It's bigger than football: The Riley Sorenson story

WSU center Riley Sorenson has gone through more in a year than most go through in their lifetime. Through it all, his positive attitude and the support of his teammates has helped guide and mold him into the man he is today.

You can find inspiration anywhere -- and we try to bring you these stories every day. But sometimes, the most moving stories are right in our own backyard. Evan Closky brings us an incredible story. Riley Sorenson

PULLMAN, Wash. -- What do you see in this picture? What does it mean?

The short answer: It's bigger than football.

To understand these words is to know the man in the middle; the strength he has and the support he needed to get to this point.

At the heart of the Washington State University football team is the three-year starting center, Riley Sorenson.

Standing at six foot, four inches and weighing in at 330 pounds, the offensive lineman from Rancho Santa Margarita, California always stood out.

Sorenson’s skills are undeniable. Not only did he earn multiple PAC-12 offers, but he also took the field early in his career at Washington State University.  

“I was just trying to get on the travel squad. I played a couple of games freshman year. That was big for me,” said Sorenson

Sorenson’s role quickly grew as a sophomore starting center. He has been dependable in that role ever since.

All offensive lineman in the country get pushed around, but the best know how to push right back and do so with even more strength. 

“Riley is one of the toughest kids, if not the toughest kid I’ve ever met,” said River Cracraft, senior wide receiver and childhood friend of Sorenson.  

It takes a lot for Sorenson to miss a game, but in the home finale against Colorado last season, the starting center was nowhere in sight.

Sorenson's mother, Karen, had stage four melanoma.

“My mind is going 1,000 miles an hour. There’s so much going on,” said Sorenson.  

Karen responded well to her chemotherapy treatment, but doctors still only gave her 18 months to live.

So, Sorenson returned to the field the following week to play against the Huskies. A month later, he was all set for the Sun Bowl against Miami.

“I was getting ready to run out onto the field, we’ve already done warmups and was getting ready to go,” said Sorenson.  

“I grab Coach Leach and let him know what’s going on,” said offensive line coach, Clay McGuire. “It was an immediate decision, we have to get him to the hospital.”

Sorenson’s father, Bart, was in El Paso on his way to the stadium when he suffered a heart attack.

“I thought it was going to be something with my mom, but I never expected that,” said Sorenson. “My mindset is, ‘I’m ready to play. I’m ready to go beat Miami,’ and then I have to go to the hospital and try and see what’s going on with my dad. It was just a whirlwind.”

Sorenson missed the game. His father underwent surgery and was placed in an induced coma for more than a week.

“It was just a lot of hospital time, sitting, seeing if anything was going to happen,” said Sorenson.  

The Sorenson family was struggling, but they were not alone. The Cougs might have gone to El Paso for a football game, but their presence stayed around much longer than anticipated.

A GoFundMe campaign was started for the Sorenson family to help cover medical expenses, along with transportation, lodging and meals.

“I was shocked. Here were some people donating on that, I didn’t know who they were, I had never spoken to them, but they were still donating 15 bucks, 20 dollars,” said Sorenson.

The WSU community rallied behind Sorenson, donating almost $70,000 to his family.

“There’s been so much support from all walks of life because we’re all WSU cougars and it’s been really crazy to see,” said Sorenson.

Despite the generous gestures, Bart’s condition continued to decline. In early January, Sorenson’s father died in El Paso at the age of 49.

“Obviously, he meant the world to me,” said Sorenson.

Unfortunately, the family problems persisted. Four months later, Karen’s health deteriorated. Sorenson’s mother could not fight cancer any longer and passed away in late May.

“Shoot, it’s been a hell of a year for me,” said Sorenson. “Obviously, there’s a grieving process. You have to kind of just wrap your head around it. Know what you want to do, know that they’d want you to carry on.”

Another GoFundMe account was set up for Sorenson’s family. Cougars across the country helped raise an additional $17,000 for the Sorensons.

“The amount of adversity he’s had to go through this past year is more than anyone should have to deal with,” said Cracraft.

Sorenson traveled home for his mother’s funeral. During his trip back to California, the rising senior had to make yet another visit to the hospital. This time, it was personal.

“Yeah, they did some ultrasound and sent me to an urologist the next day and they said I had testicular cancer,” said Sorenson.

Sorenson had surgery the next day. Doctors were worried the cancer might have spread to other areas in his body. Chemotherapy was a strong possibility, which meant his senior season would be over before it started.

“I’m not one to get angry or super kind of ‘Rah rah’ emotional about everything,” said Sorenson. “I just want to roll with the punches and take it as it comes. That was tough to do at that point. I just had to roll with it.”

Through life’s tumultuous turns, Sorenson could always rely on his teammates back in Pullman. He also sought guidance in a new father figure: McGuire.

“Your roll as coach changes a bit. You have to become a little bit of a different person because there’s a void in his life,” said McGuire.

“He was texting me every couple of days. Calling me to see if there’s anything he can do to help,” said Sorenson. “He’s just been incredibly supportive of everything that’s been needed.”

Two days after surgery, Sorenson was resting at his grandparent’s home when some unexpected visitors came.

“One of the neatest things was when we were working summer camps in California. We were down there and Coach Leach, probably 20-25 of us on staff, directed the bus up to Riley’s house in the neighborhood,” said McGuire.

Some of Sorenson’s teammates came to visit him.

“They all walk in the door, it’s like ‘Oh my god, where did this come from?’” said Sorenson.

“We basically wanted to go to let him know, we’re there for him and anything that happens,” said McGuire.

So, what do you see in that picture? What does it mean? The short answer: it's bigger than football.

“It’s almost hard to describe, it’s just a big family we have here,” said Sorenson.  

Right before fall camp began in early August, Sorenson finally received the news he had been waiting to hear.

“You don’t need chemo, you don’t need anything,” said Sorenson.

“He’s finally got a little victory under his belt. He finally beat something. He needed that,” said Cracraft.  

Although surgery was successful, Sorenson will have to have blood taken every two months and a CT scan every four months to make sure the cancer does not come back.

“A kid like Riley has every excuse in the world not to play, has every excuse in the world to go a different direction and he hasn’t used those excuses,” said McGuire. “He’s an inspiration to everybody on this football team.”

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