Riley Sorenson Is Winning at Life, Even After Losing Those Closest to Him

Michael Weinreb@michaelweinrebFeatured ContributorDecember 21, 2016

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

There is a room in Riley Sorenson's ramshackle off-campus house that is just large enough to fit one person. A sprawling recliner, an oversized television, a video game system and a wall of shelves stacked with sneakers—not much else can be shoehorned in here other than a single solitary soul, particularly if, like Sorenson himself, you stand 6'4" and weigh roughly 330 pounds.

This is his game room, and Sorenson happens to be adept at games both virtual and real—good enough on the football field to be recognized as one of the premier centers in the Pac-12 after his senior season at Washington State, and so skilled at the FIFA video game that one day his friends were watching him play and someone said, "Damn, how did he do that?"

And someone else responded, "Because he's a wizard."

The Wizard. That's what they call him now, because Sorenson can do anything when it comes to video games and computers. You've got a problem with your laptop, you text The Wizard; you want to get schooled at FIFA, you come see The Wizard. That is, as long as you abide by the rules.

He beats you 5-0, and you've got to write him a letter—we're talking an actual handwritten letter—apologizing for wasting his time, and then drop it in the mail to him (one of his teammates, who shall remain unnamed, owes him two of those letters). He beats you 10-0, the rule used to go, and you had to send a letter home to his parents, apologizing to them for wasting their son's time. That never quite happened, but if it ever did, Riley says, his dad probably would have loved it.

They were so much alike, he and his dad—"the same person," says one of his teammatesthat when Bart Sorenson came to campus to visit, he became just another one of the guys.

It's still difficult sometimes for Riley to talk about his parents in the past tense like this. Hell, it's difficult to talk about the past year at all. He's never been much for displays of emotion, and this was all so much to handle for a kid who would often prefer to keep everything within his own self-imposed walls.

That's Riley, his friends say, keeping it all bottled up, asking about you and your hopes and your dreams rather than dwelling on his own. But what choice does he have these days? Everything happened so fast that he barely had time to mourn.

It often felt like a cruel cosmic joke was being perpetrated on him. You lose one parent, and then another, and then you face the threat of losing your own life to cancer, all over the course of months, and how can you help but wonder about the absurdity of it all?

And so here he is, sitting in the living room of that house, discussing all of this with a stranger, not for the first time and probably not for the last. It is a bleak December day, and the driveway is layered with snow and ice. Sorenson is wrapped up in a Washington State logo blanket, recounting what has been the most preposterously agonizing year of his life.

"I realized how you take some things for granted," he says. "Even when you're younger, there's some times when your mom wants to take the same picture 37 times. And you say, 'Mom, you're being so annoying.'"

These are the moments when the walls come down. These are the moments when Sorenson's eyes well up with tears, when he struggles to find a way to balance the memories of the good times with the knowledge of everything he's lost.

"I'd kill for that now," he says.

They met in the early '90s, at a wedding of mutual friends. Riley's father, Bart, was a Minnesota kid; Riley's mother, Karen, was from the East Coast. For a while, they settled in Fargo, North Dakota, and then Karen told Bart there was no way she could settle in a place this cold and remote. They migrated to California, eventually winding up in Rancho Santa Margarita, an upscale suburb in Orange County with a powerhouse football program.

Bart was the rationalist; he worked as an information systems guy, integrating software for a life sciences company. He was a math major, and he knew how to code. He's the reason Riley, an economics major who could see himself working with computers someday, is gifted with numbers and order. This is the side of Riley most people know.

Karen Sorenson, the carefree spirit of the family, with Riley.
Karen Sorenson, the carefree spirit of the family, with Riley.Photo courtesy Riley Sorenson

And Karen? Well, Karen was, for lack of a better word, the goofball, silly and carefree and full of vigor. When Riley was a kid, the oldest of three siblings, his mother would dye her hair different colors. Black. Blonde sometimes. Red at other times. Once, she went for a deep black and it turned an unmistakable shade of purple.

Another time, it turned pink. When Riley was in the fourth grade, he wrote a poem about her dying her hair. She also had a penchant for colorful socks—the Darth Vader pair is what one of Riley's friends remembers. This is the side of Riley that most people never see, the side of Riley who will throw impromptu dance parties while in the car with his girlfriend. This is the part of Karen that lives on in Riley.

Riley was always a big kid, yet he was nimble, too. He grew up playing basketball, but he was 300 pounds in the ninth grade, so, of course, he had to go out for football. His teammates saw him and thought, "Glad he's on our side."

Freshman year, recalls his high school teammate (and eventual college teammate) River Cracraft, Riley would make one-handed catches during practice, a freakish athlete in a lineman's body. He never fell down like other big guys do on the field; he almost glided from place to place. On the basketball court, he could school you at "horse."

And he was whip-smart. While many of his teammates, like Nick Begg, who also wound up at Washington State, were on a standard academic track, Riley would be taking Advanced Placement classes. He was the prototype of a gentle giant, and Bart and Karen were the cool parents, laid-back and relaxed, able to hang with the kids but willing to get serious when they had to.

"His dad was a really funny guy," Begg says. "And Karen, she was the best. She was awesome. She really pushed the norm. And she loved Riley so much."

She'd been sick almost his whole life. Maybe that's why Karen was always so silly, always so willing to embrace the moment. Shortly after his sister was born, not quite 20 years ago, Karen contracted melanoma from a bad sunburn and had "something taken out of her head," Riley recalls. There was a skin graft, and there were moles removed over the course of those years; the kids were always aware of it but it was always managed, always taken care of.

And then it wasn't.

They were at the movies before the UCLA game in 2015 when Riley's father texted Begg, asking for the cell number of Clay McGuire, Riley's offensive line coach at Washington State. Begg didn't know what it was about but just gave him the number. Soon after, Riley found out his mom was in bad shape, maybe near death.

He went home after the game and missed the Colorado game the following Saturday. It was Thanksgiving week, and they were in the hospital. The doctors gave his mother an experimental treatment, some sort of pill that had just been approved for use a few weeks earlier. That Tuesday, it had looked bleak; by Saturday, she was standing up.

It was a miracle, "like out of a movie," Riley says. Maybe it wasn't a permanent solution, but the doctors were giving her another 18 months. That was better than nothing.

Riley went back to Pullman and played in the Apple Cup against Washington the following week. The Cougars finished the season 8-4 and got a bid to play Miami in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, the day after Christmas. Riley, anchoring an offense that relies upon its center to call out blocking schemes and fronts, had become one of the Cougars' key players.

They had finished warm-ups and were getting ready to sprint out of the tunnel, which is when Riley got a tap on his shoulder from McGuire. They stayed back in the locker room along with head coach Mike Leach and waited for it to clear out.

It's my mom, Riley thought. She was back home in California, attempting to regain her strength. She'd relapsed, he thought.

"It's your dad," McGuire told him.

Riley with his father, Bart, and his younger brother, Will, while the Sorenson boys were playing football for Santa Margarita High School.
Riley with his father, Bart, and his younger brother, Will, while the Sorenson boys were playing football for Santa Margarita High School.Photo courtesy Riley Sorenson

It had happened on a shuttle to the parents' entrance of the stadium. Just minutes earlier, Bart Sorenson had been fine. When someone asked if there were room on that shuttle for a Miami fan, Bart said, "Nope."

But something went wrong. Bart's face grew discolored, and he was given a police escort to the hospital. River Cracraft's mother, Tracy, who was on the bus with Bart, came down from the stands, tears streaming, and passed on the word. Several parents went to the hospital with Riley, and they watched the game in the emergency room.

It was a heart attack, the doctors said, and Bart Sorenson required an angioplasty. It first appeared he'd be OK, but Bart was placed into an induced coma after the surgery. Seventy percent of his brain was damaged, and he contracted pneumonia after the new year. The family gathered in El Paso to be with him, and the wife of a Sun Bowl representative, April Rystad, set up a GoFundMe account that raised more than $50,000 for the family's expenses.

Bart never woke up. He was dead a week after his surgery at the age of 49.

Elisabeth Haffner and Riley.
Elisabeth Haffner and Riley.Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Haffner

At first, Riley says, he was almost freaked out by the kindness of a stranger like Rystad. He had no idea who this woman was and why she felt so obligated to take care of a family she'd never met. But here's one thing he learned through all of this: People wanted to help him, to get him through it, to commit random acts of kindness for a family that was being torn asunder.

It was the same kind of thing he'd done for a young woman he'd met at a party a year earlier. Her name is Elisabeth Haffner, and she was a student at the University of Oregon. She had lost a close friend named Jake, and she and Riley would spend hours on the phone or on FaceTime talking it through.

They were too far apart to be romantic, they figured, but they had an inexorable bond. So when Elisabeth heard about Riley's dad, she flew down to Southern California to be with him.

"A couple of weeks later, we both said, 'We've learned life is short,'" Haffner says. "'So why are we not dating?'"

His mother took Bart's death the hardest, Riley says. But Riley still had school, and so he went home and took a few days to steel himself, to mourn, to gear up for the inevitable gestures of sympathy that often made him slightly uncomfortable, because, as he says, "I'm not really an emotionally open kind of guy." And then he went back to Pullman for the winter semester.

He and Elisabeth continued to grow closer, and they hung out at his house for spring break. Riley's birthday is in September, during the grind of football season, so one day his mom decided it was almost his half-birthday, and she threw him a party, made his favorite dumplings, sang happy birthday to him, the whole deal.

Another day, she came home and announced, "Guys, I did something."

She'd pulled into an auto dealership, she said, and inquired about one of the cars for sale.

"You didn't," Riley said.

"I did," she said.

She drove that red PT Cruiser around for the next few months, and maybe she knew that she didn't have much time left. The medicine that had saved her life was taking a toll on her body. On a Wednesday in June, Riley's sister called and said: "You'd better come home. Mom's not looking good."

Karen died the next night. Riley stayed home with his grandparents (who also live in Rancho Santa Margarita), once again trying to gather himself, once again trying to stay strong for his younger brother and sister. He stayed in shape by running in the park near his house, because it was either that or sit in his home and confront the ghosts.

One night right after her death, he texted Begg a picture of a pair of Los Angeles Angels socks, knowing Begg was a fan of the Angels. Dude, he wrote. You have to get these. Maybe, knowing Karen's love of socks, this was Riley's way of mourning.

Either way, Begg says, "I just said to myself, 'How could he be thinking of me right now?"

A couple of weeks later, just as he was thinking about heading back to campus to get ready for football season, Riley went out with some friends to a Taco Tuesday night at a local restaurant and started feeling some discomfort in his groin. This was not normal post-workout pain, he knew. This was something far worse.

"Dude," he told his best childhood friend Jordan, "I gotta go to the hospital."

Those next few days were crazy. Elisabeth had been with him in California, but she'd gone back to school at Oregon. She remembers a text coming across her phone at 5 a.m. on Wednesday morning, something about the emergency room and the doctors thinking it was testicular cancer, and she thought, What a terrible nightmare. She went back to bed and woke up a half-hour later, utterly terrified.

The nightmare was real. This was actually happening.

"The first thing I thought is that it's almost funny," Riley says. "Someone has to be joking. But then at that point I thought, well, if I can get through this, I can get through anything."

It all went so fast: The doctor said he could get Riley into surgery at 2 p.m. that afternoon, and they removed one of his testicles. Begg got a Snapchat of Riley in a hospital gown, and he thought to himself, "What's he doing there?" The question then was whether it had spread, whether Riley would require chemotherapy, whether he could play football that fall, whether he'd ever play football again.

Elisabeth flew down on Thursday; her 21st birthday was that Friday, and she spent it with Riley, getting CT scans and discussing post-op treatment. She was, she says now, in full-on survival mode. She bought a binder and began saving everything, all the notes from the doctors, and she'd bring it to appointments with Riley and ask all sorts of questions.

Two days after the surgery, a bus filled with the entire Washington State coaching staff pulled into the driveway at Riley's grandparents' house. They'd been working a camp in Southern California and made a detour. Riley was only expecting McGuire and a couple of others. Once again, the show of support overwhelmed him.

Sorenson, a senior, has been part of a Washington State offensive line fronting a rushing attack averaging 126.8 yards per game.
Sorenson, a senior, has been part of a Washington State offensive line fronting a rushing attack averaging 126.8 yards per game.Young Kwak/Associated Press/Associated Press

Andy Mutnan had been a college athletic trainer for 15 years, and this was the first cancer diagnosis he'd ever dealt with. That it was Riley, a truly lovable kid who'd already been through so much? That part was heartbreaking.

When Riley called Mutnan from the ER, he took it upon himself to do everything he possibly could. Mutnan used his connections, used whatever leverage he had as Washington State's football trainer, and got Riley appointments with a number of specialists. Typical of Riley, Mutnan says, when Elisabeth began accompanying him to appointments, "To my knowledge, no one even knew he had a girlfriend at that point."

The opinions were all over the place; some doctors thought Riley might need chemo, and some didn't. The good news was that it didn't appear to have spread to the rest of his body.

July 1: A text to Cracraft.

I need two rounds of chemo, which is six weeks total.

They kept asking around, kept questioning. Back in Pullman, they had a barbecue on Riley's behalf. Finally, Mutnan found a guy in Seattle who specialized in the exact type of cancer Riley had contracted. He delivered the news, and Riley relayed it to Cracraft via text.

Aug 2: Two little bullets swept across Cracraft's phone.

No chemo.

The Wizard is Back.

During Washington State's fall camp, certain players get up and speak to the team. When Riley's turn inevitably came, he didn't speak in specifics, because that's just not him. He figured everyone knew what he'd dealt with, what he was still dealing with. He tried to make jokes, encouraged his teammates to make jokes, too. When somebody asked him, "How's it hanging?" he replied, "In the middle." His quarterback, Luke Falk, started calling him "Han Solo."

Mutnan and McGuire had helped devise a special plan to ease Riley back into shape heading into the season. Football, McGuire had told him once, was the ultimate distraction, and Riley needed that distraction now more than he ever had. "The hardest parts for him were when he was alone," McGuire says. "When you're by yourself, it's hard not to think about everything that happened."

But Riley was far from alone now that he had football again. He had worked himself back into playing shape, day by day. He spoke to his teammates in an emotional address, telling them that if he could go through all this and be standing here right now, there was no reason why they couldn't devote themselves to the team's cause. It wasn't easy for him to keep his composure during that motivational speech; he nearly lost it more than once.

"It was heartbreaking to listen to," Cracraft says. "That guy's just as humble as it gets."

The Wizard @RileySorenson

It's bigger than football #GoCougs https://t.co/HI3a6Gfqyb

Elisabeth dropped out of school at Oregon and moved into the house in Pullman with Riley and his roommates a few months ago, and they still talk about his parents all the time. They try to recall the good times and the memories, everything Elisabeth might have missed before she'd gotten a chance to know Karen better (she hadn't really spent much time with Bart at all).

And Riley began to open up, to share. One thing Elisabeth realized was that they hadn't even had time to mourn Karen, what with the cancer diagnosis coming so close on its heels, so they spent much of the fall doing that. Riley is so outwardly strong, Elisabeth says, that people have asked, How is it so easy for him?

"Sometimes even I have a hard time talking about it," Elisabeth says. "But I think he talks about it more openly than most people would in that situation. Riley understands his reaction to the situation is what his life will be moving forward. And that's how we choose to move forward, is to focus on the good stuff."

Riley and Elisabeth recently adopted a dog, a Rottweiler puppy they named Jake after Elisabeth's friend who had died. Elisabeth is working a full-time job in Pullman with the notion of finishing her degree at some point; Riley walked in his graduation last Saturday.

They have no idea what might happen next, whether Riley might get a look in an NFL rookie camp, whether they might go back to California to be close to Riley's grandparents. It's hard to think too far ahead after all this, while Riley is still getting regular checkups to make sure the cancer hasn't returned. After all, if you would have told Elisabeth in 2015 about where she'd be one year later, she'd have said, "What boyfriend?"

Elisabeth Haffner @e_haff

So proud of my fav guy and a great team win tonight!!!! #bowleligible #gocougs https://t.co/lvwQUzDGL2

Two days after Christmas, nearly a year to the day after Riley's father died, Washington State will play Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl, not far from the family home in Rancho Santa Margarita. His dad, he says, grew up a Gophers fan, and this was his dream matchup, so both sides of Riley's family will come streaming into San Diego for this game—his father's family from Minnesota and his mother's family from Southern California.

This final college football game is proof for Riley Sorenson that he can get through pretty much anything at this point, and yet another reminder that despite everything he's lost, he is far from alone.


Michael Weinreb (@MichaelWeinreb) is the author, most recently, of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.


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