I’ve never, ever had a reason to root for Purdue. Saturday night the Boilermakers earned my fandom simply because they were playing Ohio State. The other reason came through Tyler Trent.
Like many, I was introduced to Tyler’s story that morning on ESPN’s College Gameday through Tom Rinaldi’s wizardry of making me cry like a leaky bucket. When he was 15 years old Tyler broke his arm throwing a frisbee. That, he and his family learned, came through the cancer eating at the bone in his arm. That arm bone, between the shoulder and the elbow, was eventually replaced with titanium. Since then, Tyler has also had to have his pelvis and hip replaced due to the cancer spread.
Tyler ended up attending Purdue while undergoing cancer treatments. In addition to cancer being a presence in my family, maybe I felt a kinship with Tyler over the fact he was a sportswriter. Tyler used those skills to write a column on Purdue’s Hammer Down Cancer game Aug. 30 against Northwestern.
A month after writing the column, he posted this to Facebook:
update: I’m sad to say I will not be making it back to #Purdue. 💔 My health has taken a turn for the worse and the level of care I now need is too great. While I may not know how many days I have left, I’m trusting the one who does! #onlythestrong #boilerforlife #godsgotthis
That came on the same day Purdue won its second game of the season, and first in the conference, with a 42-28 victory over Nebraska. Members of the football team visited Tyler, now in hospice care, at his home afterwards to give him the game ball. Quarterback David Blough led in a group prayer around Tyler’s bed.
On Oct. 9 another group gathered in the front yard of the Trent home for a prayer and worship service. Afterwards, Tyler talked about the effect it had on him.
“Just the outpouring of support from everyone, just to see the fact that several hundred people would show up to sing and pray over my family means a lot for sure,” he said.
Before the game Saturday Rinaldi met up with Tyler again in a suite high above the field at Ross-Ade Stadium on Purdue’s campus. Tyler had had a rough week and wasn’t sure he could make it to the game. Even 24 hours earlier, he wasn’t sure if he’d be strong enough to attend.
But he was. And, he predicted a Purdue win over the heavily-favored, second-ranked Buckeyes.
I hoped his team could win. I really did. But, I expected an Ohio State beatdown of typical Buckeye proportions. After all, this was Purdue. They were Ohio State. Purdue hadn’t beaten a top-two team in 34 years. OSU had survived their only expected challenge, against Penn State, until Michigan. This was going to be just another Saturday.
Then the game started.
As the Boilermakers built their lead, more people tuned in until 7.11 million were watching the final minutes. There’s no way of knowing how many did so because of Tyler’s story, of course. But I like to think that, like me, they’d found themselves invested in a Purdue win. When a Boilermaker pick-six all but sealed it, my daughter sent me a text from downstairs:
Watching the fans rush the field and later Tyler addressing the team, I couldn’t help but wonder at the impact this made on people. Not just casual football fans, but everyone who’s felt the weight of cancer or some other kind of terminal illness.
The next day I saw this from Tyler’s Twitter account:
Like you and me, Tyler Trent’s family would prefer their faith be known … minus cancer. This wasn’t the road they chose. But now on that road, their voice has received a platform it wouldn’t have had otherwise. In The Problem with Pain, C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Want to talk to a fearless Christian? Find one who’s been through the fire. They have a perspective that goes beyond the temporal. They’ve come face-to-face with the questions and situations the rest of us avoid. Their awareness of eternity and life’s gift is more acute. Because of that, their boldness grows.
Whatever negative situation we face, it’s important to not waste it. People are watching to see how we respond. That’s not why we respond in obedience, of course, it’s because our faith calls us to. That response to our Lord is what catches others’ attention, and what speaks loudly to a fallen world as though through a megaphone.