By Kevin Posival

Killeen Daily Herald

Jonathan Hildner was happy on Feb. 2 and again Friday.

In between, though, Hildner retreated within himself in grief.

His father, Brig. Gen. Terence J. Hildner, died of apparent natural causes Feb. 3 in Afghanistan, two days after Jonathan signed a national letter of intent to play football at NAIA Kentucky Christian University.

"I was still on cloud nine from signing and from there, it just went down ... and I felt like it was never going to get better," Hildner said. "I was going to quit (football), quit school - I was done."

Surrounded by the close-knit group of family and friends that helped him deal with his loss the last three months, Hildner emerged on the top side of a downward spiral Friday when he was honored as a member of the first All-Department of Defense high school football team in the Killeen gym.

"I definitely got the opportunity to turn it around, and once I saw a little bit was going right, then I just went all the way and put everything into it and it came out right here. This is the first happy day since, so it feels good," he said.

Among those who spoke at Hildner's ceremony Friday were Fort Hood commander Lt. Gen. Don Campbell Jr., Killeen head football coach Sam Jones, Killeen principal Michael Sibberson, the other half of Hildner's command team in Afghanistan, Command Sgt. Maj. Terry E. Parham and Director of Community and Government Outreach Randy Plunkett.

A large picture of Gen. Hildner stood beside the table as his son received the honor.

"It feels like he's here," Hildner said. "As soon as I thought about the ceremony, I talked to the principal and told him I'm bringing in a photograph. I brought it in a couple days ago. ... It just means a lot. I keep looking at it, feeling like he's here. It's what pretty much brings a lot of the excitement to me."

The All-DOD team, in its first year, recognizes the children of military parents and their accomplishments. The inaugural team consists of 25 players from around the world, including seven from Europe.

Hildner first heard of the team last year at the invitation-only Football University summer football camp and again at the Top Gun camp, which was attended by officials of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

In January, while on an official visit at KCU, he received an email from Plunkett informing him that he'd made the team.

"I got all excited and everybody was like, 'what is that?' because nobody knows what it is because it's the first year," Hildner said. "That's another honor is it being the first team, it means a lot."

Hildner, who had 52 total tackles, three batted passes and an interception this season for the Roos, tried getting out of his written commitment to KCU following his father's death. But, he knew that wasn't the answer.

"Thinking about his father and what he would want, what he would expect really helped pull him through," said Cindy Hildner, Jonathan's mother. "He spent a lot of time alone. He knew what he needed to do, he just needed to find that and pull from it. ... I think faith is a big part of that and knowing where you came from, knowing what people expect - especially people that mean a lot - like his father. And his father was always his hero."

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