We love sports, I think, because deep down they fulfill our fantasy that we can create victory over death.
Each touchdown, each overtime goal, each buzzer-beater basket from our favorite team tricks us into believing we can win it all. In fact, no one ever wins it all. Our mortality proves otherwise.
But sports help us feel alive, right now, in the moment.
So when Purdue University student Tyler Trent, full of cancer, emotion and medication, exclaimed, “I’m alive!” after a touchdown during the Oct. 20 college football game against Ohio State, he meant it.
Oh, boy, he meant it.
Trent had already been in the final stages of terminal cancer for months, and there was no guarantee he would make it to that PU vs OSU game. That game week he even underwent emergency surgery — without anesthesia — to help clear his shut-down kidneys. He said that without morphine the constant pain from his cancer would have killed him long ago.
But Trent was at the big game, the trademark Purdue “P” logo drawn on his shaved head. From his wheelchair he talked not about death, but about Purdue pride. He talked about victory. His Boilermakers were big underdogs to Ohio State. Like Trent’s own medical fate, there didn’t seem to be much hope for Purdue that night.
But Purdue scored touchdown after touchdown. The home crowd roared. Purdue won the game.
Tyler Trent was alive.
For a dedicated Ohio State alum like me, the game was a nightmare. Certainly, the 49-20 drubbing dashed the Buckeyes’ national championship hopes.
But there were greater hopes to think about that night. Trent said his love for Purdue athletics gave him the power to face each painful day. It gave him purpose, another reason to wake up each day. If running up the score in a football game helped Tyler Trent live one more minute that he wanted to live, then go ahead and run up the score, I thought. Put 100 points on the Buckeyes, if you can.
I heard myself whisper “Boiler Up!” — the Purdue athletics version of Arizona’s “Bear Down!” battle cry.
My Buckeyes more than survived that game, the only loss on their schedule. They made rival Michigan look silly in their annual season-ending showdown, and then won the Big-10 Championship and a New Year’s trip to the Rose Bowl. Ohio State will win many more football games, many more championships.
Yes, the Buckeyes will continue to make me believe I might just live forever.
Purdue fought like hell to eke out a 6-6 record and will play a smaller bowl game in Nashville, Tenn., on Dec. 28, as underdogs again. Tyler Trent is fighting like hell to see it, for one final football game, for one final victory over death. To him, the matchup vs. Auburn is no meaningless contest. It is his personal championship.
Whether he sees that game, or not, Tyler Trent wants us to know that today is a great day to be a Purdue Boilermaker, and an Ohio State Buckeye, and an Arizona Wildcat.
Today is a great day to be alive.