KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Ryan Lilja is no longer the fresh-faced kid from Shawnee Mission Northwest High School and Kansas State. He appeared in front of Kansas City reporters Thursday for the first time since he rejoined the Chiefs last month and did so with full beard and plenty of gray in his hair.
But he indicated he's as enthusiastic about playing for his hometown team as he was when he was briefly a member of the Chiefs six years ago.
"As soon as this one presented itself, I got that old feeling," said Lilja, who will start for the Chiefs at offensive guard. "It's a special thing to be able to play in your hometown.
"There's a big place in my heart for the Chiefs. I've been a fan my whole life. I've had a couple of weeks to grasp that I'm back and I'm a Chief."
The Chiefs corrected the mistake they made in 2004 when they released Lilja, then an undrafted rookie. He was quickly signed by Indianapolis, where he started for five years, missing only the 2008 season because of a knee injury.
He was also a starter on both of the Colts' Super Bowl teams. But Lilja was released by Indianapolis after the end of last season when the Colts decided they needed to get bigger on the offensive line. Lilja also reportedly failed his end-of-season physical because of knee problems.
The 2004 Chiefs had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Willie Roaf, Brian Waters, Will Shields and Casey Wiegmann were among their starters.
The Chiefs were trying to sneak Lilja through waivers and on to their practice squad before Indianapolis intervened.
"I wanted to be here," Lilja said. "It was great to sign here and be a part of the team for a small amount of time. But I wanted to be here and be on the team. For several years, nobody did it better than those (offensive linemen). So that was exciting for me and all of the things about the location were great.
"I was disappointed. But it's worked out. I've had a great run. It's been awesome. But now I'm more excited to be back here."
After he was released by the Colts, Seattle and Houston also expressed interest in Lilja, but the Chiefs moved quickly. While he was intrigued about a possible return home — Lilja returned to the area every offseason and is building a home in Lake Quivira — it took more than a phone call from the hometown team to sell him on playing for the Chiefs.
General manager Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley had some recruiting to do.
"There were a lot of things about being back here and playing for this team that were appealing to me because I grew up here," Lilja said. "But from a purely objective standpoint, coming into a meeting with those guys and seeing what they've done and their philosophies and the moves they're making to bring in the right guys, that was impressive."
For their part, the Chiefs were looking to rebuild their offensive line. They had already signed Wiegmann, who played for the Chiefs through 2007. Lilja, 28, is much younger than Wiegmann, 36, and has been a significant factor for successful teams in Indianapolis.
"Ryan is another tough, tough physically and tough-minded player," Haley said. "He's been on a successful team. I like that aspect of it. He's athletic. He's a throwback player in my mind."
But Lilja's stay in Indianapolis unraveled surprisingly quickly. After the Colts lost to New Orleans in the Super Bowl, general manager Bill Polian was critical of the way the offensive linemen played.
"It was confusing I think to us," Lilja said. "I thought we felt like we played a good game. He's entitled to his opinion. We don't have to agree with it. I definitely didn't."
The Colts also left the impression Lilja was damaged goods by leaking the information that he failed his physical. Lilja started every game last season and said he hasn't been limited in offseason conditioning.
"I don't really understand that too much," Lilja said. "But they're entitled to do what they want to do, say what they want to say. I'm moving on."