WEST LAFAYETTE — On a Saturday afternoon this fall, Tyler Trent flipped through college football games from the bed in his family’s living room when his friend Josh Seals rolled through on a skateboard.
If Seals’ name sounds familiar, it should. One year earlier, the two lifelong friends had camped outside of Purdue’s homecoming game against Michigan just hours after Tyler received chemotherapy. It was that moment when Tyler introduced himself to the Purdue community and earned super fan status, showing that cancer wasn’t going to keep him from living life on his terms.
Now, the two friends were together again on a football Saturday. But this time, a year older, Seals propped his 6-inch skateboard against the wall, frustrated. Someone had stolen Seals’ longboard. Who does something like that? Even worse, he just found out he had read the syllabus wrong and had hours of math homework waiting for him at home.
Skateboards. Homework. These are the type of things 20-year-old kids are supposed to be worrying about.
Yet, there was Tyler.
The bone cancer that was discovered in 2014, when his arm snapped in two during the middle of an Ultimate Frisbee game, forced him to worry about more than skateboards and homework and girls. The terminal bone cancer came back a third time in his spine. It caused Tyler to withdraw from school and deal with what to do now that he’d lost the ability to use his legs and one arm.
To see the two friends who made headlines together side-by-side in the living room that afternoon underscored just how young Tyler was. And, more than anything, it highlighted just how unfair this all was. I left his house that day confused and angry and sad and frustrated all at once. I wanted to punch a wall and curl in a ball and then do it all over again.
It’s a feeling that has stuck with me for months, one that’s coming back even stronger now that I heard the news Tyler passed on Tuesday.
But then, I think about Tyler's smile.
He didn’t get the chance to live the life of a normal 20-year-old. He didn’t get to worry like a 20-year-old.
No. That's because he wasn't normal. He was special.
Tyler’s legacy, at least part of it, will be how he handled himself in the face of an unspeakable obstacle. He didn’t want other people feeling sorry for him or helping him. He was a fighter, crutching around campus and turning down every ride he was offered.
Like so much about Tyler, I don’t know how he did it.
I don’t know how he took a situation that should have been filled with so much sadness and instead breathed so much joy into our lives. I don’t know how he found a way to stare his own mortality in the face and smile back with that ever-present, understanding grin.
Maybe it was because he was mature beyond his years with a near-perfect SAT score and a passion for learning that caused him to read 100 books in one summer. Maybe it was because he had wonderful parents, Tony and Kelly, who were by his side each day, feeding him pie one fork at a time when their son lost use of his left arm.
Maybe it was because he was selfless to the point he donated part of his tumor in a painful procedure that might one day help someone like him. Maybe it was because he was a man of faith, who leaned on his religion all the way until the end, especially verse 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
He was different. He was special.
It seemed everyone who came in contact with Tyler saw what I saw. And really, there were so many who connected with Tyler. Tough-guy coach Jeff Brohm has been nearly moved to tears on numerous occasions just at the mention of Tyler. Vice President Mike Pence reached out to Tyler’s family. SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt had him on the show, something the aspiring sports writer loved.
As a community, we’ve tried to show Tyler what he’s meant to us. The Boilers student section chanted “Cancer Sucks” at kickoff of the Ohio State game, the thrilling upset Tyler predicted. Purdue awarded Tyler his degree early. The Indiana Pacers and Indianapolis Colts made him part of their teams in their own ways, inviting him to practices and into their locker rooms. Indiana presented him with the Sagamore of the Wabash, the highest honor for Indiana civilians, and Disney presented him with its “Sports Spirit Award.”
But even now, I’m trying to come up with the right way to put Tyler’s impact into words and offer him the fitting tribute he deserves. I’m finding myself feeling a lot of the same things I did that football afternoon this fall at his home. I’m angry and sad and confused and want to punch a wall and curl up in a ball again.
For now, the best words I can come up with are these: Thank you.
Thank you for coming into my life and sharing small chapters of your beautiful story with me. Thank you for showing me years aren’t the right unit to measure the impact you’ve had on this world. Thank you for inspiring us with that smile, unending resiliency and unique outlook on life.
You have been with us for just 20 years. But your story is one that will continue to be told for decades. Your legacy will span generations. And your fighting spirit will be celebrated in this world and the one to come.
Thank you, Tyler.