WEST LAFAYETTE – Tony Trent stood outside his son’s campus house, hands on his hips, staring at a metal ramp and searching for answers.
He had already unloaded the U-Haul and hung the “Never Give Up” Purdue picture in Tyler’s bedroom. He moved the couches and set up the bed just right so his 19-year-old son could maneuver in and out with his wheelchair.
Everything was just where it belonged inside Tyler’s house except one thing: Tyler himself.
The Purdue sophomore sat there on the sidewalk with a Cubs hat covering his thinning hair and a smile stretched across his face. The three-time cancer fighter, who will serve as an honorary captain for Thursday’s Hammer Down Cancer game, had cleared hurdle after hurdle to make his second year at Purdue possible.
He mapped out the wheelchair routes on campus. He counter-attacked the tumor on his spine aggressively enough with a painful mix of chemo and radiation to stop it from growing. He planned out a treatment schedule and pain management techniques.
And now this one final hurdle had his family stumped: an eight-inch step in front of the sidewalk.
What if we set up the metal ramp along the side of the porch? No. Too steep. What if Tyler wheels himself through the grass? No. Too many holes.
Tony and his wife, Kelly, give off the vibe of a classic Midwestern couple, punctuating practically every sentence with a “Thank you” instead of a period. When they ask if you want some pop or pizza, that's not a question. You're going to eat that pizza.
Most parents with kids Tyler’s age are worried about too much partying and too little studying. Tyler read 100 books this summer, for fun. He sits on the board at Purdue's Center for Cancer Research. If there was a problem in school last year, it was that he took too many tough classes.
Perhaps the most trouble Tyler has caused is when he came home with a tattoo. Even that situation ended with a stern warning when his parents realized it was the Christian fish symbol.
Tyler’s parents don't have to worry about normal parent stuff, they worry about ramps.
What if we buy some plywood and build something onto the grass? Or what if we jackhammer the sidewalk out and build a new runway?
It’s an obstacle, but by now the family is used to overcoming them.
It started in 2014 when Tyler was 16. He was throwing a Frisbee at a friend’s birthday party when his arm snapped. That’s when doctors first diagnosed him with osteosarcoma, a painful bone cancer that afflicts about 450 children and adolescents each year. Doctors eventually replaced his humerus and shoulder with titanium. The surgery took hours longer than expected, as surgeons picked each piece of bone out of his arm.
“Like a glass window shattered in my arm,” Tyler said.
The Carmel native was in remission for two years before the cancer recurred. This time, doctors found another tumor in his pelvis.
Tyler had his pelvis removed and his hip replaced less than two weeks before school started. Yet, he started his freshman year on time.
During his first semester, Tyler made the hour-long trek to Indianapolis each Friday and sat through six hours of outpatient chemotherapy. But each time, he kept coming back for class.
Then, on homecoming, Tyler introduced himself to the Purdue community. Hours after chemo, he camped outside of Ross-Ade Stadium to secure a front-row seat in the student section.
“That’s something I didn’t do for attention,” Tyler said. “That’s something I would do no matter the circumstances I’m under. That’s just who I am as a fan.”
That’s just who he is as a person, too. Tyler spent his freshman year crutching around campus, smiling and turning down everyone who offered him a ride.
He was on the sideline in San Francisco for the Boilers' thrilling victory over Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl. He made the trip to New York City for the men’s basketball team’s run to the Big Ten Tournament.
Maybe the most fitting moment came on the road at Iowa. The Hawkeyes started a new tradition where all of the fans at Kinnick Stadium turn and wave to the kids at the adjacent hospital. Tyler was there, waving the titanium arm from his own surgery to send support to children like him.
“I’m extremely blessed to say the least,” Tyler said.
This summer, Tyler’s cancer returned. This time, the tumor grew on the L3 vertebrae on his spine. The doctors couldn’t find drugs to stop the growth until the cancer had strangled the nerves running into his right leg, forcing Tyler into a wheelchair. As the cancer grew, it didn’t look like Tyler would be able to return in time for his sophomore year at Purdue.
But when Tyler heard doctors had stopped it from growing, there was no doubt he was coming back for his second year. They started planning those wheelchair routes and packing the U-Haul.
“I’m in a very stable place, as my other organs are functioning very well,” Tyler said. “Other than the tumor on my spine, I am what they consider to be healthy.”
As he’s sitting in the wheelchair outside his house, a neighbor jogs over to introduce himself. He’s heard Tyler’s story and wants to show support.
“You’re on bad-(expeletive), mother (expletive),” the college-aged man says.
That’s one way to describe him. Others have called him a super fan. An inspiration. A fighter.
But there’s one word that sums it up best: Boilermaker.
Purdue athletes and students pride themselves on this gritty blue-collar, nose-to-the-grindstone toughness. When there’s a problem in your path, beat it down. Keep hammering.
That’s what Boilermakers do. That’s what Tyler does.
And his dad? He's a 1991 grad. You can dig up his diploma somewhere or just look at him outside. There he is moving that ramp again. He’s got another idea. He isn’t sure if it will work or not.
But one thing is for certain, one way or another, this Boilermaker is going to find an answer.
Tyler serves on the board at Purdue University Center for Cancer Research. You can support cancer research by visiting cancerresearch.purdue.edu. He also is an ambassador at Riley Kids. You can support that cause at RileyKids.com