SALT LAKE CITY – In another life, Jason Poulsen would have burned with envy as he watched Utah football fans celebrating the Utes first trip to the Pac-12 Championship game on social media.
But, because the longtime BYU fan was changed by life’s cruelty and grace — by the way being human shatters and remakes us — he did something so unusual, most people didn’t believe he was serious.
And then, the gesture he made rippled through a medium known for its toxicity, creating a wave of compassion that will bless families he’s never met, engaged in struggles that most of us can’t comprehend.
Dealing with illness
The father of four was just like any other football fan six years ago. He loved his team with unbridled passion, and he reveled in the opportunity to engage in good-natured trash talk with fans of BYU’s fiercest rival — Utah.
“I have no problem watching the Utes lose,” he said laughing. “I’ve always been such a huge BYU fan, and, of all of my kids, Ashtyn is by far the biggest BYU fan of all.”
Ashtyn is his oldest daughter, and she was his most committed companion when it came to trekking to Rice-Eccles or LaVell Edwards stadium to watch a rivalry game that became as much about their time together as it did about seeing the Cougars battle the Utes.
When she was 12, she was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. She endured several kinds of treatment, including a bone marrow transplant. She went into remission, and they thought they’d won.
“She relapsed again when she was 15 and then when she was 17,” Poulsen said. “She has had three bone marrow treatments. The first bout, her donor was our son, and that lasted three years. Last time, I was the donor.”
When the leukemia returned, doctors from Primary Children’s Hospital said they couldn’t do any more for Ashtyn.
The family found an investigational study in Seattle, so Ashtyn’s mother, Suzanne West, took her daughter to Washington where they’ve lived for months while Ashtyn underwent treatment that involved bone marrow from an umbilical cord donor.
“The effects of three bone marrow treatments have just wreaked havoc on her body,” he said. “She’s had to learn to eat, to walk, and this last time, she’s been in the hospital 110 straight days.”
She was released on Monday, and they hoped she could come home for the BYU-Utah game at Rice-Eccles. But the next night, she became ill and she ended up back in the hospital to treat internal bleeding. Instead, her father flew to Seattle, and they watched it in a hospital bed, cheering for an upset the Cougars almost delivered.
'Some way to help'
Through all of this, Poulsen said, his family has felt affection and support from fans of both teams. He’s shared some of their fight on social media, and the love has buoyed them through many dark days.
In fact, BYU alumni even organized a visit to Ashtyn when they played Washington — the team Utah will meet for Friday’s Pac-12 title game — on Sept. 29.
So, the Sunday after Utah earned its spot in the Pac-12 Championship, Poulsen did what he always does as he leaves the isolation of his living room for the curse and connection of Twitter.
“I was just scrolling through Twitter and watching some Ute fans I follow and how excited they were,” he said. “They were celebrating, just like I would be if it was BYU.”
He thought he’d feel jealous.
But he didn’t.
“Honestly, my thoughts turned to my daughter and how grateful I am that she’s had so much support,” he said. “And I thought, ‘I wonder if there is some way to help a Ute fan who would never be able to go to the game, get there.”
So he sent out a message asking the Twitterverse to help him find someone who deserved to go.
“People were skeptical,” he laughed. “Some thought I was just being some (jerk) BYU fan. And then I started getting responses saying, ‘This person would be good, or that fan would love it.’”
A wish granted
Jody Erickson doesn’t have a Twitter account, but her husband, Dave, does. One day, a friend tagged Dave in a message to Poulsen saying Dave deserved to see his beloved Utes in their first Pac-12 Championship game.
The Ericksons met in college — at the U — where they both had season tickets to the football games. They’ve kept those through their 28 years of marriage, including their four children in the fall tradition.
“He missed his first Utah football game because he was sick this year,” Jody said. “I always used to joke that he would go to the games on his deathbed. So when he said he was too sick to go, I knew it was bad.”
Dave Erickson was diagnosed with an extremely rare blood cancer in 2007. He’s dealt with treatments, similar to Ashtyn’s, and he enjoyed about seven years of symptom-free living.
“His cancer is incurable,” Jody said. “They can treat it, but they can’t cure it. … It started coming back in 2014, and he’s been fighting it ever since.”
Jody was stunned – and moved – when she read what friends told Poulsen about them. Just that sentiment being shared in such a public way would have been balm on their suffering.
Then Poulsen announced that Dave was the winner.
“Initially, we thought it was just going to be airfare for one lucky person, sort of in the spirit of camaraderie of the rivalry,” Jody said. “Then Jason sent me a message saying people on both sides of the rivalry have donated, and they wanted to pay for our whole trip.”
In the past, the Ericksons would have planned their own trip to watch the Utes in this historic game. But, this year, medical bills are the priority.
“This is something we would have loved to have gone to, and we probably would have considered it,” she said. “But, this year, it was out of the question.”
In a beautiful coincidence, the Ericksons’ 28th wedding anniversary is the day of the game — Nov. 30th.
“It’s awesome,” Jody said. “Honestly, I love Utah football, but what it means mostly is, well, Utah football is a thing that (Dave) loves so much that he can forget about real life. Through cancer and everything, he uses football to get away from it all. And the fact that people were so kind and thoughtful, I feel kind of unworthy because there are so many people in greater need. It’s very humbling that they’d choose us.”
Wave of compassion
Poulsen heard from skeptics, but he also got dozens of fans who wanted to be part of the gift. People sent him money, donations large and small. The ripples of kindness became a wave of compassion.
“I got a huge donation from a Ute fan,” Poulsen said. “It was so big, I asked him, ‘What do you want me to do with this?’”
Twitter pointed him in the direction of another man, this one a BYU fan, who just learned his daughter’s brain cancer is terminal.
“(The Utah donor) told me, ‘Do whatever you feel is right,’” Poulsen said. “So we’re using that extra money to help this guy and his daughter go to Disneyland.”
Poulsen is still a bit stunned by what happened this week.
“I am a little shocked,” said Poulsen, who celebrated Ashtyn’s 18th birthday with her on Sunday as she also celebrated leaving the hospital, this time, hopefully, for good. “I’m not shocked that people are good and want to help. I’m shocked at how much it blew up.”
It was people engaged in the agony and ecstasy of fandom who rallied to ease the suffering of strangers.
They know each other only by handles and profile pictures, and they love to torment and tease each other about wins and losses and streaks and slumps. Without even being asked, people just like Poulsen showed up in a profound way, even as they partook in rivalry banter.
“No matter what happens,” Poulsen said, “This is just a stupid football game. This is just so I can forget the stress of my normal life. My neighbors are my neighbors, and they’re not Ute fans, they’re my neighbors.″