Tyler Trent talks about writing his story, staying at Purdue and the whirlwind year he’s had as an inspiration figure.
Gregg Doyel, firstname.lastname@example.org
Tyler Trent, the Purdue student who sparked hope amid tears from a nation that followed his journey with terminal cancer, has died. He was 20.
Trent, who was battling a third round with the rare bone cancer osteosarcoma, died Tuesday, the family confirmed to IndyStar.
The unlikely sports hero — a kid with a shy grin, near perfect SAT score and dreams of becoming a national sportswriter — broke through the cluttered world of social media, inspiring a flood of support nationwide.
Trent’s story, bolstered by his extraordinary maturity and positivity inspired millions and, in turn, generated awareness and donations for cancer research. The Purdue super fan was the subject of ESPN features, named an honorary team captain for the Old Oaken Bucket game and received the Sagamore of the Wabash, the highest honor for Indiana civilians.
In December, he won Disney’s Wide World of Sports Spirit Award, given annually to college football’s most inspirational individual or team.
“His passion for life, his passion for Purdue football, his passion to do whatever he could, even in the midst of this crazy, horrible journey that he was on,” said Jamie Renbarger, Trent’s doctor at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. “He still wanted to help people. He was just a really genuine human being.”
Trent was born on Sept. 7, 1998, the oldest of three boys to Tony and Kelly Trent. He was always wiser than his years, his family said, a true big brother to Ethan and Blake.
His parents tell the story of a tiny Trent at dinner parties. The kids would be off playing somewhere else — and Trent would go with them, as long as he could stand it. But it didn’t take long before Tony and Kelly would see Trent creeping back toward the adults, trying to soak in everything he could hear them say.
“Come on Tyler. It’s OK, you can sit with us,” his parents would finally tell him. And he would. Trent’s wisdom at such a young age would only grow. And he would become a young man known for accomplishing just about anything he went for.
That included not letting cancer get in the way of how he wanted to live, even as he fought through pain and shattered dreams.
In the summer of 2014 he was playing ultimate Frisbee, despite an awful pain in his right arm. He grimaced, threw a long pass and his upper arm bone snapped in two. That was the osteosarcoma eating away at his bone, making it weak.
Doctors removed Trent’s tumor. He went through chemotherapy and nausea, never letting go of his dream to attend Purdue University. He beat the cancer and was declared free of the disease.
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But in the spring of 2017, just four months before he was set to head off to Purdue on a Presidential Scholarship (Trent scored in the 1500s on his SATs, with 1600 being the perfect mark) the cancer came back. This time in his pelvis.
Tony Trent said he looked in his son’s face and saw the devastation.
Surgeons removed the pelvis and put in a temporary fixture (it would later be replaced with a permanent pelvis) so Trent could start school in the fall. Trent would drive home from Purdue on weekends for chemotherapy, 7½ hours of treatment.
Once, in September 2017, he drove home for chemo on a Friday then back to Purdue, so he could camp out at Ross-Ade Stadium before the Michigan game. He wanted the elite seats in the student section.
That was when a glimpse of a remarkable cancer fighter first came to light.
Trent shared a tent with his longtime friend, Josh Seals. It was the only tent on the lot so people started noticing — someone was camped out to watch Purdue football.
The Lafayette Journal & Courier came out to do a story. The reporter looked at Trent and asked the question: Why do you care so much? The story of his cancer emerged. By day, Trent was at Riley doing chemo and by night he was sleeping in a tent to watch his beloved Purdue.
Coach Jeff Brohm, in his first season as head coach of Purdue, walked by and saw the shirtless kid in his striped gold and black overalls. He walked up to say hi.
“He didn’t really tell me his story then. It was a joy just to meet him a couple of minutes,” said Brohm. “But then you start to find out more about him, his story and what was really going on.”
Brohm and his team got to know Trent. They watched him go through his worst stages of cancer, yet attend any game he could. They visited him in his home when things were looking dire, made him honorary captain of the team, gave him credit for their wins.
“What gave him a sense of love and purpose touched all of us and inspired all of us,” Brohm said. “There was no quit in him. There was a lot of fight in him. It’s like you couldn’t get him down. While I’m sure he was in pain and suffering, he put a smile on his face.”
Beyond Trent’s love of sports was a love of doing good. Even as he battled osteosarcoma, Trent thought of others, forming an organization called Teens With a Cause. It recruited kids to do service projects for families affected by cancer, such as raking leaves, shoveling snow, running errands.
Trent also volunteered with the Purdue Dance Marathon, which raises money for Riley and the Purdue Center for Cancer Research. He donated the tissue of his tumor for research, one of the first osteosarcoma patients at Riley to do so.
“Tyler did so much for so many entities and people and a cause that was very personal to him, we’ve all sort of been swept up in this in lots of ways,” said Mike Bobinski, director of athletics at Purdue. “That is a selfless position not easy for people to take. For a young man like Tyler to do that, it’s remarkable.”
It was March when the cancer came back again, on his lower spine, near the L-4 vertebrae. Over the next nine months, Trent would become a household name.
One of Trent’s most inspiring moments came when Purdue beat Ohio State football 49-20 in October. Purdue wasn’t supposed to win, but Trent had predicted they would. Trent wasn’t supposed to be at the game, but he pledged to be there and was.
In his wheelchair after the game, Trent was weary, but elated. The nation saw a young man determined to keep marching forward.
Trent, however, knew his cancer was terminal.
“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,” Trent wrote in a guest column for IndyStar in early December. “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.”
In the last months of his life, Trent’s Carmel home was always full of visitors — sports figures, coaches, journalists, friends and family.
“The reason we wanted to be around Tyler is because we all like to think we could be as strong as he was going through something like this,” said IndyStar sports columnist Gregg Doyel, who became close to Trent. “We all want to be near greatness. The way he handled his cancer was nothing short of heroic.”
Doyel made frequent visits to Trent, taking him his favorite sweet, icy coffee drinks and breakfast burritos.
In his final days, paralyzed from the waist down with a left arm that didn’t work, Trent still wanted to talk about sports writing, Doyel said. He also wanted to know he had made a mark on the world.
Almost every time Doyel left Trent, he would tell him that he had made a difference to so many.
“Tyler, everybody says they want to be strong and they want to make a mark on the people around them,” Doyel would say. “Everybody says that and almost nobody does that. But you’re doing it and we’re all watching it happen.”
Trent wouldn’t smile. He would sit there, soaking in the words.
“He looked at ease,” Doyel said. “He looked peaceful.”