DURANT, Iowa – Joe Lilienthal is one of the biggest high school football players in the state of Iowa. It’s been that way his entire career. He remembers growing seven inches as a middle-schooler, which made him the tallest kid in Durant. As a sophomore, he had already reached 6-foot-6 and weighed in at 265 pounds.
However, that didn’t necessarily equate to playing time right away on the Durant varsity football team.
“I watched him play his freshman year when I was the principal and didn’t coach,” third-year Durant football coach Joel Diederichs said. “I didn’t understand how this mountain of a man was on the sidelines.
“I thought to myself, (if I got the chance), I was going to utilize him every chance I got.”
Three years later, "Big Joe" Lilienthal is now a 6-foot-7, 325-pound senior left tackle headed to South Dakota next year and is the focal point of the Wildcats’ offense.
He’s the anchor of a unit that has close to 1,000 rushing yards in six games this season and relishes every time the Wildcats (3-3, 1-1) call a counter run where he gets to throw a crackback block. Lilienthal is also a safety net for first-year quarterback Keagan Head in pass protection.
“He can set and edge, and there are not too many guys that are going to go around him,” Diederichs said. “He finishes off blocks. It’s not just one level. When he caves down a side, it goes on down. Our running backs have benefited greatly from him doing that.
“He sets the tone, and the rest of the linemen follow it.”
His play hasn’t gone unnoticed, either, as Lilienthal received an invitation to play in the Blue-Grey High School All-American game in Atlanta on January 13.
“It’s a great honor,” Lilienthal said. “It’s going to be crazy. All of those guys are just freaks, all going to big (Division I) schools. It should be pretty fun.”
However, it wasn’t that long ago that Lilienthal still had freshman tendencies and lacked aggression according to Diederichs. The switch flipped for Lilienthal on September 29, 2017, in a 24-23 loss to West Branch.
He spent the entire game matched up against Jacob Barnhart, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound lineman being recruited by Iowa and Iowa State as a preferred walk-on. Lilienthal, a sophomore at the time, held his own.
“I might have got shoved around a little bit, but I think that was kind of when I knew I could do something,” Lilienthal said. “That changed my work ethic and told me I needed to get stronger and better at certain things.”
As a junior, Lilienthal was a second-team all-state selection in Class A. He still wasn’t satisfied, though, and joined many Division I prospects in working with JC Moreau, a sports performance coach, at Strength U in North Liberty, Iowa over the summer.
“It’s a lot of mobility and agility work,” Lilienthal said. “That’s what I really needed to get better at, moving my feet and getting faster. Working on my kick step and all of that stuff really helped a lot.
“I just have a lot more confidence knowing I’m a better player than I was last year.”
However, last summer was far from the first filled with hard work for the Durant senior. Growing on up the family farm, Lilienthal Farms, he learned patience and the value of hard work by spending days vaccinating pigs.
“Growing up on the farm gives you a lot of valuable lessons,” Lilienthal said. “That helped with my work ethic to get after it in the weight room and school.”
Still, what makes him stand out from most of his peers is his size. Put him on the Chicago Bears’ roster, and he would be the second-tallest and fourth-heaviest offensive lineman. That size came out of left field, as Lilienthal says his dad is “maybe 5-foot-11, 6-foot,” while his mom is 5-foot-9 and brother is 6-foot-4.
“You can’t teach size, but also his flexibility and willingness to go the extra yard,” Diederichs said. “I knew that’s what he needed to get to the next level, and he’s had that since his sophomore year.”
Lilienthal hopes to cut down on body fat and add muscle to get to 305 pounds by his freshman year of college. However, the senior is focused on finishing his high school career on a winning note.
“We all wish our record (3-3) would be a little bit better, but there’s no going back now,” Lilienthal said. “Hopefully, we can win out and take it one game at a time.”