Tyler Trent, the Purdue superfan who became a national inspiration as he battled cancer, died Tuesday night of cancer, leaving behind memories of “his grace and his strength,” as ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt put it while leaving an empty chair on the “SportsCenter” set.
Trent, a 20-year-old from Carmel, Ind., had hoped to go into sports journalism and managed to attend Purdue despite several bouts with a rare bone cancer that was diagnosed when he broke his arm five years ago. He first drew the football team’s attention when he camped outside the stadium in the fall of 2017, shortly after a chemotherapy treatment, and was photographed with Coach Jeff Brohm. As Brohm learned more about Trent, the two bonded and Trent became an inspirational figure for the team and a national figure after Purdue’s 49-20 upset of Ohio State, a victory he had predicted.
“I think our players recognize that Tyler has overcome a lot and battled throughout a lot, and he still has that great smile, and he still looks tremendous, and he’s definitely a Boilermaker,” Brohm told reporters after the game. “He’s No. 1 in our heart.”
Along the way, Trent has been honored with “Tyler Strong” signs, a bobblehead and the Disney Spirit Award at the College Football Hall of Fame earlier this month. Trent briefly left hospice care last week, flying on Colts owner Jim Irsay’s plane to see his beloved Boilermakers lose to Auburn on Dec. 28 in the Music City Bowl.
Trent learned he had osteosarcoma when, as a high school student, he broke his arm while playing ultimate Frisbee. In 2014, his right hip was replaced when cancer was found in his pelvis and he faced a number of battles until his condition worsened this fall. He began receiving hospice care and, in an essay published last week about the things he is grateful for, Trent mentioned that big Ohio State game, but kept it in perspective.
“Though I am in hospice care and have to wake up every morning knowing that the day might be my last, I still have a choice to make: to make that day the best it can be. To make the most of whomever comes to visit, texts, tweets or calls me,” he wrote.
“Yet isn’t that a choice we all have every day? After all, nobody knows the amount of days we have left. Some could say we are all in hospice to a certain degree.
“So why don’t we act like it? Where is your gratitude? This Christmas, what are you thankful for? I had to write my will recently, and I’m just thankful I can give my family Christmas presents, maybe even for one last time. Let’s not forget my doctors gave me three months to live almost two-and-a-half months ago. So why can’t we live grateful lives? Why can’t we make every day count like it’s the last?
“To me, that’s what gratitude in hospice means.”
Trent’s inspiration sent ripples nationwide, thanks in large part to ESPN, his relationship with the V Foundation (named for the late coach Jim Valvano) and his relationship with Adrian Wojnarowski and Van Pelt, among others. “This was one of the things he taught me — never stop dreaming, never lose hope, never stop moving forward,” Wojnarowski wrote. “He wanted to be a sportswriter — or maybe work in analytics for a pro team, he told me — and . . . a part of him was still preparing for one of those jobs. He knew he was dying soon, but Tyler looked at it this way: I am still living.”
Most people probably learned of Trent’s death when they tuned in for “SportsCenter” and saw that Van Pelt had left a chair empty for him. “We were honored to have crossed paths with this young man,” Van Pelt said, “and we were all better for it, all impacted by his grace and his strength in the face of the fight. I promised I’d save you a chair. We did. Boiler up and hammer down. Now you can rest, young man.”
Trent, according to Wojnarowski, had been unable to respond to texts and messages since Christmas Day as he began slipping away and Woj remembered a visit in Indiana with Trent last fall. “There are a lot of kids like me who no one will ever know,” he quoted Trent as telling him. “I don’t want there to be any more of them. I want to play a part in ending all of this.”
After his death, Brohm and Purdue promised that #TylerStrong would continue. “His courage, strength and spirit touched a nation and inspired us all!!” Brohm tweeted Tuesday night upon learning of Trent’s death. “We love you Tyler!”
“While there are no words to ease the hurt at times like this, we hope some comfort can be found in knowing what an inspiration Tyler is to our student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans,” the athletic department said in a statement. “The entire Purdue Athletics family has been touched by his courageous battle, positive spirit and unwavering faith. Tyler was the embodiment of a true Boilermaker who will live on in each of us. We will forever be #TylerStrong.”
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