The chubby-cheeked, brown-eyed boy from Rock Springs beamed on game days.
He loved to watch the University of Wyoming football team play in War Memorial Stadium, especially when his dad let him go down, close to the field, to be near the players.
Phillip and Cherilyn Hansen had taken their son, Hunter, and his older brother, Phillip Jr., to Laramie three times to join the crowd of brown and gold. Together, the family had cheered for their Pokes.
But things changed after July 29, 2011. Instead of trips to Laramie to watch his favorite team, Hunter made trips to Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City.
Hunter was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a white-blood-cell attacking cancer that starts in bone marrow — and then spreads.
Four rounds of chemotherapy took eight months. There was the hope of recovery — a period of remission that started in January of 2012 allowed Hunter to return to school. But then came the resurgence of the disease last March — a grim discovery that led to more chemotherapy, and a decision by doctors to try a bone-marrow transplant.
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Then came more heartbreak for the Hansens.
On Sept. 18, Cherilyn Hansen died of sudden and unexpected respiratory failure as she sat with her son at a Ronald McDonald House in Salt Lake City. Nine days later, doctors determined Hunter’s transplant — his final shot at beating the cancer — had failed.
“I know that my mom will be there to get me but not until I have had my fun here first,” the 9-year old wrote in a journal after his cancer had been declared terminal. “I have so many things I want to do with my brother and dad.”
That included another Wyoming football game.
Phillip Hansen knew his employer, BP, had connections with UW football. He sent an email inquiring about tickets. He received a surprise.
A video of Wyoming football coach Dave Christensen appeared in Phillip Hansen’s inbox. Hunter’s face glowed when Christensen said he needed an honorary coach for Wyoming’s Border War game against Colorado State on Nov. 3.
“We wanted to make it more than just him coming to a game,” Christensen said in his office Thursday afternoon. “We wanted to make it special.”
What transpired was sports at its best.
See, people who hear about Hunter can’t help but learn something. When Wyoming players heard, young men who had been on the wrong side of four-straight football games received a dose of perspective. Suddenly, their issues didn’t seem so insurmountable.
“We play this sport, football,” former Wyoming center and co-captain Nick Carlson said. “But life goes far beyond touchdowns, extra points and all that. Hunter’s story was pretty moving. It sure opened a lot of eyes for guys, as far as what is really important.”
And as for Hunter?
“He got to do things I’ve never let anyone else do,” Christensen, who has a reputation for treating team secrets like matters of national security, said with a smile.
Hunter, dressed in a Wyoming jersey with his name on the back, met the team at its hotel the morning of the game. He toured the UW training facility and equipment room, where he got a sneak peak at the new football helmets Wyoming didn’t unveil until its final game of the season.
UW equipment manager Michael Aanonsen gave him a steamboat helmet decal to take home. He added it to his other gifts from that Saturday: a signed football from the players and another ball the athletic department had provided.
That last football read, “Hunter Hansen, Cowboy For Life.”
“They spoiled him pretty good,” Phillip Hansen said.
Hunter rode next to Christensen on a golf cart during the Cowboy Walk and then joined the team for its pregame prep inside the locker room. When the Cowboys took the field, the honorary coach led the charge, walking hand-in-hand with Christensen onto Jonah Field.
He retired to Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman’s suite for some much-needed rest after kickoff. But first, he talked with star Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith.
“He tried to have conversation with all of the players,” Phillip Hansen said. “His message was to just do your best. And to never give up. He told the quarterback that.”
Smith gave the boy a promise.
“He came up to him before the game started and said, ‘We’re going to score over 40 points for you,’” Hunter’s father said. “And they did.”
Players passed the Bronze Boot around after the 45-31 win. But the trophy ended with Hunter. He wrapped both arms around the boot and shuffled his feet, carrying the prize all the way to its resting place.
“Come on,” Christensen said after all the players had filed inside the locker room. “Get up here.”
The Cowboys, circled around the boy, helped him stand on a chair.
“How about one big cheer for my man, Hunter?” Christensen said.
For 25 seconds, they cheered and stomped.
“What do you want to say to these guys?” Christensen asked when the locker room finally quieted.
“Thank you,” Hunter said.
On Jan. 1, two months and four days before his 10th birthday, Hunter died at his home. He had fought the cancer for 18 months.
“He wasn’t afraid of it,” Phillip Hansen said. “He tried to make every minute he had count.”
He planned his own funeral. He picked the speaker and selected his pallbearers. He chose his own casket. It was one just like his mom’s.
Photographs of that November afternoon at War Memorial Stadium scrolled through a digital picture frame. His Wyoming jersey was draped over a table.
“He just loved that day,” Phillip Hansen said. “It was one of the biggest highlights of his life.”
Reach reporter Ben Frederickson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Ben_Fred.