Meet the Utes' new star assistant coach: Utah football, hoops programs have embraced 8-year-old with leukemia
Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Mac Brennan isn’t your typical college football coach. He’s far from it, as a matter of fact. Mac, an 8-year-old from Salt Lake City, is assisting Kyle Whittingham at the University of Utah.
“He’s on our coaching staff now. He’s been officially anointed to coach. The NCAA may come down on us, but we don’t care,” Whittingham said. “He’s going to be the 10th countable assistant coach. He’s doing a great job and he’s a tough, tough little guy. We’re elated that he’s with us.”
Mac, who is battling leukemia, is the Utes’ assistant running backs coach — working closely with fellow assistant Dennis Erickson.
“It’s been a lot of fun for me,” Erickson said. “He’s been real sick, as we all know, and he wanted to coach.”
Erickson spoke to Mac about assisting in spring ball and the offer was accepted. Once things got started, Mac began helping out — offering his opinion and letting Erickson know who should be playing. He evaluated every practice and they spoke often.
“Because of this we’ve become very close,” Erickson said. “He’s fighting a hard battle, but he’s winning it. So it’s great to have him out.”
Erickson isn’t the only one who feels that way.
“Our whole team has kind of adopted him, I guess you could say, and embraced him,” Whittingham said.
When leukemia treatments prevent the second-grader at Indian Hills Elementary from attending school, he accompanies his parents to work. His father, Kyle, is a senior associate athletics director at Utah. His mother, Beth, is the coordinator of football academics.
“Best ever, right? If you can’t go to school, if you can’t be with your friends, you get to do this instead,” Beth said.
It gave Mac something to do, she added, and allowed him to be outside as much as he wanted to be when attending school wasn’t an option.
“So the timing ended up being perfect. Spring practice starts and Dennis came up to him shortly after he was diagnosed and said, ‘Hey, when spring ball starts, you’re going to help me pick the starting running back,’” Beth said. “So he followed through on that.”
Mac went on to pick up many of Erickson’s mannerisms while coaching this spring, leading some to call him a “mini-me” of his mentor. Mac took his responsibilities very seriously.
“He’ll tell you exactly what he thinks and where you stand,” Whittingham said. “He’s not shy about that at all.”
Beth noted that the players refer to Mac as "Coach."
“He tells them what to do,” she said. “He throws his hat off if he’s mad at them. He’s got it all down.”
Being able to coach, explained Mac’s father, has given the youngster real purpose to his day and something to think about. Kyle said his son planned for practices and looked at film.
“It gave him that purpose that’s been taken away with cancer taking away school from him,” he added. “Plus, the interaction ... the guys are just great to him.”
Mac’s relationship with the 67-year-old Erickson, though, has been especially meaningful.
“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
Macguire “Mac” Brennan was born Dec. 21, 2005. He has an older brother, Patrick, who is a fifth-grader, and a younger sibling, Murphy, who is in kindergarten.
Self-described as “a sports kid who loves to just do what’s right,” Mac was just doing his thing last December when abnormalities began to surface. The kid who never wanted to come out of a basketball game asked to do so. A few weeks earlier, he didn’t want to play because his knee was really hurting.
“Looking back, I know there were symptoms that we didn’t realize,” Kyle Brennan said. “ ... The only thing I get on my kids for when they’re playing sports is their effort. His effort wasn’t there.”
And with good reason.
Mac initially had a bump behind each ear (kind of like when a cold is settling in) and eczema on his chest. The next day, more bumps were detected along his neck and under his arms.
That led to a trip to the doctor’s office, where a young physician that Kyle said looked like she was just out of medical school delivered some unexpected news: “I think he has leukemia.”
Where was the older doctor who had seen such things a million times?
The diagnosis, however, was confirmed within two hours. Approximately 90 minutes later, Mac was admitted into Primary Children’s Hospital.
“I just broke down,” said Kyle, who called it devastating. “You don’t have a chance to read on it or know anything. My images of leukemia are from when I was a kid, I think, and you immediately go to the worst-case scenario. It was awful. The worst day, probably, of my life.”
Beth acknowledged it was horrific and shocking.
Ironically, it was Friday the 13th (2013) when the diagnosis of leukemia (pre-B ALL) was confirmed and Mac was hospitalized.
“It was one of the worst nights of my life,” Mac said.
Treatment began in the form of 28 consecutive days of chemotherapy and steroids.
In the midst of it, though, Beth said the family made a pivotal decision — one that would eventually lead to Mac’s involvement with the Utah basketball and football teams.
“When he was first diagnosed it was terrible, and then we came to a point after we got out of the hospital, a couple of days out of the hospital, where we kind of decided: ‘OK, that’s enough. We need to move forward. How are we going to do that?’” she explained. “We kind of decided we are going to keep things as normal as possible. We are going to keep him involved. We’re not going to isolate him. We are going to try and just get him out and about with other people as much as we can and try to keep a normal life for the rest of our boys, too — for our sake and for our family’s sake.”
The family debated such things as having Beth quit her job and trying to keep everyone at home.
“Then we realized that’s not good for him,” Beth said. “So we need to kind of keep putting one foot in front of the other knowing that at some point we’re going to look back on this time and be glad that we didn’t stop our life at that point, that life continued, for our other boys, for Mac, and for ourselves.”
It’s a decision Beth made after a talking with a friend. She realized it wasn’t productive to cry and talk about it all the time.
“No more tears. We’re done,” Beth said. “We’re moving forward. This is what we’re going to do and we’ve done that.”
The road ahead, though, is a long one. Leukemia treatment for young boys like Mac can take 3½ years to complete.
Challenges along the way
The first 28 days of Mac’s treatment were aimed at eliminating cancer in his body. The combination of chemotherapy and steroids left him looking obese. Mac had trouble breathing, his heart was racing, and he was sweating profusely. On top of that, he couldn’t stop eating and was always hungry.
Most concerning, though, was that Mac’s cancer was supposed to be at zero and it wasn’t. His leukemia classification remained “very high.” Was the treatment working? Would there be a relapse?
Intensified treatments followed. Chemotherapy continued on average five times per week. That will likely be the case until August, then about once a month for 3-3½ years.
“The whole treatment process is very unpredictable and produces chaos and that’s really the hard part,” Beth said. “There’s something to be said for living in chaos for a short amount of time. There’s another thing to be living in that level of chaos for an extended period of time and that’s been, I think, the biggest adjustment for us. It really is chaotic.”
Mac’s treatments, she explained, are all blood-count dependent.
“He was born feisty and that has served him well.”
Mac, however, shakes off such talk.
“Getting through this is not easy,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say I’m a total tough guy.”
Good news came a couple weeks ago when a bone marrow test revealed that Mac’s cancer was at zero. He shared the results with both the basketball and football teams.
“They both went crazy,” Mac said. “I didn’t get to finish when I was doing both.”
Krystkowiak noted that the basketball team got really ecstatic and let out a big cheer.
“It was great,” Krystkowiak said. “He’s been a leader for us and a captain.”
Mac’s father has also been greatly impacted.
“He’s strong and he’s got a kind heart. He’s a great kid,” Kyle said. “I’m very proud. He inspires me. You can take yourself too seriously as an adult and you see someone his age taking on what he’s taken on and still having fun and still having a good spirit. ... It really puts things in perspective for me.”
So much so, in fact, that it’s made the situation more bearable.
“It’s hard. It’s horrible. But so many people have been good to us. We have friends that step in. People that we work with have been great,” Kyle said. “People get worse news. So we try and keep it positive. We are still really lucky. Some people get a bad prognosis.”
Mac’s treatments are working, as evidenced by the recent cancer-free bone marrow test. Beth said the results are very encouraging.
Kyle also acknowledged it’s good and said those were great days even though it’s still hard because the treatment doesn’t change.
“As long as we know it’s working we can do whatever is asked,” he added.
In a good place
While Mac is on the road to recovery — he was able to make it back to school for a stretch in late-April — there’s still some hurdles ahead. However, he’s grateful for the help the Utes are offering along the way.
“It makes me forget about it and just feel like I belong, like I belong in that place right now and that’s where I want to be,” Mac said.
Kyle Brennan believes it was meant to be.
“I think all of us are meant to work or have a purpose, even at a young age. Right now, when you’re young like my other sons, their purpose is going to school,” he explained. “They go to school and then they go to their sporting activities. Every day they’re working on something. So the hardest part, I think, was right away that purpose was taken from him.”
Krystkowiak and Whittingham, he continued, helped restore purpose to Mac’s day.
“They’re just good people when no one’s looking and I don’t know if everyone knows that,” Kyle said.
It’s part of an overall groundswell of support the Brennans have received from the community.
“I think we’re overwhelmed by people’s generosity and we’re blessed. I feel that way. Blessed that we have Primary Children’s, blessed that they’ve had so much advancement in leukemia treatment, blessed by the people that have been so kind to us,” Kyle said. “I think we’ve tried to focus in on how can we take what people have done for us and do something good for others and put life in perspective.”
A lot of good things, he added.
“It’s brought us closer as a family. It’s challenging but still those things outweigh the challenge.”
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