CHEYENNE – Imagine your uncle texts. The words don't sound like something he would say. You’re at school, a freshman in college living more than four hours away.

“Have you heard from your mom?” the texts asks.

The next one comes quick -- “Call your grandmother,” it reads.

Something isn’t right.

Now, you’re starting to worry. Your mother has been fighting
a disease for years, that’s already playing tricks with you in the back of your
mind.

Before you call grandma, you try your mom’s cell. No answer.
Again, straight to voicemail.

“Grandma, what’s going on?”

Silence.

Muffled sobs.

“She passed away.”

Dontae Crow doesn’t remember much about that drive home to Sheridan. He was speeding the whole way. He didn’t even bring up the fact that he was pulled over when he pulled into town.

The police officer recognized him. He was the local athlete
done good. The pride of the community. He also knew why he was back home. He
let Dontae on his way without even a warning.

His grandmother, Bonnie Nuss, pleaded with Dontae not to come home. At least not that night. What was awaiting him was his worst nightmare, something he dreaded hearing throughout his young life.

All he knows is that 300-mile tear-soaked drive was
never-ending and didn’t seem real.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Crow said. “It was such a blur. I was so hurt.”

Jennifer Crow’s obituary says the love of her life was her son “D.” She followed him to all his sports activities.

“That’s what she lived for.”

On this day, Oct. 16, 2016, Jennifer Crow’s parents found their
daughter in her home. Complications from a systemic autoimmune disease known as
lupus had finally won the battle she faced for decades. She was just 41 years
old.

That night, Dontae mustered up the courage to write that
piece about his mother for the local newspaper. He wanted the world to know who
she was, what she meant to her family and community. What she meant to him.

“Jen will forever be remembered for her infectious laugh,
beautiful smile and unconditional love of her family,” the remembrance reads.

Last Friday at media day, Dontae, now a junior wide receiver
on the University of Wyoming football team, opened up about that day and the
impact it has had on his life. He was stoic and matter of fact when discussing
the relationship he shared with his mother.

“I grew up with a single parent,” he said softly. “It was just
me and my mom. Losing that -- I lost everything. I’m on my own now.

“It was rough. It really was.”

The other end of the phone went silent when Bonnie recalled first seeing Dontae that evening. She was dreading the look on his face. The emotional reaction. That’s why she begged him to wait one more day.

She couldn’t escape the inevitable.

“I couldn’t talk. He couldn’t talk. It was so hard,” Bonnie
said, fighting back tears Wednesday afternoon. “I knew what a close bond they
had. They were best friends, for sure.”

Devon Sloan, a close family friend who met Jenny in college at UW, remembers getting that dreaded call, too.

She was hysterical. Inconsolable. But her thoughts shifted
quickly to her first “nephew,” Dontae.

Jenny battled fibromyalgia along with lupus and other “demons,” according to Sloan. She said Dontae took on the role of a parent when he was young. Probably saw things "no kid should see."

But none of that mattered in that moment. Sloan said she
lost her “sister,” someone she grew up with and loved unconditionally.

“I remember her hugs,” Sloan said, tears coming from her
eyes. “She would give the tightest hugs. She would do anything for anyone,
especially Dontae. She did my hair for my wedding and in college. She was a
spitfire. No one messed with Jenny. I remember her teaching me and my sister
that you don’t take lip from other girls. She was one of a kind.”

Like his long, lonely drive home, Dontae said he doesn’t recall much about that night or the weeks that transpired. He said he was lost, so grief stricken that he clung to his family, especially his grandparents, Bonnie and Fred.

Wyoming head football coach Craig Bohl made the trip to Sheridan the next morning.

Grandma Bonnie remembers being amazed that Bohl would do such a thing. After all, her grandson was just a walk-on. He had only been on campus for less than three months.

Bohl knew he needed to support Dontae. He said this type of tragedy
doesn’t come with a manual.

“You coach long enough, and you think you’re ready for every
situation,” Bohl said last Friday. “That’s not a situation I had been through,
and (Dontae’s) out there on his own trying to navigate that.”

Bohl raved about the outpouring of support from the
community. The town even rallied around the family to help pay for Dontae’s
first year of college.

Bohl said he stayed in constant contact with Dontae’s high
school coach, Don Julian, throughout the following weeks.

Dontae took the rest of the semester off. His coaches
supported the decision. He crashed with his grandparents and aunt and uncle in
Sheridan.

Dontae said he took that time to get his head right. He had a new life that he didn’t ask for but was learning to cope with. It was in that time, Dontae said, he found out just how strong – and large – his family truly was. His mother was beloved. In turn, so was he.

“That has meant more to me than you would even understand,”
Dontae said. “Whenever I go home, my mom’s friends want to give me a good
memory and say I look like her. She was the best lady I knew. To be anything
like her is special to me.”

Bonnie has always cherished time with her oldest grandson,
but now, those special moments are less common with Dontae’s demanding football
schedule and class work. When he does come home, she said puts on old home
videos. She busts out the scrapbooks. She wants Dontae to remember a better
time in his life. One with his mother in it.

“We sit here and watch videos and talk about what memories we have of her,” Bonnie said. “We talk more and more. At first, it was super hard. We couldn’t do it without breaking down. The more we watch, the better he feels.”

Dontae returned to Laramie in the spring of 2017. He said it
was hard to come back. He loves football and his teammates, but it wasn’t the
same. He said he dropped some balls in practice. From time to time, he would
think to himself, “what am I doing here?”

That’s when his other extended family stepped up.

UW running backs coach and director of player personnel, Gordie Haug, said being a coach is about more than just X’s and O’s.

“It difficult. Parents trust us to take care of their kids,”
he said. “When something tragic like that happens, you have to be there for
them and make sure they have everything they need. We are coaches but we are
also mentors for them.”

Dontae said that support pushed him through some dark times. It also shifted his focus. His mom would want him to play his best. It was Dontae’s dream to play for the Cowboys for as long as he can remember. Grandma Bonnie has plenty of photos to prove that.

So, he went to work.

During his freshman season, Dontae played in five games at wide receiver. He caught his first pass from Josh Allen in a 42-3 home win over New Mexico. He also returned a punt for eight yards in the Idaho Potato Bowl.

“Football keeps your mind off it,” he said of the death of his mother. “I think of it as a way to show that when I make a play, I know she would be proud. In high school, I’d look up to stands and she’d be up there yelling and cheering so loud.

“I know she is there, just in a different way.”

Before the 2018 campaign began, Bohl called Dontae into his
office. The sophomore didn’t know what to think. Was he in trouble? Did he do
something wrong?

This can’t be good news, he thought.

It was.

His first call was to his grandparents.

“I was sitting in the car,” Bonnie laughed. “He asked if Papa was sitting next to me. I said, ‘no, is something wrong?’ He said, ‘no, not really, I just wanted to let you know I got put on scholarship today.’

“I screamed and bawled so hard. With what he has been
through and done, nobody deserves this more than him. It felt so good to get
that call. Fred wouldn’t admit it, but he got a little teary eyed, too. That
was one of the proudest moments for us and him. It was so deserved.”

That was a special moment for Bohl, too.

“That’s neat to see,” he said. “Everybody has a different
path and life gives us different adversities. He’s certainly had more – way
more -- than anyone else on our team. He’s really handled it well. The players
really like him and respect him and it’s good to have him around.”

On the flight to Honolulu last October, coaches once again
wanted to speak with Dontae. This time, they needed a favor. They asked him if
he could punt.

They knew he was a standout soccer player in high school and
had done some kicking for the Sheridan football team.

Dontae didn’t hesitate.

That night, Dontae punted five times for the Cowboys, averaging 43.2 yards per kick, including a 46-yard bomb inside Aloha Stadium.

He appeared in 10 games in 2018. From his natural position, he took a pair of handoffs for 11 yards. As the Pokes new punter, he kicked 24 times, including a 68 yarder against Air Force in the snow.

Is punting in the cards in 2019?

“No,” Dontae emphatically said. “Straight receiver.”

No matter what position he is playing, Dontae is a Wyoming
Cowboy. He’s most proud of that accomplishment. So is his family.

Sloan said she has Dontae’s No. 8 jersey proudly hanging on
the wall in her Rock Springs home. Her children have taken turns wearing it for
Halloween.

“They want to be like their cousin,” she said. “My kids
think he’s amazing.”

Bonnie and Fred have a camper that they bring to the games. Driving
to Laramie on fall Saturday’s has become a ritual for them. Plus, she doesn’t
want to miss the moment her grandson snags his first touchdown pass.

She thinks that’s coming soon. Plus, there’s a family bet on the line.

If Dontae catches a touchdown, his uncle Chris, a strait-laced, short-haired, clean-cut guy, according to Bonnie, will get a tattoo of the Wyoming logo, Steamboat.

If that moment does indeed happen, Bonnie said you will know
where to find her.

“If he scores, I’ll tip over,” she laughed.

The bond between grandma and grandson has never been
tighter. Bonnie said they talk twice a day on the phone. They are open books
with each other. No secrets. No hiding anything. Bonnie said no one will take
the place of Jenny in Dontae’s life, but she wants to be there for him in any
way she can.

He wants her to be here, too.

That’s why he is pestering her about visiting a hospital in
Salt Lake City when the Cowboys play Utah State in November.

In 2014, Bonnie was diagnosed with liver cancer. She had
fought and defeated breast cancer a decade prior, but now it’s back, and she
says the prognosis isn’t a good one.

Bonnie just wrapped up her third month of chemo treatments. She
said if she didn’t go through the rigorous pain, the cancer would “grow like a
weed.” She is 65 now. She wonders to herself how long she can keep up. The last
scan she received showed no new growth to the tumor, but doctors told her she
could be looking at a five-year lifespan.

“If I can ask for 10 and watch my grandkids grow up,” she
said. “That’s what I keep thinking.

“I can’t feel sorry for myself. Dontae keeps me wanting to fight. He has high hopes. I think he just keeps thinking I’m tough because I beat it the first time.”

Grandma Bonnie didn’t want to discuss her diagnosis or the fact that she even had cancer. Dontae didn’t bring it up, either.

Their focus is on today.

And today, they both still have each other.

They are looking forward to graduations, touchdowns and smiles after important moments. And they both agree, Jenny will be there to witness it all.

“Every day I think about her, a lot,” Dontae said. “I know she is watching over me. She would be proud.”

Bonnie likes to think that Jenny visits from time to time.

When she was in the stands at War Memorial Stadium watching
the spring game, she received a sign.

“A yellow butterfly swooped down from the top of the stands
over me and my husband. It’s the only one I’ve ever seen,” Bonnie said. “It
came and went. I told Dontae about it. I said, ‘Your mom was here.’ He just got
the biggest smile on his face.”