The Indianapolis Star (and many other national publications) ran a touching obituary for Tyler Trent, a 20-year-old Purdue University student and devoted Boilermaker football fan who lost his battle with bone cancer on Tuesday.
Tyler grew up in Carmel, Indiana, and had dreams of attending Purdue University and becoming a sports writer. But a diagnosis of osteosarcoma the summer after his sophomore year in high school changed everything.
Well, not quite everything, in fact. Despite multiple surgeries and a recurrence of cancer his senior year, Tyler persevered, scored near perfect on his SATs, was accepted to Purdue on a Presidential Scholarship and began as a freshman in the fall of 2017. Tyler’s fervent love for Purdue football and his determination to show up at every football game – in between grueling bouts of chemotherapy – caught the attention of the local paper and Purdue’s new football coach, Jeff Brohm. Tyler’s grit and unfailing positive attitude captured the hearts of the team and the university. ESPN brought Tyler’s story to millions of people across America who heard about Tyler’s fight and were rooting for him to beat the disease that eventually took his life.
When the cancer reappeared again last March – this time in his spine – Tyler knew that his time left was short. But he did not let that stop him, and he continued to support his beloved team and attend games throughout the fall – including the Purdue-Auburn matchup in Nashville’s Music City Bowl on Dec. 28, just days before he died.
Tyler Trent is being hailed as the inspiration that he is. All too often, however, we praise people like Tyler for their courage, mourn their passing and then eventually “move on.” This would be a terrible disservice to Tyler. Instead, we should be cognizant of the larger lesson that his short life teaches us.
Tyler’s life was too brief, and his story was a simple one. He was from a suburban town in the Midwest. He wasn’t famous or well-connected. His dreams of a career in sports journalism – with all that might have brought him – were cut short. He was right in the middle of the time of life when everyone is telling you to “Go out and change the world.” That advice is often interpreted to mean “Choose the ‘right’ major”; “Get a high-paying job”; “Go into politics”; “End world hunger”; “Eliminate poverty”; and other equally lofty aspirations.
Tyler Trent was unable to do any of those things. And yet he had a profound impact. We owe it to him to ask why, and to heed the answers to that question.
Perhaps the larger lesson of Tyler’s life is that we are focusing our attention in the wrong places. There is nothing wrong with the desire to achieve. And it is true that Tyler used his short time and sudden visibility to promote awareness of and funding for research to eliminate osteosarcoma.
But the triumph of Tyler Trent is not in the amount of funds he may have raised for cancer research. It is in the simplicity of his worldview, his kindness, his gratitude, his love for those in his immediate surroundings and his determination to make a difference where he was, as best he could.
Tyler Trent’s life – and the public outpouring of love and support for him – is further proof of a truth that we are distracted from time and time again: If we are motivated by love, if we focus on the positive, if we devote our time and attention to the needs of people and tasks nearest us, then we can move mountains. We will invite love in return. We can shape opinions and events. We can inspire others to be their best selves. The great irony of this truth is that it does not matter how young, small, weak, powerless or seemingly insignificant we or our lives may appear.
This universal truth is the rule, not the exception. And yet day after day, year after year, we push our children (and ourselves) to pursue money, power and influence in order to “make a difference” in the world. It takes the extraordinary influence of a young man like Tyler Trent – whose illness and premature death precluded our traditional definitions of “success” – to open our eyes again to this truth.
Those who knew and loved Tyler Trent have suffered an extraordinarily painful loss. No words of consolation are adequate. But one of the best legacies of his life – and perhaps some consolation to his loved ones – is for us to truly learn and live by the lesson he left us.