'This is what his life did': Tyler Trent legacy forever a part of Purdue

Editor's note: This story originally published Oct. 18, 2019. You can visit v.org/TylerTrent to help researchers fight cancer in adolescents and young adults like Tyler Trent.

Four weeks into the first college football season they'll spend without their oldest son, Tony and Kelly Trent reel off all the cities they'll visit in the next few months in his name.

"Little Rock in October," Tony says. "In December we're going to Chicago. Traveling to Nashville in January."

There were more cities before those and there will be more after, where they'll accept an award on Tyler's behalf or raise money in his honor or offer some words in his memory. It's affirming even as it's draining, this constant clamoring for the son they lost. So they'll continue to go, to show up to these cities for tributes and benefits and speeches, even as new requests flood in every week.

"Tyler would want us to," Tony says.

The demand for Tyler is hardly new, but it's still startling. About this time last fall, for the whole country to see on ESPN's College GameDay, Tyler predicted that his favorite team, Purdue (Purdue! Historically hapless Purdue!), would upend Ohio State (Ohio State! Second-ranked, unbeaten Ohio State!) at home in West Lafayette, Indiana. He forecast this upset -- presciently, as it turned out -- a few days before the game from his home in Carmel, Indiana, sitting just outside his makeshift bedroom, the one Tony and Kelly set up in the dining room downstairs after Tyler entered hospice care. After four years of battling cancer off and on, the doctors had found his osteosarcoma had spread. Again. He issued his nervy prediction in a voice battered by sickness, and the combination -- his vigor, his vulnerability -- launched Tyler to a national prominence that outlived him. That lives today.

Just a few weeks earlier, he had been a sophomore at Purdue's Polytechnic Institute. He was 20 years old. He had once loved to backpack in the woods of Kentucky's Red River Gorge and play Ultimate Frisbee with his best friend, Josh Seals, but after doctors found a fourth tumor, the one on his clavicle, Tyler spent nearly the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He died on New Year's Day.

Now Tony and Kelly sit among the tokens of his life, these fragments of evidence of the family they used to be. On their weathered brown leather sofa: a throw pillow embroidered with the song Kelly sang to Tyler when he was little. You are my sunshine / my only sunshine. On the console table next to that sofa: a photo of the three Trent boys perched on a railing. Tyler, at 18, wedged between his younger brothers, Blake and Ethan, wearing a pink polo, his brown hair grown in and swept to the side in that brief two-year remission when he was cancer-free for the last time in his life.

Kelly sometimes daydreams now about what Tyler would have made of Adam Vinatieri missing five kicks in the Colts' first two games this season. About how Tyler would have really liked to see Ethan play on his high school football team. Yes, he would've loved that, she thinks. It's strange how almost anything at all, things Tyler will never know or see, can bring him to her -- wayward NFL kicks or high school freshman football -- just because he's the one she wants to share them with. He was a good cheerleader.

That's how this all really started, after all, how Tyler's story morphed from a Purdue football story to a Purdue University story to an Indiana story to a national story. Two years ago, in September 2017, Tyler and that childhood friend, Josh, decided to camp out overnight before the game against Michigan, to sleep in a tent in the concrete expanse of Ross-Ade Stadium's student gate. While Josh went to class that Friday, Tyler drove an hour southeast, to Indianapolis, for chemotherapy. He was a few weeks into his freshman year then; he was fighting osteosarcoma for the second time as a teenager. After leaving the hospital, Tyler picked up camping gear -- a tent, an air mattress -- toted it back to West Lafayette and set up shop to wait, as Tyler admitted, "for tickets that no one else wanted."

News cameras noticed the two freshmen, but in particular the one with crutches and no hair. (Ten days before arriving on campus, Tyler underwent hip replacement surgery as part of his treatment during this second fight with osteosarcoma, this time a tumor on his pelvis.) Purdue football coach Jeff Brohm did too, as he walked past the pair on his way out of the training complex to grab a bite to eat. Before Tyler became a de facto member of the team, this was Brohm's introduction to him: as a maniacal Purdue superfan.

Tony still remembers how much he didn't want his son out there that night. How hard he implored Tyler not to be a good cheerleader, just that once.

Tyler, you just had chemo.
Tyler, you don't need to be camping out overnight.
Tyler, what are you going to do -- sleep on the concrete?

"I think about if I were really to put my foot down," Tony says, still for a moment on his couch, surrounded by those fragments. "Where would this story be?"

THE DAY STARTED early, at 9 in the morning, and Tony and Kelly were grateful for the packed schedule, for the back-to-back media appearances, for the unebbing flow of fans and university officials who wanted to talk to them or show them a new piece of art dedicated to Tyler, for the distraction of it all. They both dreaded and welcomed Sept. 7, 2019. It was Tyler's birthday -- what would have been Tyler's 21st birthday -- and it was also the day, in the hours ahead of its home opener against Vanderbilt, Purdue would unveil its new student gate.

Tony wore a black T-shirt that morning, one that showed a picture of Tyler in his gold Purdue blazer, arms raised and victorious. At the podium, his back to the metal gates of the stadium, Tony thanked the crowd for coming to celebrate Tyler, while overhead, a black drape peeled away to reveal a steel arch that spanned the red brick of Ross-Ade Stadium. Written in gold: "Tyler Trent Student Gate," with his signature, "T2," in the center. And underneath, a plaque telling Tyler Trent's story.

He will be forever our captain, and we always will be #TylerStrong.

The president of Purdue, Mitch Daniels, sent that plaque back three times before issuing his final approval, wrestling with exactly how to capture this strange, beautiful bond between a school and a student. "It just wasn't right," he told Kelly.

The Trents -- Tony and Kelly and Blake and Ethan -- walked through the gate first. Josh Seals joined them, and about 20 feet from where he camped out with Tyler for that Michigan game two seasons ago, he walked under an archway that bore Tyler's name. Josh hasn't camped out again. He doesn't know if he will. "I'm not sure I really want to do it again without Tyler," he says.

There were more tributes. The Purdue Center for Cancer Research invited the family to watch the game from its suite, the same suite where they had watched Purdue down Ohio State a year earlier with Tyler.

"That was hard," Kelly says.

Other suites asked them to stop by. They wanted to say hello or show the new art they had on display, Tyler with a pair of wings, for example. At the end of the first quarter, the student section sang "Happy Birthday" to Tyler, raising their yellow TylerStrong towels upward, while Kelly was out in the hallway talking to another well-wisher. She didn't hear the song.

"I'm glad I didn't, honestly," she says.

Like so much else after Tyler's death, the gesture was equal parts beautiful and wrenching. She loved that they wanted to sing to him. She didn't know if she could bear to hear it when the person they were celebrating wasn't there to hear it himself.

Tyler is everywhere in West Lafayette. Above the pair of glass doors that lead to the football coaches' offices: TYLER STRONG in black block letters. Next to the elevators in the football complex: a pencil drawing of Jeff Brohm and Tyler, side by side, sketched and donated by a fan. Listed alongside the names of six seniors in the weekly game notes, an official title: Tyler Trent Team Captain.

There are already Purdue football players who don't know Tyler personally or the place he earned on their team. They won't get the chance to go to his house, as David Blough and Elijah Sindelar and Markus Bailey did last year after they beat Nebraska, to deliver a game ball and kneel in prayer together. They won't hear their phone chirp with a text message like Blough, then find a Bible verse Tyler had sent that had helped him through a particularly tough day and that he hoped would help Blough too. They won't get offers from Tyler like wide receiver Rondale Moore did, 10 days after they first really got to know each other. ("If you ever want to come to a Pacers game with us, just ask," Tyler wrote to Moore.)

Tyler could make an offer like that and mean it. Kevin Pritchard, the Pacers' president of basketball operations, had heard of Tyler's story and been moved by it. There were others. Chris Ballard, the general manager of the Colts, who would visit with Tyler on Fridays and ask Tyler to review scouting film. Trey Mock, the Colts' mascot, who visited Tyler at home in costume, then took off his head gear, stayed for a conversation and made a friend. Dabo Swinney called. Mike Pence called too. Tyler grew so close to the Purdue team that when rumors flew that Louisville had come calling for Coach Brohm after the Boilermakers' uncharacteristically strong showing last season, Tyler texted Brohm to apply some peer pressure to stay in West Lafayette. (Brohm wrote back, "You don't have anything to worry about. I'm going to do the right thing.") Local reporters even called the Trent household to see if the family, these unexpected insiders, knew anything about Brohm's fate.

People wanted to touch Tyler because he touched them -- with his dogged faith and his devotion to Purdue and his grace in the face of sickness. That sustained Tyler. Kelly remembers the last Purdue game Tyler went to, the bowl game against Auburn in Nashville just a few days before Tyler would succumb to his cancer. He was in so much pain. He'd fade in and out of consciousness from that pain, from the medication meant to dull that pain, but manage to scrape together the energy to fulfill interview requests or talk to fans when they came calling.

Tyler was humbled by all of it, but he was honest too. He welcomed this public embrace but had never wished for it. If it were up to him, he would've taken the clean scans and a life free of chemotherapy and a future that never included "two weeks to two months to live" before he reached 20.

"He told me at the end," Tony says, "he said, 'Dad, I would give all this up -- all of this up -- just to be healthy again.'"

Tony understood. He wished for that too. He wishes for that still.

"I want my old life back," Tony says. "I would love to have my old life back."

BEFORE TYLER ENROLLED at Purdue, before he correctly predicted Purdue would beat Ohio State on a night in October and launched himself to national fame, he wasn't even sure he wanted to attend Purdue. Tony was a Purdue alum himself and grew up in a small town called Flora, some 25 miles from campus. ("There's only, like, one flashing stoplight," Kelly explains. "No, there's two," Tony shoots back.)

Tyler was torn, though. Maybe Indiana. Maybe Purdue. Maybe, hopefully, NC State. Tyler was a teenager, in remission at the time, but his father asked him the question anyway. This was the reality of cancer, even cancer that was history. What if he was far from home? What would he do?

"Tyler, what if you get sick again?"

When he did get sick again, during his senior year of high school in 2017, he had already chosen Purdue. When he didn't just stay sick but grew sicker -- during the second semester of his freshman year, doctors confirmed that a tumor on Tyler's spine wasn't shrinking but was doubling in size despite chemotherapy and that a new tumor had appeared on his clavicle -- Tony and Kelly pulled him out of school.

The hiatus didn't take. By the summer of 2018, Tyler, even in hospice, told his parents he wanted to go back to West Lafayette for the fall semester. Maybe he couldn't cram six or seven of his friends into his Acura MDX to drive to their 8:30 a.m. econ class anymore (they played a lot of Minecraft in that lecture hall in CL50 those mornings). But he wanted to be on campus, to reclaim this one normal thing.

Tony and Kelly resisted. Tyler was in a wheelchair and rapidly losing mobility. Kelly was responsible for taking care of his bedsores. Could he even get himself from his bed to his chair? Could he get himself to the bathroom? Kelly let him talk through the idea, not convinced he should or even could go back. But Tyler was a planner. A skilled negotiator. In the fall of 2016 -- he was a senior in high school at the time and more than a year into remission -- when the Cubs won the World Series, he couldn't find any friends who wanted to join him for the three-hour drive to Chicago for the championship parade. Still, he offered Kelly a spreadsheet with a breakdown, plot point by plot point, of how he would make his way to Wrigley Field on his own. The route he would drive. The spot in which he'd park. The train he would catch into the city. The Airbnb he would rent. He made it to the parade, toting a sign that read, "I beat cancer to see the Cubs win a World Series."

He made it back to campus too. Tyler's palliative nurse came by for a house visit, intending to argue Kelly's side, to convince him that going back to school would be impossible. But Tyler had been reading a book called "When Breath Becomes Air," a memoir of a neurosurgeon fighting his own stage IV cancer diagnosis. He opened his copy to read them one passage.

Why? Because I could. Because that's who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I'm dying, until I actually die, I am still living.

"I knew that day," Kelly says. "I've got to let him live while he can, you know?"

The million indignities that come with cancer followed Tyler back to West Lafayette. Of course they did. Tyler found a new wheelchair that would help him get around campus, but that didn't stop the relentless creep of losing feeling in his legs. His roommate John Kruse eventually told Tyler he wasn't allowed to get out of bed unless one of his three roommates was there with him. A hospice team came to help care for Tyler four days a week, and his roommate Kyle Gujral would attend to Tyler's bedsores the other days. Kelly showed him how to change the bandages, to clean the wound, to check for infection.

"Everything that needed to be done for him to be there worked, until it just didn't," she says. Tyler stayed on campus until the end of September, when Kelly and her mother visited for lunch and he suffered a seizure in front of them. A few weeks before the Ohio State game, she took her son back home. "Because of his downward ..." she continues, then stops. "But anyway ..." Then she goes quiet.

JEFF BROHM VISITED Tyler at home in Carmel last fall, sometime after the Ohio State game. The coach doesn't remember exactly when, only that Tyler wasn't doing too well, paralyzed at that point, save for his right arm. Tyler had made liars out of his doctors before -- in May 2018, they had delivered their "two weeks to two months" prognosis, and it was already well into fall. The night before the Ohio State game, his family wasn't even sure he'd live through the evening. He'd undergone emergency surgery to repair his nephrostomy tubes -- the catheters that drained his chemotherapy-damaged kidneys -- but the next day, he woke up feeling well enough to be at Ross-Ade in person. They were the kind of rebounds that made Brohm think, "Shoot, maybe this guy can hang on longer."

But when Brohm saw him at home, he sat down by his bedside and remembered thinking longer might not be possible for Tyler anymore.

"You try to smile. You embrace him," he says. "And you hope to see him again."

The last time David Blough, Purdue's quarterback and Tyler's friend, saw Tyler was in the middle of a football field. Tyler was there for the coin toss between Purdue and Auburn in the Music City Bowl as an honorary captain and looked frail. Jim Irsay, the Colts' owner, had lent the Trents his private plane to fly down to Tennessee, but the trip was taxing. Even the act of moving was painful for Tyler then.

"He had a bedsore on his back all the way to his muscle," Tony says. "It was this big around." He fashions a circle with his hands the size of a tennis ball.

Tyler would caution friends and family in the room with him that when Tony picked him up to move him from his wheelchair there'd be cries.

"You could tell it was sucking the life out of him," Brohm remembers.

On the field, Blough told Tyler he had to go play a game, and Tyler said what he always did at the end of their conversations. Love you, bro.

By the time Tyler left the field and made it up to the suite in Nissan Stadium, he was in and out of consciousness. He slept through the game, then the flight home. He woke up briefly back in Carmel, asking who had won, but mostly, Tyler never returned after that.

"I really feel like Purdue football wrapped up," Kelly says. "And so did Tyler."

He died four days later at home.

Inevitability does not dull the razor edges of shock. Preparation does not portend readiness. Tyler's absence jarred everyone. Classes at Purdue started less than a week after Tyler died, and Kyle, back on campus a few days early, had the house they shared with John Kruse and another friend to himself. Most of Tyler's belongings had been moved out by then. Only his desk remained. Tyler was always at his desk, and now the room was empty, and Kyle walked by it and had to close the door.

"I just had to not go in that room for a little bit," he says.

They still slip into present tense when they talk about Tyler. His roommates. His friends. His parents.

Oh, yeah, Tyler loves his bucket hats.
He's a big Cubs fan.
He really likes seltzer water. And any soft drink? He drinks it warm.

Tyler is still present for them.

He's in the fight against cancer still, raising more than $2 million for cancer research, for the Purdue Center for Cancer Research and the V Foundation and now his own Tyler Trent Foundation. Before he died, he donated his tumor tissue to further medical research.

He reaches people still. Near West Lafayette: There's a scholarship in his name, awarded to Purdue students who have faced their own physical adversity. Far from West Lafayette too: Tony heard a story recently that someone was in China walking around in a Purdue shirt. A passerby saw it and offered up his scant knowledge of the university: Purdue engineering and Tyler Trent.

He's a part of campus still, and will be, his name and face and story on that steel gate, the last things students will see before they enter the stadium for all the games to come.

"I think about taking my grandkids there someday," Tony says. "I'll explain to them, 'This was your uncle. And this is what his life did.'"

Tyler never got to see that gate, nor the final copy of "The Upset: Life (Sports), Death ... and the Legacy We Leave In the Middle," the book he wrote chronicling his bouts with cancer, although The Indianapolis Star published a portion of his writing last December, just a few weeks before he died. His life was down to days, and still he dreamt.

I do have dreams of one day graduating college, getting married and having children.

His final written words on the matter:

-- Excerpt from a book I'll probably never finish.

Tyler was right. He didn't finish his book. But he was a dreamer to the end, and still a planner too, and he did get to see its cover: him, in his gold Purdue winter beanie, his big, round glasses, his black Purdue jacket. Before he died, he shared his plans for his memorial service with his youth pastor, Joe Wittmer. Tyler's hopes for his mourners were threefold: Don't dwell in sadness; honor his deep, abiding faith; get educated about cancer research.

Tyler imparted his wishes to Wittmer in his final weeks, sometimes in conversation, sometimes on video. In one, a clip that played at his funeral, he held up a sign.

"This is not the end."