It’s very impressive to see him out there when it’s 90 degrees, and he’s carrying that gear all over the place, especially on one leg.
Having only one leg doesn’t ever stop him, said Romano Michelotti, another coach who’s worked with Di Lillo.
“He wouldn’t quit playing soccer if he had no legs at all,” Michelotti said. “The community is fortunate to have someone like him.”
About three years ago, Di Lillo founded the Western North Carolina Youth Soccer Association. It runs spring and fall soccer clinics for 60 to 65 children. There is no registration fee, and a $1,000 grant from the Asheville Community Foundation covers the cost of shin guards and cleats. The association has also received two $500 grants from Wal-mart and Sam’s Club, he said.
But that’s not enough. The association needs a field to play on, Di Lillo said.
“I’m desperate for a field,” Di Lillo said. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to quit.”
Di Lillo has been told a field in Swain will cost at minimum $250,000, and he doesn’t have the money. While he could always leave the county to coach elsewhere, De Lillo wants to stay in Swain. With a high incidence of poverty, kids in Swain County have little opportunity to play soccer, which can sometimes be too expensive to afford.
But finding a field in Swain is not the biggest obstacle Di Lillo has had to overcome.
Di Lillo grew up in Italy during World War II. In his book Soccer: My Life, My Passion, he recounts the struggles and loss his family faced during the war. Nazis forced his father onto a German military truck because they thought he was a “suspicious individual.” The soldiers severely beat Di Lillo’s father and left him abandoned on a country road.
Another day when a convoy of German soldiers headed to Rome, one soldier threw a small parcel off the side of a truck. Thinking it was a can of food, Domenico, one of Di Lillo’s brothers, grabbed it. But it exploded, ripping off his thumb.
Later in the war when Di Lillo and his 5-year old brother Sebastiano headed home from school, the two found themselves in the middle of an air raid. Bombs fell on an ammunition plant near the school. As a result of the plant’s explosion, Sebastiano died from hemorrhaging two days later.
A British military truck hit another brother. At the hospital, doctors said he would die. The family wanted him to die at home so they could have control of the remains. But the hospital would not release the boy, so Di Lillo’s family lowered the boy out of the window in a bed sheet at night. He died the next day at home.
And it was during the war that Di Lillo lost his leg. In 1942 on his way home from school, a Nazi military truck ran into him, fracturing the femur in his thigh. It took seven hours for Di Lillo to receive medical attention. The doctor amputated Di Lillo’s leg to prevent complications and infection.
“At the age of nine, I found myself without a right leg and shattered by the reality of being handicapped for the rest of my life,” Di Lillo wrote. “My best and closest friends withdrew their friendship.”
Some of his relatives thought God was punishing him for poor behavior, and he was no longer able to help on the family farm.
Di Lillo’s father insisted he return to school despite his son’s embarrassment about his lost leg. Although Di Lillo once excelled in school, when he returned he began to associate with street urchins and routinely skipped class.
His uncle found out and told his father. His father beat him and tied him to a tree for two days. No one was allowed to bring him food.
When he was untied, he decided to run away from home and go to Rome. He took the Italian equivalent of $10 for a train ticket and a soccer ball. Di Lillo had never seen a game or played with the ball.
“For unexplainable reasons, holding the ball under my arm I felt I had a companion with me,” he recounted in his book.
Feeling that life had no meaning, Di Lillo wandered the streets of Rome hopeless. Di Lillo thought about jumping off a bridge and drowning in the Tiber River.
At that moment, a man approached Di Lillo and brought him to a headquarters for the Italian Communist Party. He was given a little money and became a temporary foster child before he was placed in the San Michele orphanage.
The orphanage had a soccer team of handicapped boys, and because Di Lillo couldn’t run, he played goalie. The team would play before professional soccer games, and the orphanage would get a small fraction of the ticket price.
“I saved the orphanage quite a bit of money,” Di Lillo said. “At the orphanage there were only two things to do: pray the rosary to save the orphanage or play soccer.”
When Di Lillo was 20, he could no longer stay at the orphanage. He returned home and applied for a visa to come to the United States.
He worked odd jobs and traveled before coming to Chicago where he met his wife, Concetta, at a festival called the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. She spoke little Italian, and he barely knew English. But Di Lillo said it was love at first sight.
The couple married and moved to Iowa, where she started attending graduate school at the University of Iowa. Di Lillo, 26, started attending high school but he never received a diploma.
With the help of an Italian professor, Di Lillo began attending the University of Iowa where he coached and played soccer on the International Soccer Team. He transferred to Northern Illinois University where he completed his undergraduate degree in comprehensive social sciences.
From there, he went on to Southern Illinois University where received a scholarship to coach and play soccer and ultimately graduated with a doctorate in international relations.
“I had such a craving for education, I couldn’t stop,” he said.
After retiring from a professorship, Di Lillo moved to Bryson City in 2002 to be closer to his children and grandchildren. His daughter came to North Carolina first to attend Western Carolina University and decided to stay in the area after graduation.
Di Lillo is no an assistant coach at Swain County High School.
Ben Christoph, who graduated this year, played goalie and received two years of Di Lillo’s tutelage.
“Everything he taught me about soccer and life is summed up by his motto: ‘Give 129 and a half percent all the time,’” Christoph said. “He said, ‘Never ever give up no matter what your circumstances.’ Coming from him, it meant so much more.”
Christoph recalls Di Lillo teaching the team innovative drills and demonstrating some of them himself.
“It was beyond admirable how at his age and his condition how he’d show us the drills,” Christoph said. “It made me give a lot more than I thought I could.”