OGDEN — A neat thing happened on the Stewart Stadium football field Saturday night, and it had nothing to do with Weber State picking up an impressive win over a strong opponent.
A couple from South Dakota was honored with a Weber State football that had been personally autographed by coach Jay Hill and his wife, Sara.
They were among the generous and thoughtful Coyote faithful who helped raise more than $10,000 in honor of Sara Hill and her ongoing battle against Hodgkin lymphoma. They found out she was battling cancer two years ago and wanted to help.
“That was a huge gesture to us,” Hill said following his team’s 27-10 victory against the University of South Dakota. “We went out (Friday) night with that couple and had ice cream. It was good to know that there are unbelievable people out there in the world.”
When they found out about Sara’s cancer plight ahead of the USD-Weber State game two years ago, Dave Hultgren, a former South Dakota standout defensive end, decided to take action. Regardless of loyalties on the field, the South Dakota school's fans showed that genuine compassion and humanity have no specific cheering section.
Along with the Coyote Brotherhood fan club, Hultgren created a Go Fund Me account and raised funds at tailgating parties to donate to the Hills. The mantra: #SaraStrong. As an article on the Big Sky Conference’s website point out, the South Dakota fans with big hearts displayed that “they’re part of a much bigger team when it comes to the battle against cancer.”
It didn’t matter that the recipients of the funds wore purple and black. They just wanted to make the Hills’ lives better during a difficult time.
Hultgren knew very little about Weber State but came across Sara's heartbreaking cancer story while researching about the Coyotes' upcoming opponent in 2016.
"It broke my heart," he said.
While at church the week before the USD-Weber State game that fall, Hultgren received some inspiration.
"It was just one of those thunderbolt ideas," he said. "I lost my mom to cancer. Everybody's been touched by cancer. Everybody."
Knowing that "people of South Dakota are really awesome people" — something the Hills and Weber State will readily acknowledge — the fundraiser began in earnest the next day. The amount they raised wasn't important, Hultgren said. Rather, they just wanted to "pay a tribute" and offer some financial and emotional support from afar.
"I just started it," Hultgren said. "But everybody did it. We were glad we could do it. Looking back, we would do it again."
That means the world to the Hills, who have turned around and helped others in similar circumstances.
“The good thing about that is what it did. We were able to take that money — Sara now is heading up a deal with the Leukemia Lymphoma Society — and we were able to give donations to them,” Jay Hill said. “We continue to contribute to those things. That’s been a huge cause for us. We continue to use that money in those ways. That was a huge gesture of an unbelievable fanbase.”
Life has gotten immensely better in multiple ways since then for the Hills — and for the Wildcats. Hill believes the two occurrences might not be a coincidence.
That fall of 2016 was extremely tough for Hill. First, he found out that his wife — and mother of their four children — had been diagnosed with cancer. Then his Wildcats stumbled out to an 0-2 start, adding a bit of salt to a gaping wound.
"Life’s against ya and the football season’s against ya and you’re 0-2," Hill recalled. "Quite frankly, it was a gesture like that, that kind of lifted spirits a little bit and let you know that people care in the world. It was a big deal to us.
"Since that time we’ve been one of the hottest teams in FCS football. I don’t want to say that was the reason, but it’s good to know there are people in the world that care like that."14 comments on this story
After that 0-2 start in two years ago — including a heartbreaking double-OT loss to USD after blowing a three-touchdown lead — the Wildcats reeled off five straight wins. They won their final two games of the season and qualified for the playoffs.
In 2017, Weber State advanced to the FCS quarterfinals — losing 31-28 to No. 1 James Madison in Harrison, Virginia — and finished 11-3.
This year, Weber State is off to a nice 2-1 start, having just played a superb defensive game against the Coyotes a night after the Hills and Dave Hultgren and his wife, Paula, enjoyed a special moment together.
The best news of all?
“This,” Jay Hill said, “is the best she’s been in three years now.”