WSU Cougars center Riley Sorenson had an unimaginably difficult 2015 season, in which he faced the loss of both his parents at different junctures, but through it all, continued to be there for his team.
At two different instances within a two-month span last fall, Riley Sorenson, the Washington State Cougars’ starting center, faced the likelihood of losing both parents to different diseases, and ultimately lost his father, Bart Sorenson, to complications from a heart attack that he suffered the day of the Hyundai Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
But a Pac-12 news release from Monday night states, the Pac-12 Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) voted to honor Sorenson with the league’s Sportsmanship Award for 2015-16 “for the strength of character and dedication to his team that he displayed throughout the 2015 season even while he and his family faced extreme personal challenges.”
The Sportsmanship Award is awarded by members of the Pac-12 SAAC, and is based on good sportsmanship and ethical behavior in participation of intercollegiate athletics, as well as the demonstration of good citizenship outside of the sports competition setting. Nominees must have demonstrated the values of respect and integrity through a specific action, ideally directed toward an opponent. Conference Award winners are then nominated for the NCAA Division I Sportsmanship Award.
Riley Sorenson thanked his friends, family, teammates and the Pac-12 SAAC in the Pac-12’s news release.
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“Obviously this past fall was a very emotionally tough time for me in my personal life, but all of the support that I received from everyone involved made it possible for me to go about my life as my family would want to,” Sorenson said in the Pac-12 release. “It truly is an honor to be deemed worthy to receive this award above all of the other athletes in the Pac-12, and for that I’m very grateful.”
Bart Sorenson’s death came about a month and a half after Riley Sorenson learned — during the Cougars’ road trip to play UCLA on Nov. 14, 2015 — that his mother, Karen Sorenson, had been diagnosed with late stage cancer throughout her body. Karen Sorenson was unconscious when Riley arrived at the hospital to see her, and doctors told the family her prognosis was grim. They recommended a new trial treatment for Riley’s mother as a final attempt to stop the cancer.
Fortunately, four days into the treatment, Karen’s condition improved rapidly. By Nov. 18, Riley was back in Pullman with the Cougars, preparing to play against Colorado the following Saturday.
Due to her slowly improving health, Karen stayed home in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. with Riley’s younger brother and sister when the Cougars’ bowl game against Miami rolled around. However, Riley’s father made the trip to El Paso to watch his son play in the Sun Bowl.
But right before the Cougars were supposed to take the field for the Sun Bowl, offensive line coach Clay McGuire took Riley aside to tell him that his father had suffered a heart attack and was on his way to the hospital.
Riley rushed back to the locker room and hurriedly took off his pads. He was then taken to the hospital under police escort, and upon arrival, was informed that his father’s heart had stopped for 20 minutes and that he would likely be unconscious for a couple of days after surgery.
At that point, Riley decided to go back to the stadium because, as the Pac-12 release stated, “he knew his teammates needed him on the field.” So Riley stood by his teammates during the fourth quarter, and participated in the Sun Bowl trophy ceremony.
In the days following the Sun Bowl win, Riley’s mother and siblings flew into town and the Sorensons stayed in El Paso long after the Cougars had departed. Doctors broke the news that Bart had lost 70 percent of his brain function, and on Jan. 5, Bart Sorenson died at the age of 49.
“Riley Sorenson faced hardship throughout the 2015 football season, but never gave up on his team,” the Pac-12 said in its news release. “He says that both parents, regardless of their conditions, would have wanted him to stand by his team, who in turn helped him tremendously as he struggled with his parents’ health.”
“This is a tremendous honor for Riley and more so due to the fact that he was nominated and later selected by his peers throughout the conference,” WSU coach Mike Leach said in the release. “Riley has faced unimaginable adversity this past year, handled it with great courage and remained focused on being a student-athlete.
“To have others recognize what Riley has fought through and for him to remain a leader on this team is a testament to his character and selflessness.”
The Pac-12 SAAC lauded Riley for bringing a positive attitude to the field and making “a lasting impression on the Cougar football team with his strength, courage and ability to put others’ needs ahead of his own.”