OGDEN, Utah– College football is often about rivalries and bitter competition.
In FCS football this weekend, it’s about two premier conferences fighting for bragging rights and prestige, with a well-publicized four-game duel between the Big Sky Conference and the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
The marquee matchup has No. 8 Eastern Washington traveling to play five-time defending national champion and top-ranked North Dakota State. Three of the matchups are between nationally-ranked opponents, as No. 14 Montana travels to No. 3 Northern Iowa, while No. 19 Northern Arizona is at No. 18 Western Illinois.
The fourth game may have been overlooked earlier this week, as 0-1 Weber State travels to play 0-1 South Dakota. The game will feature two teams that fell in lopsided decisions to FBS teams last week and are fighting for relevancy in the world of FCS football.
However, events of the past week have made this game the most relevant matchup of the weekend, with implications that are much more important than simply winning a football game, or representing a conference.
For the past month, Weber State football coach Jay Hill has been juggling two obligations. The third-year coach has the professional obligation and passion of leading an FCS football program in the ultra-competitive Big Sky Conference. Hill is attempting to build a vibrant football culture in Ogden, Utah; one that is rooted in scholastic achievement, player development, and yes, winning football games. That obligation continues on the road this weekend, as the Wildcats travel to Vermillion, S.D., to face the Coyotes.
Off the field though, the coach has devoted time to care for his wife, Sara, who is suffering from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In spite of a good prognosis for Sara, the struggles of caring for someone with cancer are many, and the pain of seeing a loved one suffer through the indignity of the disease is difficult.
Fortunately, Jay and Sara Hill, plus their four children, aren’t alone in the fight. The Hill’s support network includes family, friends, notable college football coaches, such as Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and BYU coach Kalani Sitake, as well as members of the Weber State community.
This week, that support network grew even larger, as a loyal group of South Dakota fans joined the fight to stay #SaraStrong, showcasing the ability of sports to unify people around a common cause.
It all started with “The Coyote Brotherhood,” a group of former South Dakota football players who are famous for supporting the University of South Dakota, especially its football program.
Being an avid fan of the USD program, former Coyotes defensive end and proud Coyote Brotherhood member, Dave Hultgren was researching Weber State when he discovered a story about the recent health struggles of the head coach’s wife, and the community of supporters who have risen up behind her.
Hultgren and the Coyote Brotherhood were motivated by the stories to contribute to the Hill’s efforts, committing to helping the Hill’s, and the Weber State community, know they’re part of a much bigger team when it comes to the battle against cancer.
“Everyone (in the Coyote Brotherhood) said we all know people who’ve been touched by cancer,” said Hultgren, who received feedback from USD alumni around the country, from Florida to Alaska. “It isn’t really the amount (of money) that matters; it’s just the intent of it, and the good will that comes from it. Also, letting (the Hill family) know that we’re thinking about them, and praying for them. We want (Sara) to have a fast and speedy recovery.”
To help support the Hill family, the organization started a “Go Fund Me” page for the cause, which had raised over $3,500 in four days. Besides the website, the Coyote Brotherhood will also have members asking Coyotes tailgaters for donations. The organization will present the donations to Weber State athletic directors Jerry Bovee after the game.
Jay Hill said the support of opposing fans has been touching, to say the least.
Even when she sleeps she has a smile. Thanks to everyone for your kind texts, your messages, your love and support. pic.twitter.com/2BJmO8ehsF— Jay Hill (@CoachJayHill) August 20, 2016
“This is an extremely classy act by the South Dakota fans,” he said. “It sure puts things into perspective of what’s most important. It shows how classy those Dakota schools are and how they handle their business.”
In a world so divided by politics and so partisan in the world of sports, Hultgren said the game of FCS college football is helping to unite people behind a common goal - helping Sara Hill stay #SaraStrong.
“I think the Big Sky and the Missouri Valley are two of the premier leagues in the country, and I would like to have teams play back-and-forth because the people are similar,” he said. “Obviously, what Sara is going through is a far bigger battle than what either side is going to do (in the game). We want to keep the game itself the focus, but let them know that we really care, and we’re thinking and praying for them."
The “Coyotes for Sara” Go Fund Me page can be accessed by visiting https://www.gofundme.com/2nkwrk4k.