Purdue superfan Tyler Trent celebrates Christmas at home with his family
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
WORDS // Jennifer S.H. Smith PHOTO & VIDEO // Megan Mellinger Photography Headline photo courtesy of Kelly Trent
A wreath on the door welcomes the many visitors to the Trent home. Garland encircles the stair railing with festive white twinkle lights and bright red bows. Kelly Trent, with her bright blue eyes shining, greets us warmly as she throws the door wide, welcoming us to the Trent home at Christmas. Her husband, Tony, in a long-sleeved T-shirt and down vest, waves from the kitchen. On the mantle near the Christmas tree are smiling photographs of their three sons.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…
Taking a step into the home, the very first person you encounter is the subject of our interview, Kelly and Tony’s 20-year-old son, Tyler. Tyler lies in bed right off the entryway in the front room. His bed is cozy and warm, made up with flannel sheets and a fuzzy fleece Purdue blanket. Yet, it’s still a hospital bed, as Tyler is in the final stages of a deadly disease, Osteosarcoma: cancer of the bones.
Certainly, this room had a different purpose in earlier days. Perhaps a dining room or a sitting room. Today it looks more like a dorm room or even a sports memorabilia museum.
“This was all given to Tyler?” I query, indicating the plaques, ribbons, medals, autographed jerseys and photos that handsomely adorn the walls surrounding Tyler’s bed.
Kelly shakes her head incredulously. “I know, can you believe it?” Professional athletes who heard Tyler’s story started sending him memorabilia, and now it completely covers the walls. Letters from President Trump, Vice President Pence, members of congress, senators, governors, mayors…all to Tyler. Photos of Tyler posing with various famous athletes and celebrities sit amongst photos of childhood friends and college buddies. “We were sent the flag that flew over the United States Capital in honor of Tyler’s life,” Kelly remarks.
“Tyler, Tyler…” says Kelly, gently caressing her son’s forehead and beckoning him awake from his slumber. “Our friends are here….” Tyler’s eyes flicker momentarily, and he seems to be trying to say something, but then he’s quiet again, his thin, frail body pale against the dark bedding. It’s a difficult day.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God…
This quiet, lethargic Tyler is a far cry from the energetic, boisterous and strong-willed Purdue University student who endeared himself to the Purdue community and then the nation as its most loved “superfan.” Tyler’s story first started making headlines in the fall of 2017 when he and a friend camped out at the Purdue stadium before a football game to secure front-row seats just hours after Tyler endured a chemotherapy treatment. Local media picked up the story, and overnight Tyler became the face of Purdue athletics, as well as cancer research.
Tyler joined Purdue’s freshman class that year, less than two weeks after enduring surgery to remove and rebuild his pelvis and hip. Determined to just be a “normal” kid, he refused most accommodations – like having a single room in the dorm – and threw himself headlong into campus activities and athletics. Despite intense chemotherapy, the tumors continued to grow and new tumors formed on his spine in early 2018. Living with constant intense pain, seizures and partial paralysis, Tyler’s faith in Jesus was still undaunted and he encouraged everyone he met. He was soon named a co-captain of the football team.
In the fall of 2018, Tyler made the difficult decision to withdraw from Purdue as his health declined. He still was on the field for football games, however. ESPN College Gameday spotlighted Tyler’s four-year ordeal with bone cancer and his dogged tenacity and enduring spirit leading up to the Purdue – Ohio State game on October 20. Tyler’s greatest wish was to be well enough to attend the game, but his declining health was seemingly going to prevent it. In the interview, Tyler predicted that unranked Purdue would beat undefeated Ohio State.
The cameras followed Tyler and his family as they miraculously traveled to the game and watched one of the biggest upsets of the season. The Purdue Boilermakers trounced the Buckeyes of Ohio State, with Tyler on the field giving the team inspiration. “This one’s for you, Tyler Trent,” the sportscaster said as the seconds ticked down and Purdue fans stormed the field. Tyler suddenly became a household name, and his grit and positive spirit, as well as his vibrant faith in his Mighty God were on display for all to see.
“That night was the best moment of my life,” says Tony Trent, Tyler’s dad. “Outside of becoming a believer, marrying my wife and kids being born, that was a magical night. Just the day before, the odds of us making it [to the game] were slim to none. But it was like the Lord breathed new life into him. It rallied him for weeks.”
Slews of awards and honors followed the Purdue – Ohio State game. At the College Football Awards show on ESPN, Tyler was given the Disney Spirit Award. Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb presented him with the highest civilian award, the Sagamore of the Wabash, and Purdue endowed a scholarship in his name. Each interviewer experienced Tyler’s passion for Purdue football, but also his greater passion for Jesus.
When Tyler rouses himself, briefly and excruciatingly during our visit, his weak and slurred speech make us all lean in to hear his words. “All my strength comes from my faith in Jesus Christ,” he proclaims, his eyes opening for a brief moment. Then he quotes his favorite verse, the one he’s shared with lawmakers, sports legends and media personalities, the one God gave him the day he found out he had cancer: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
For the Trents, the recognition and awards are humbling, but the greatest part of all of these accolades is the realization that God is using Tyler in amazing ways. “When Tyler’s cancer came back in 2017, he started praying that God would use his journey for His Glory. We sat down as a family and read Psalm 103 together,” says Tony.
Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion…Psalm 103:1-4
“We determined that no matter what, we would honor God.”
…Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…
Back at the Trent home, Tyler lapses into sleep, and his parents gather with me around a sturdy, round farmhouse kitchen table. Their kindness and openness, even during their most agonizing trial astonishes me, and we laugh and cry together as they recount the ups and downs of Tyler’s long battle. Honoring God with a son dying of cancer is not easy. In fact, it’s a heart-wrenching agony the Trents wouldn’t wish on anyone. Cancer steals so many of life’s simple pleasures – like having a meal all together – and strains all their relationships, activities and livelihood. Doubts assail. Loneliness surrounds.
Yet, there is peace. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, reflects on the faces of two exhausted yet faithful parents in a way that is beyond comprehension.
“I’m not sure I would have always said this, but at this point in our journey, I can clearly say that God has a purpose and a plan,” says Kelly, her face serene despite the turmoil that surrounds. “His purpose is far greater than us and our suffering.”
Tony joins in. “We as Americans don’t long for Jesus’ coming. We don’t long to be in heaven because we have everything we think we need. We’re going to celebrate the King coming next week on Christmas. We have learned to long—to sincerely long for heaven, to long for the King.”
The fact that Tyler is still here for another Christmas season defies all that his doctors thought possible, as he was given just weeks to live several months ago. His presence is a gift his parents are savoring this Christmas. “If I truly believe that my kids are gifts from God, then they belong to God. I’m just a steward. Who am I to say that God’s ways are wrong?” Tony explains with tear-filled eyes.
Kelly nods her agreement, but then looks down toward her clasped hands. “And yet, there is something so unnatural about watching your child suffer and die,” she says. “We cling to God’s character and rest in His faithfulness. We are thankful regardless and trust the feelings will follow as we exercise our trust. By God’s grace, I truly believe God will see us through this.”
Kelly raises her eyes to meet mine. “Tyler wins either way. Either he has more time on earth, or he sees Jesus in heaven. Either way he wins.”