What Made #TylerStrong?

Tyler Trent, who died this week at age 20, captivated the sports world and the nation after ESPN told his story. Tyler’s four-year battle with cancer and his indomitable perspective were inspiring. When cancer ended his college experience, he pledged to return to Purdue for the Ohio State football game. He predicted an upset. After an inconceivable victory by Purdue, students stormed the field. His dad said, “Tyler, this is for you.”

#TylerStrong became the rallying cry for the student body, and Tyler’s story spread like wildfire. Millions of people watched his ESPN interview. His inspiring battle led to awards, trips to bowl games, interviews on TV and radio, and calls from the vice president. He wrote a book.

The gravitational pull of Tyler’s winsome spirit, his interest in others, and his unflappable courage attracted fans from all walks of life. It wasn’t hard to enter Tyler’s orbit.

People marveled at his attitude and wondered, How is he so strong?

As Tyler’s pastor for 10 years, I can tell you. It’s simple but profound: Tyler loved Jesus. That’s it. And it made him #TylerStrong.

Spirit and Strength

On the day when Tyler learned his broken arm was infected with cancer, he read 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 in his morning reading of the Bible. As his parents gently and tearfully broke the news to him, Tyler reacted with his typical spirit and strength. His first response was to encourage his parents by quoting what he read that morning. Tyler knew it was providential timing.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16–18).

These verses became Tyler’s battle-cry and the theme for the yellow wrist bands in his honor: #TylerStrong—1 Thess. 5:16–18. Friends, family, and members at College Park Church were the first to wear these bands. They’d eventually find their way on statues at Purdue and don the wrists of professional athletes, coaches, politicians, and news reporters.

However, Tyler’s strength didn’t come from the prospect of healing, even though every medical option was pursued. His hope didn’t rise from the national support, as encouraging and remarkable as it was. His courage didn’t emerge from personal grit or self-discipline, although Tyler had both.

Tyler’s strength was rooted in the gospel—the bedrock truth he believed.

Tyler knew that his greatest need was to be right with God. He trusted in Jesus, and his confidence and kindness overflowed from the forgiveness granted to him through Christ. That changed everything, including his perspective on cancer.

Tyler’s strength was rooted in the gospel—the bedrock truth he believed.

Tyler’s life was saturated with a passion for Jesus long before osteosarcoma invaded his world. And while cancer took his earthly life, it could never penetrate a soul transformed by the beauty of God’s grace. Early in his battle he told his dad that he just wanted to honor his parents and the Lord. He wanted his life to count for God’s glory.

Mission accomplished.

Fountain of Grace

Being #TylerStrong wasn’t new for Tyler. I’ve seen it up close. Tyler’s parents are dear friends, and my wife and I were part of their small group for a few years. Tyler played on a basketball team with one of my sons. He didn’t get a lot of playing time, but no one was a greater encourager. Additionally, for ten weeks Tyler served on a team that helped me with sermon applications. He provided deep insight into suffering as we studied the book of 1 Peter.

While cancer took his earthly life, it could never penetrate a soul transformed by the beauty of God’s grace.

Tyler’s strength sprang from the deep fountain of God’s sovereign grace. He believed God had a purpose for his life, and cancer couldn’t take that away. His friends and family would tell you that Tyler didn’t change because of cancer; it just made his Christ-centered strength more apparent.

Image courtesy of Tony Trent

During one of his first hospital visits in 2014, Tyler’s dad sent me a photo of the door to his room. He would frequently write verses or thoughts in the opaque window—a small reminder to him and a witness to others. The picture contained these words:

“God is holy—I am not—Jesus saves—Christ is my life.”

At the time, our church was walking through a series on identity, and I attempted to summarize the gospel in that simple statement. Tyler was listening. And typical of Tyler, he found new ways to apply the gospel to his life.

A hospital door was the first of many platforms.

Tyler knew that there are some things more important than physical healing, more attractive than fame, and deeper than life working out as planned. Tyler modeled what it looks like to walk a path rooted in a personal relationship with Jesus.

Tyler knew that there are some things more important than physical healing, more attractive than fame, and deeper than life working out as planned.

During one of my last visits with Tyler, I sat next to his bed. His parents were standing nearby, and I invited them to come close, because I wanted them to hear what I was about to say:

“Tyler, as your pastor, I want to thank you. You have modeled what we talk about on Sundays. You are honoring Christ through cancer. And I just want you to know how proud I am of you.”

His head tilted back. A tear streamed down his cheek. He took a long breath, closed his eyes and said, “Thank you. That really means a lot to me.”

I knew it would. Because one thing had been clear for years when it came to Tyler Trent: he loved Jesus and wanted to finish strong.

And that’s exactly what he did. He finished #TylerStrong.

Editors’ note: 

Mark Vroegop will speak on “Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament” at TGC’s 2019 National Conference, April 1 to 3 in Indianapolis. You can browse the complete list of 74 speakers and 58 talks and register.

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