Weber State football coach Jay Hill concluded a meeting in early August by reminding his players that with all kinds of things happening in the lives of their teammates, they needed to support one another.
Fifteen minutes later, his wife walked into his office and delivered some news of her own. After months of mystery, Sara Hill learned of her diagnosis: Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"I didn't think in my wildest dreams it was cancer," Jay Hill said.
The next day when Hill shared the news with his players, defensive lineman McKay Murphy initially didn't know who the coach was talking about. And then it hit him, when Hill broke down briefly. "That might be one of the only football meetings that I'll never forget," Murphy said of a discovery that "added a little more weight to this season."
Sara Hill, who turns 38 on Saturday, is a visible figure in the Wildcat program, regularly attending practices and hosting Thursday dinners for the players. As she undergoes chemotherapy every other Wednesday for six months, her illness will frame the college football season in Ogden — and beyond, considering Jay Hill's strong ties to current and former University of Utah coaches such as Urban Meyer, Kyle Whittingham, Aaron Roderick, Morgan Scalley and Kalani Sitake after he spent 13 years on the Ute staff.
The couple had moved to Salt Lake City in 1998 when Hill transferred to Utah from the school formerly known as Ricks College in Idaho. They met when she was hitchhiking with a friend to a Ricks basketball game — a story not often told before Wednesday, when they spoke to media members after practice at Stewart Stadium.
Wildcat players and assistant coaches are rallying, with about 20 of them joining the Hills last week in a haircutting party at their home. Even a couple of Polynesian players, with locks that had grown nearly as much as her long, dark hair, joined in the unifying event.
Like a coach reviewing game film, Sara Hill keeps watching the video of that evening over and over. She's reliving a scene that makes her happy, with dozens of other players attending the event and wishing her well.
Coaches' wives have their own lives and identities, yet they're inevitably tied to the team's success or failure. In this case, Sara Hill's battle with cancer has become the Wildcats' fight as well. If anything, the players can learn from her direct approach to the illness.
"I'm thrilled to know what it is, to get rid of the pain," she said. "I'm to the point … whatever it is, let's just get rid of it and move on."
That's her game. She's known as a problem/solution person — like the time she wanted to build a backyard playhouse, so she rented a backhoe and dug a hole.
"You sound like a lawyer," her husband told her, as she outlined the treatment program.
So the mother of four children (ages 5 to 16) will deal with her illness, while attending to them and backing the players and staff members who are supporting her. She asked her doctor for one concession, moving next week's treatment from Wednesday to Friday so she can watch the Wildcats play Thursday at Utah State in the season opener without feeling the effects of chemotherapy.
Weber State lost women's golf coach Jeff Smith to leukemia in February. In 2012, the wife of then-assistant football coach Ted Stanley died in childbirth, and the athletic department supported him and his infant daughter.
The Wildcats will do whatever they can for Sara Hill. Murphy feels especially attached to her. He transferred to Weber State after spending one season at Utah, where his brother Jake played for Jay Hill as a tight end. She was there when his niece was born.
So at the end of every practice, the defensive linemen conclude with a chant: "How strong are we? Strong like Sara."
That's a good goal for them, anyway.