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Where Are They Now? 1984 New Orleans Saints draft pick Joel Hilgenberg

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By Jim Kleinpeter, special to

When Joel Hilgenberg arrived in New Orleans after being drafted by the Saints 40 years ago, his 10-year pro football career took off.

So did he – literally.

After his first season in 1984 he returned to the University of Iowa to finish his degree and picked up a pilot's license as well, following in his father, Jerry's, airspace.

Thirty years after retiring, he's still flying high.

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"Dad always had a passion for flying," said Hilgenberg, who played for the Saints from 1984-93. "When I was in junior high, he was getting lessons in a Piper Archer, learning to fly. I hopped in the backseat with my head between him and the instructor and followed along every flight. That lit the passion of flying in me.

"When I left Iowa, I took lessons right away and got my license. I've been flying ever since. I got into it with a nice group of people in New Orleans, they have a good warbird community there. I got to know the aviation community."

After a solid career with the Saints – 142 games played and 97 starts – Hilgenberg returned to his hometown of Iowa City, where he lives with wife Jeanie and daughter, Anna. He sold his prize purchase, a North American T-28 military training plane he'd found at Lakefront Airport, and partakes of his favorite hobby in his home state.

"I have a much more modest plane now, a Piper Arrow, like the Archer my dad had with a little more horsepower and retractable landing gear," Hilgenberg said. "I own it with a couple of other guys, and we have fun going out and taking trips around the Midwest, visiting family in the region. I'm still enjoying my flying passion."

That's just one of the many activities Hilgenberg enjoys. His older brother, Jay, a longtime Chicago Bears center, calls him a "hobbyist" for dabbling in multiple fields. Motorcycles, hiking, camping, fishing and hunting have all been interests.

The family was particularly fond of pheasant hunting and that led Joel Hilgenberg to an interest in German shorthair hunting dogs.

"I think dogs are wonderful, I enjoy their personalities and the German shorthair is an amazing breed," he said. "Such an intelligent dog, if you don't watch out they'll run the house.

"I spend a lot of time with my wife and daughter, pursuing the flying and leading a simple life."

Football was more like a family business which produced four Iowa centers. Jerry was an All American in 1953 while Joel, Jay and their older brother Jim followed suit at the position. Wally Hilgenberg, a 16-year veteran linebacker for the Lions and Vikings, was Jerry's brother and the boys' uncle.

The Saints picked Hilgenberg in the fourth round with the 94th selection. On draft day, Hilgenberg answered the phone and then Saints coach Bum Phillips asked him if he ever thought he'd be a Saint.

"I said, 'My mom thinks I am'," Hilgenberg said with a laugh.

Hilgenberg turned into a reliable, highly-respected player who won the starting job for good under Coach Jim Mora in the magical 1987 season. The Saints had their first winning season and playoff berth, setting the city afire with exhilaration.

"It's an amazing community, amazing support," Hilgenberg said. "Iowa City was the only place I'd lived to that point. It's a different slice of life down there. It was fun for me to see that."

Hilgenberg was selected to the 1992 Pro Bowl and was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame in 2006. One of his biggest thrills was when Jay joined the Saints when Joel was out with an injury. Jay was a two-time All-Pro who played 13 seasons, 11 with the Bears.

"If you were a Hilgenberg, you were a center," said Jay, who lives in the Chicago area. "We pulled for each other and helped each other out. It was a special time playing with him that year. The last time we had played together was when I was a senior and he was a freshman at Iowa."

Photos of Joel Hilgenberg with the New Orleans Saints.

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