Mar 292005
 
Authors: Jon Pilsner

To donate to the Trae Pepper Memorial fund, send a check made out to "UBS Financial Services" to P.O. Box 337361, Greeley, CO 80633. Write "Trae Pepper Memorial Fund" in the memo line. For more information, visit www.ramnation.com/praefortrae/

This is the story of a sports family.

Each year, tens of thousands of CSU alumni attend Rams athletic events to cheer on young athletes. They donate their time, contribute their money and invest in a small, close-knit program and the students it supports.

Trae Pepper was one such fan. The 1990-CSU graduate and small-business owner was a dedicated CSU athletics fan. For 10 years, he had season tickets to football, never missing a game. He was a member of the Greater Ram Club, the booster foundation that helps pay for the scholarships of student-athletes.

With one of his best friends, Craig Barnum, Pepper tailgated before each football game and was a dedicated member of the family bound by the green and gold.

But that life changed on Feb. 17.

After weeks of trying to resolve various physical problems, a CT scan found a mass on his liver. A bioscopy confirmed a terrifying diagnosis – cancer.

In a heartbeat, Pepper and his family- which includes his wife, Lisa Pepper, an 8-year-old daughter, Hailey, and a 5-year-old son, Taren – found out his life could be approaching a rushed end. A healthy, strong, 36-year-old man, who was vibrant at the beginning of football season, was told he had little time left to live.

"Surgery was not an option; a transplant was not an option," Lisa said. "We were told the only option was chemotherapy, and that would only give us time."

A LIFETIME DEDICATED TO CSU

Trae first came to CSU in 1986 as a student. This was where he met Barnum. The two were floormates in Edwards Hall for the first semester, but after that year, neither kept in contact.

"To tell you the truth, Trae and I didn't became good friends," Barnum said. "I'd see him around campus and we'd say hi to each other but that was about it."

However, a chance meeting at their sons' soccer game reunited two friends.

"At the game, this guy came up to me and I said 'I know you!' and we just started talking," Barnum said.

They quickly discovered that both lived in Greeley and were Ram Club members, and a friendship came into being. The two would go backpacking in the mountains and attend many CSU events as part of a dedicated alumni base.

But Trae didn't start supporting the Rams with Barnum; he had been supporting them since he graduated from CSU. After college was done, Trae and his family became the biggest kind of Rams fans.

"We didn't miss a football game, and went to volleyball games when we could," Lisa said.

Trae had been a Greater Ram Club member for eight years and a season ticket holder for 10 years. That said, Barnum recalls his friend rarely sitting in his assigned seat.

"He would always go over to the student section and sit with them," Barnum said. "I told him he was crazy. He even stopped a kid from throwing a lemon at the team this season."

But the Rams had given kindly to Trae, too.

Lisa spoke fondly of an August football practice that Trae and his son Taren attended, when a simple act astounded Trae.

At the end of practice, CSU wide receiver David Anderson played a game of catch with Taren.

"He didn't ask him to come over, he didn't say hi or anything," Barnum said. "Dave just came over and started playing with (Taren)."

It was something that left a permanent impact on Trae and his young son.

"Trae was blown away," Lisa said. "My son worships that man. It was incredible that he did that for him."

THE FAMILY OF CSU

Two weeks after the devastating news that Trae had cancer, Barnum contacted Joel Cantalamessa, the founder and managing editor of RamNation.com, a Web site for CSU athletics fans.

A couple days later, a link appeared on the RamNation homepage allowing fans and visitors to post messages of support for the Pepper family. Three weeks later, the page had been viewed more than 5,000 times and had more than 500 personal postings.

Trae was well accustomed to RamNation.

"RamNation was a place my husband went every day," Lisa said. "For him, it was a community of Ram fans."

Barnum was overwhelmed with the response, especially the wide range of athletic fans who have posted positive comments.

"You have people from (the University of) Wyoming and (the University of) Colorado who have posted there," Barnum said. "I just am astounded with it."

CSU head football coach Sonny Lubick has posted, as have other former football players, including Matt Newton, Dallas Davis, Matt McDougal and Terry Nugent. People from around the country have posted, including messages from soldiers in the Middle East. Lubick even called Trae and talked with him briefly, a move Barnum also set in motion.

"It was amazing what the Internet does. The human spirit is just incredible," Cantalamessa said. "It's just heartwarming to see that so many people who have never met Trae care about him and his family."

Lisa said the postings, which she read to Trae since the page went live, were wonderful in lifting her husband's spirits.

"It's incredible," Lisa said. "It's amazing how this has touched so many lives. We're all a big family."

A FORMER RAM STEPS UP

Cantalamessa, trying to lift spirits, sent former Rams receiver Pete Rebstock an e-mail informing him of Trae's situation. Rebstock posted a message on March 14, offering words of support.

It was not all that Rebstock would give to Trae and his family.

Barnum, noticing Rebstock was employed at the financial firm UBS e-mailed him about the possibility of helping out the Pepper family with a foundation. Rebstock agreed, and the Trae Pepper Memorial Fund was born.

"The reason for this is the benefit to Trae's wife and his family," Rebstock said.

Rebstock never met Trae, but Cantalamessa told him Trae was a dedicated CSU football fan.

"When I read it, it made me sad," Rebstock said. "But to see the actual notes that came in for Trae, it proves there are a bunch of good-hearted people out there."

The Trae Pepper Memorial Fund will provide money to the Pepper family to help cover medical and living costs. Rebstock said that after taking in all of the money donated, he and his partners at UBS will help oversee any investments.

In addition, Barnum, who helped spearhead the program, has set up a PO Box for those who wish to give to the family. Those checks will be bundled and sent to Rebstock at UBS, who will make sure the family receives the money.

A LIFE CUT SHORT

Trae Pepper died at 1 a.m. Monday, his five-and-a-half-week battle coming to an end. He did not have the chance to be interviewed for this story, nor did he see it before it was printed.

News reached the RamNation message board, and the platform that had introduced the world to Trae Pepper now told of his passing.

For the fans, the hundreds who had posted, it was a time to say goodbye.

And just before 2 a.m. Monday, Barnum, a former floormate, tailgate partner and close friend, said goodbye in a post on Trae's page – a page that had touched so many lives across the nation:

"Goodbye Friend. I woke up from a dream last night around 2 a.m. where you were standing there and smiling at me – cured. I hope someday, using your life as an example to live by, we may go backpacking in heaven."

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