Meet the Utes' new star assistant coach: Utah football, hoops programs have embraced 8-year-old with leukemia

Published: Saturday, May 3 2014 8:00 p.m. MDT

“We don’t have grandparents here, but Dennis is like his grandfather. From day one, he just liked him — looked out for him and always talked to him,” said Kyle Brennan, who praised Erickson for being the “most down-to-earth, ego-less man” in the business despite all his successes that include two national championships.

“So there’s just a special bond between those two. I don’t know how to explain it,” he continued. “It’s funny because I watch Mac on the sidelines and he emulates Dennis.”

Kyle smiled when acknowledging it would be nice if his son were to follow in Erickson’s footsteps and win a couple of national championships down the road.

Not in awe

Beth said Mac isn’t starstruck by his surroundings up on the hill. After all, it’s where both his parents work.

“We’re both in athletics. So it’s helped him kind of stay a part of all that,” she said. “This is how he was raised — with all these guys and all these coaches.”

Coach Whittingham, for example, is just “Kyle” to Mac. The two have a relationship dating back to before Mac’s illness. Kyle Brennan said Whittingham would insist that Mac attend his football camp when he was just 4 or 5 years old. When he got tired, the coach would pick him up in his golf cart and drive around with him. One afternoon, Beth went to pick Mac up at Whittingham’s office and found the two of them sitting on the couch watching “SpongeBob SquarePants” and eating Cheetos.

Kyle Brennan said Whittingham was one of Mac’s first visitors at the hospital when the leukemia diagnosis was made and has been to the Brennan home a couple of times to visit. He even secured Mac an Alex Smith jersey, doing a lot of things to continue a relationship they already had.

Mac has also developed a friendship with Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak, who has now been with the Utes for three seasons. Krystkowiak also visited Mac on the first day he was diagnosed and brought his team up to the hospital.

One day after Mac was healthy enough to accompany his father to the Huntsman Center for work, Krystkowiak came over and said: “You’re coming with me” and promised Dad he’d have him back in a couple of hours. Krystkowiak then took Mac to practice and threw him right in with the Runnin’ Utes.

Mac then became a regular at practices.

“He provided a lot of inspiration for us — just, I think, a constant reminder that what we’re doing is a game and what he was dealing with had a lot bigger ramifications than whether you win or lose a game,” Krystkowiak said. “So it was good. It was grounding for us and humbling.”

Krystkowiak added that Mac was tough and is a heck of a little coach.

“He’s all about winning games and trying to kick the opponent's butt,” Krystkowiak said. “Symbolic, I think, of his battle with the cancer and wanting to kick its butt, which he apparently has”

Mac’s father is appreciative that Whittingham and Krystkowiak didn’t hesitate and jumped in to help his son.

“They’ve been fantastic,” Kyle Brennan said. “I think that’s the thing people don’t know about those guys is that they do that for a lot of different people.”

Utah athletics director Dr. Chris Hill has similar thoughts.

“The involvement that Mac has had with Coach Whit and Coach Krystkowiak is just an example of the really good people that we have working for us — really caring people,” Hill said. “They do this regularly. It speaks highly to their character.”

Mac, meanwhile, is soaking it all in.

“It’s tons of fun,” he said. “It’s just an honor to walk with them and see them. It’s just really fun for me.”

Mac and his diagnosis

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