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Dilfer's perspective now defined by loss

His friends on the Bucs praise his family's strength after death of son Trevin, 5.

By null, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 29, 2003

Perspective seldom has been so firmly, painfully defined.

Often, the eyes and ears of Trent Dilfer have burned from criticism. Being an NFL quarterback can examine the manhood of a tough guy. Dilfer has persevered. In pro football reality, he is the Survivor. Rewards are evident.

Dilfer, 31, owns homes in Fresno, Calif., Seattle and at Lake Tahoe, Nev. He's worth millions, with a portfolio that includes a Ford dealership in the California agricultural town where a young man's talents blossomed at Fresno State.

But suddenly, on a warm and giddy California afternoon, while at Disneyland play, the Dilfer world was struck by devastating trauma. Cass and Trent's only son, a spirited 5-year-old, doubled over with something mysterious and terrible.

Saturday, Trevin died.

For the famous or not, for the rich or poor, there can be no more crushing emotion than what fractured the hearts, flooded the eyes and examined the souls of the Dilfers. Worst nightmare, without question.

Cass has been an extraordinary wife. Their ultimate treasures were three daughters and a son. So much for which to be thankful. Dilfer holidays always have been like highlight films, until a couple of months ago.

So quickly, so much meant so little.

"They were at Disney when Trevin was struck with flu-like symptoms," said Bucs general manager Rich McKay, one of Trent's best buddies. "Doctors immediately said it was something extremely scary."

Trevin, who was born in Tampa, kept getting worse. His life in jeopardy, the Dilfer son was put on a heart transplant waiting list. For 43 agonizing days, daddy's boy kept breathing with the help of machines. No signs of a comeback.

"It tore your heart out, seeing a family deal with an ordeal that has to be the worst anyone can imagine," said Tampa Bay safety John Lynch, close with Dilfer since they were young Bucs.

"We saw so much love. Cass and Trent got through the pain and agony only due to their powerful Christian faith and levels of courage far beyond anything ever demanded in athletics."

Trevin was being treated at Stanford University hospital, on the Palo Alto campus where Lynch excelled in football and baseball. "We went up to see them," he told the St. Petersburg Times. "On the wall of the hospital room was a fresh photograph of Trevin being hugged by Mickey Mouse, not all that long ago."

Improvement never came. For six weeks, the Dilfers watched their son fading. There would be no transplant. Infections so ravaged Trevin's heart that repairs were hopeless.

"Cass and Trent remained amazingly strong," Lynch said. "None of us knows how we might deal with such a horrible situation. I've always thought a great deal of the Dilfers, but my admiration kept going higher."

The worst of decisions was coming. With no hope, as Trevin suffered, the Dilfers heard every medical opinion, all of them negative, and made the call to shut down life support. Even if the end is inevitable, the strain on a family is monumental.

"I faced that with my father," said McKay, son of original Bucs coach John McKay. "It rips you apart. Suddenly, my dad was gone. But with Trevin, this was a little fellow just 5 years old."

Cass and Trent have three daughters, Madeleine, 7; Victoria, 4; and Delaney, 9 months. Doctors would not be absolutely certain of what killed Trevin until more exams were performed.

Dilfer's ride as a quarterback, since 1994 when Tampa Bay drafted him in the first round, seldom has not been turbulent. There were memorable highs but too many lows during six seasons with the Bucs.

Criticism was fierce. Words in newspapers and on talk radio questioned his work. "When he first came to us," McKay said, "Dilfer had obvious physical tools, but he was extremely immature and not ready to be an NFL quarterback. Critics bothered him a lot. He heard them all.

"But during those six seasons, I saw the maturation of a man. No matter his won-and-loss outcomes, Trent grew quite admirably. Understanding that second-guessing goes with such a job.

"When he left the Bucs, there was no doubt in my mind that Dilfer could handle the mental and emotional challenges, but by then there were more questions about his physical limits. How things can change."

Dilfer got the Tampa Bay heave-ho, his chum McKay having to deliver the word. Landing in Baltimore, Dilfer returned to Raymond James Stadium to marshal the offense of a Ravens team whose defensive might would make it world champion.

Dilfer grinned but didn't gloat.

"Being a close friend, I was especially impressed how Trent handled his departure from the Bucs, when he could have been really loud and bitter," Lynch said. "What growth there'd been in the guy. Then, coming back to play in that Super Bowl, he handled it with amazing class with an absence of ill feelings for the area where he formerly played."

Even then, Baltimore bounced him. Dilfer surfaced in Seattle. He has played well but sits as the backup QB in coach Mike Holmgren's plans.

All of that is so insignificant now.

Football, how minuscule it can seem.

- A public celebration of Trevin Dilfer's life will be held 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at People's Church in Fresno, Calif. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent to the TD4HIM Foundation, P.O. Box 6613, San Jose, CA. 95150.

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