NAMPA — Katie Hilton had just one person to beat.
In a game against Capital on April 1, 2016, the former Nampa Warriors rugby star saw the try zone and wasn’t about to let anything or anyone get in her way, particularly the opposing player quickly clos ing in. So like she had done so many times before, Hilton lowered her shoulder.
Only this time, she didn’t run the player over, but rather found herself lying on the ground unable to move or feel anything at all — the result of a hyperextended neck and four fractured vertebrae.
And the voyage back — well that was an entirely different opponent to beat all together.
“The journey has had its fair share of bumps and curve balls along the way, but the love and support from family and friends has made it bearable and almost easy,” Hilton said. “Without them, I would honestly be a hot mess.”
Two years before the injury, Hilton was a sophomore who quite hadn’t found her sport yet. By her own admission, she was way too aggressive for the other sports Nampa High had to offer.
“I was always the one throwing elbows,” Hilton said with a laugh.
But then one day during English class, the teacher, who just so happened to be the school’s rugby club coach at the time, told Hilton she should try out. She obliged and came out to her first practice that very same day.
From there she was hooked. Hilton became a captain for the Warriors the following season, and was in the midst of leading the team again her senior year when everything changed in a blink of an eye in a game at Fairmont Junior High in Boise.
On the first day back from spring break, Hilton received the ball and sprinted down the field before she made contact with a Capital player. The player high-tackled Hilton by grabbing the top of her shoulders and then proceeded to throw her to the ground.
Hilton went head first, landing awkwardly on her neck before another opposing player came in and inadvertently kneed her in the face.
“It was a freak accident,” said former Nampa coach Chris Kovac, who came in during Hilton’s junior year. “The way she was going down I could tell she was going to be in a lot of trouble. I watched her head and neck twist from underneath her body. When I saw that I immediately started running out onto the field. While I was running, she started convulsing and having seizures.
“When I got there she came too and I grabbed her hand. She started to cry and I was telling her to calm down and asked her to squeeze my hand. She said she couldn’t and asked for me to help her because she couldn’t feel anything. I looked at her dad, and her dad looked at me and I just didn’t have the words. I had never experienced anything like that before and it shook me up for a while. It was the reason I stepped away from coaching rugby.”
Hilton remained prone on the ground before she was safely loaded onto a stretcher and put into the back of an ambulance. On the way to the Saint Alphonsus Hospital in Boise, Hilton got back feeling in her right side, but not the left.
After multiple CT, MRI and X-Ray scans, it was determined that Hilton, miraculously, didn’t break her neck. She hyperextended her neck and cracked four vertebrae, but her injuries, surprisingly, didn’t require any surgery.
Despite still no feeling in her left side, Hilton was released from the hospital a couple hours after her arrival. The feeling in her left side didn’t return until three days later.
She was in and out of the hospital constantly in the following days, weeks and months. Hilton was also required to wear a neck brace for a month.
After seven grueling weeks, Hilton was finally given the green light that her neck had made a full recovery. But the good news was quickly overshadowed by some heartbreaking news. The doctors strongly recommended to Hilton that she never play rugby again. It was notion echoed by her parents.
“I became the bad guy, mother Rori Hilton said. “I told her she was done playing rugby. That was too close of a call and she got very upset.
“But the doctors told her she was very lucky to even still be walking. The way her neck had been extended, it could have very easily snapped her spinal cord and left her paralyzed.”
While her playing days may be over, Hilton found another way to be around the sport she loves. She served as an assistant coach for the Warriors this past season and coached her younger sister, Courtney, in the process.
Under Hilton’s guidance, Nampa made it to the Division 2 State Championship game.
“I love coaching,” Hilton said. “I get to incorporate my knowledge in a work place and get to teach others my knowledge. It definitely eases the pain of not playing a little, but I still miss playing so much.”
While she didn’t beat her opponent on that fateful day in April 2016, Hilton ended up overcoming a much greater challenge. She got her life back.
When she’s not on the field coaching, Hilton can be found riding her horse, Wicked. She’s also set to be married on Aug. 25. And all of that is more than enough for her.
“At the end of the day, I have the mobility to still do the things I love,” Hilton said. “I do still sometimes think back to that day and think maybe I shouldn’t have went that low or dropped my shoulder and done something differently to avoid this whole thing all together.
“But I’m happy and I just want everybody to know just because something bad happens to you in your life, don’t give up, keep going.”