Seeing his way through
LEWISTON – Riley Sorenson saunters through a rec room filled with football players and declares he’s “taking names at FIFA,” a popular soccer video game.
That Sorenson is here in Lewiston for Washington State’s preseason football camp is a rare ray of fortune. That he’s happy is a miracle.
Each day when Sorenson suits up for another long day of meetings and then drills in the Lewiston heat is an act of defiance, because rarely has much good came from greeting a day.
In the past year, Sorenson, a three-year starter at center for WSU, lost both of his parents. Two days after his mother’s funeral he felt some discomfort. By the next day he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer, had a testicle removed and was awaiting the chemotherapy that would likely take his senior season of football.
The premature death of a parent is a compounding cruelty. It rips away the security of unconditional forgiveness from someone who, at this point in his life, still needs to make some mistakes.
It’s a jolting reminder of the fragility and inconstant nature of life to someone who is still learning how to enjoy it. But most of all, it erodes the base of the support system a person will need most should any other tragedy befall them.
Sorenson’s parents are no longer with him. But he will never be short of supporters.
Coming to Sorenson’s aid
When head coach Mike Leach, offensive line coach Clay McGuire and the rest of the Cougars staff heard about Sorenson’s surgery, they were conducting a camp for high school players in Oceanside, California.
After the camp concluded, Leach put the entire coaching staff – about 20 in all – onto a bus for the hour-long trip to Rancho Santa Margarita to surprise Sorenson with a visit.
“That was like two days after the surgery, that was awesome,” Sorenson said. “I was texting with McGuire back and forth. I thought it was just going to be him, and maybe (Jim) Mastro, because Mastro recruited me. But the whole bus turns up and I was like, ‘Gosh, I probably should have told my grandparents and the people at the house that we’re going to have like 20 coaches here right now.’”
That visit was just a small part of the enormous amount of support Sorenson received over the past year. His coaches and teammates were with him when immediately after WSU’s upset win over UCLA he found out his mother had late-stage cancer.
“McGuire was very helpful,” Sorenson said. “He would just call and say, ‘Was thinking about you, what’s going on?’ That was cool because he’s someone I look up to. His support was really important for me because it was unrelenting and he was always asking how he could help. I appreciated that a lot.”
When his father, Bart, suffered a heart attack on the day of the Cougars’ Sun Bowl game against Miami, fans raised more than $55,000 that would defray funeral and medical expenses. It also helped the Sorenson family stay in El Paso while Bart was in a coma. He died a few days later.
WSU fans raised another $16,000 to help out in May when Sorenson’s mother passed away. While Riley had been initially told that his mother’s time was short, Karen Sorenson had appeared to be getting better.
“I thought she was getting better,” Sorenson said. “From what I was told, when she got that medication it was supposed to work for – I think the median was 18 months. So I thought, OK, we’re at least going to get another year and a half. But then my sister called me and said Mom isn’t doing well. I flew down that day and she passed that night.”
Never losing his smile
To hear Sorenson talk about his own cancer is to listen to a lesser person talk about an unsuccessful fishing trip. He is perhaps the least devastated person who is aware of the misfortune, already making jokes about his lost testicle and encouraging others to do the same (the clubhouse leader is a pun centered around the basketball highlight production company Ball Is Life).
His nonchalance over his cascade of tragedies can be jarring. Many of his teammates found out about his cancer by viewing his story on the social media platform Snapchat, where he posted a video of himself entering surgery with all the anxiousness of a dog on a porch.
Who is Riley Sorenson when he’s not going through hell? He’s a kid in a bouncer’s body, a video game enthusiast whose sorcery with a joystick has given him the nickname “The Wizard.” He speaks with intelligence and who is relied upon by teammates whose computers need fixing.
Interviews with Sorenson go slower than with most other players because after hearing a question he pauses to consider the answer, then slowly addresses the query with nuance and context. He finds the humor in most subjects; he’s a good guy to talk to after a bad practice when most players and coaches are in bitter moods.
He applies the Cougars’ “play the next play” mantra to all walks of life, saying that he cannot dwell on tragedy because “You’ve got to weather the storms and get through them. You can’t be hung up on any one thing because then the next thing you do isn’t going to be as good.”
“He’s an incredibly mentally tough kid,” McGuire said. “We talk about football players and physical toughness and all the injuries they have to go through, but the biggest characteristic as a football player is mental toughness, and he’s really shown a ton of it.”
Sorenson’s younger brother will be a freshman at WSU this fall – he’s enrolling late after needing a patella and meniscus transplant following a kneecap injury. His younger sister will soon enroll at Boise State.
No need for chemo
Even after surgery, Sorenson still faced the prospect of chemotherapy. The intensive treatment would have kept him quarantined in hospital rooms away from his teammates and coaches, with nothing but his thoughts and the memories of time spent watching his parents in similar rooms to keep him company.
There would have been no worse way for Sorenson to cope with the loss of his parents. He has always used working out as a way to occupy his mind when things aren’t going well, and football fuses physical activity with his largest group of friends and supporters.
While he has been able to take his own health issues in stride, losing both parents in rapid succession has taken a toll.
“I was just starting to come to terms with my dad being gone and then my mom’s thing happened,” Sorenson said. “It was pretty bad. But even when it comes to something like that, everyone’s going to understand if you get hung up or need to take some time off. I feel like I’m pretty comfortable with it mentally. I’ve still got some stuff I need to think through, but I’m good to play, I’m good to be around people.”
Thanks to the diligence of the WSU medical staff, led by football trainer Andy Mutnam, Sorenson discovered the initial prognosis was incorrect. Just more than a week before the start of camp, Sorenson decided to forego chemotherapy.
“We ended up getting five opinions, essentially, to come up with his plan of care,” Mutnam said.
Mutnam prodded and needled his connections in the medical world so that Sorenson was able to see a top specialist in Seattle quickly, one who said that chemotherapy would not be necessary. Mutnam and Sorenson cross-checked those results with other specialists, and even the oncologist who initially said Sorenson would need chemotherapy agreed that the results of extensive tests and blood work showed it would not be necessary.
Sorenson was happy. His teammates were ecstatic.
“I found that out I think two days before camp,” right tackle Cole Madison said. “Me and River (Cracraft) were at dinner with Nick Begg, and River texted Riley and Riley said ‘The Wizard’s back. No chemo!’ We were all yelling and screaming and stuff. We were all damn near in tears.”
Although the surgery was successful and the indicators of cancer are receding, Sorenson is not entirely out of the woods yet. He will have to have blood taken every two months to monitor those indicators, and a CT scan every four months.
The past year should have been the best of Sorenson’s life, considering his personal success on the football field and that of his team. Instead, it was the worst.
Yet somehow, Sorenson is with his teammates, finding the willpower to not only get through each day, but to do it with the same breezy attitude he had when life was easy.
“I’ve had some hardships. I’ve been down,” Sorenson said. “But these guys will always be here to pick me back up.”