"I would first like to thank my friends, family, teammates, and countless other individuals that reached out to me during this time; I could not have done it without that unrelenting support,” Sorenson said in a release from the Pac-12. “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 me to.
"I would like to thank the Pac-12 Conference and the entire Pac-12 SAAC for the recognition that comes with receiving the Pac-12 Sportsmanship Award. It is truly 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."
Sorenson learned from WSU o-line coach Clay McGuire during the UCLA road trip in November his mother had been diagnosed with late stage cancer. Karen Sorenson was unconscious when Riley arrived at the hospital, and her doctors told the family they were not hopeful. They recommended a new trial treatment as a final attempt to stop the cancer. Surprisingly, Karen’s condition improved rapidly.
With Karen recuperating at home with Riley's sister and brother, father Bart Sorenson traveled to El Paso for the Sun Bowl to support Riley. Just as the Cougs were about to take the field, McGuire again has to pull him aside. Bart had suffered a heart attack and was in an El Paso hospital.
Riley rushed back to the locker room, took off his pads and was taken to the hospital under police escort. He 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 return to the stadium because, 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 El Paso and the Sorensons stayed in town long after the Cougars had departed for Pullman. Doctors told the Sorensons that Bart had lost 70 percent of his brain function. On Jan. 5, Bart Sorenson died at the age of 49.
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“Riley Sorenson faced hardship throughout the 2015 football season, but never gave up on his team,” the Pac-12 said in the 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.”
The Sportsmanship Award is selected by members of the Pac-12 SAAC and is based on good sportsmanship and ethical behavior in participation of intercollegiate athletics, as well as a 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.
"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,” said WSU's Mike Leach. “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.”
Previous Pac-12 Sportsmanship Award winners:
2004 Grayling Love, Arizona State
2005 Channing Frye, Arizona; Cara Chlebicki, California
2006 Eric Nygard, Washington State; Anna Key, California
2007 Mitch Canham, Oregon State; Jennifer Tangtiphaiboontana, Stanford
2008 Michael Capbarat, California; Arianna Lambie, Stanford
2009 Stenn Parton, USC; Lindsey Kelley, Arizona
2010 Ben Ashmore, Arizona State; Stanford women’s rowing team
2011 Jeff Gudaitis, Washington; Katie Matusik, Arizona
2012 Bryson Beirne, Arizona; Brittany Hart, Oregon
2013 Kylie Sharp, Washington
2014 University of Colorado Student-Athletes
2015 UCLA women’s gymnastics team
2016 Riley Sorenson, Washington State