Ben and Abby Tilton. Photo courtesy of the Tilton Family

Ben Tilton has overcome more challenges and endured more pain than he has ever faced on a football field.

Tilton, a Bishop Hendricken junior, was born with a rare vascular disease, which left him with a facial deformity. One side of his face appears swollen as if he has been hit in the face while playing football without wearing a helmet.

The 17 year-old has had nine invasive facial surgeries, broke his back in a car accident and suffered a loss much greater than Hendricken’s Super Bowl loss to La Salle on Sunday. He lost his older sister, his best friend and biggest cheerleader.

Tilton doesn’t want sympathy. That’s not his story. His is built on heart, faith and the determination to get back up after you fall down hard.

“I’ve been through a lot,” said Tilton. “But I’m okay now.”

Tilton was bullied and stared at as a kid, but learned it was okay to be different. He turned to football.

photo courtesy of the Tilton Family

Although Sharon Tilton now admits she cringed when the little boy with the big face and even bigger heart said he wanted to play football, now, she said, it saved her son’s life.

“We didn’t want him to play football. We were afraid he would get hit in the face and we feared infection from sweat, filth, dirt, etc” said Sharon. “But we never, ever wanted to stop our kids from doing anything they wanted to do.“

“She must have been a nervous wreck, but she never showed it around me. All she and my dad did was support me. They saw how happy football made me,” said Tilton.

With a helmet on, there were no differences. Everyone looked the same. Only Tilton wasn’t the same as everyone on the field. He was better.

On the sidelines at Tilton’s youth football games in Cranston was his sister, Abby, 11 years his senior. She had no use of her arms and legs and suffered from many other ailments, but nothing stopped her from cheering loudly from her wheelchair for her young brother. Their bond was inseparable.

“Abby made everything brighter in the world. She was always so happy. She would sit in the handicap section and cheer for me…scream for me. I can still hear her voice,” said Tilton.

“They were best friends,” said Sharon.

When Tilton was 13 he was invited to attend a prestigious football camp in Florida. In his very first game, he scored a touchdown.

That night, he had a dream about his sister.

photo courtesy of the Tilton Family

“She was walking up our stairs which was crazy because Abby couldn’t walk,” said Tilton. “I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a metaphor. It was her telling me she was leaving. She was going to a better place.”

That night Abby died. She was 24.

Tilton was told the next morning.

“I heard the knock on my door and knew something was wrong. I could feel it. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to go through,” he said.

He felt tremendous guilt.

“I was away from home. But there was nothing we could have done about it, which was the hardest thing. You think if you were there you could have done something about it. I started blaming myself,” he said.

The guilt turned into deep, dark depression and led Tilton into a downward spiral. The trauma led to countless seizures. He wound up in Hasbro Children’s Hospital where he was treated both physically and emotionally.

About a year ago everything changed. He had spent countless hours in therapy and began to realize his sister’s death was not his fault. Last December, he underwent his ninth facial surgery and the pressure in his face disappeared. It was time to get back to school and get back on the field.

“Everything started to click physically and mentally and led me back here,” he said. “I always wanted to make Abby proud. I felt I had to get back out here…not only for me, but for her and for everybody around me.”

Tilton, who had ballooned up to 280 pounds, started working out and dropped 55 pounds. He attended a premier football training program in Massachusetts all summer and by the fall, he was ready to join the Hawks’ team for the first time since entering the school as an eighth grader. This fall, in his first year of playing high school football, he got his aggression out on the field and immediately made an impact on the Hawks’ team as an H Back and linebacker.

“Ben is a true inspiration to our team and everyone associated with our team,” said Hendricken coach Keith Croft. “His quiet, steady and team first mentality has helped to set the tone for our team. Make no mistake, while Ben’s story is an inspiration, he is an extremely valuable player for our team. His blocking, tackling and physical play are what we want each athlete to strive for.”

“Mainly, he’s got to be the toughest dude on the field and he thrives in that role,” said Hawks’ assistant coach Frank Pantaleo.

And while she never got a chance to see her brother play football at Hendricken, Tilton made sure a piece of Abby was with him this season. He wore one of Abby’s pink bandanas tucked in his uniform.

photo courtesy of the Tilton Family

“Now that she can’t be there at the games, she’s right with me there on the field,” said Tilton. “I know she is proud of me.”

A straight A student and member of the Hendricken jazz band, he also found time to recently start Tilton’s Toiletries, a drive to collect products for those in need.

“Abby always held a toy drive during the holidays for kids in need. I’m following in her footsteps. I heard there was a need for toiletries. I felt compelled to do something,” he said.

It’s no surprise that Tilton hopes to one day become a doctor.

“I just want to help others the way they helped me,” he said.