DUCHESNE, Utah (ABC4) – Sam Hoopes had always been a great athlete.
Standing 6-foot-5 with an athletic frame, Hoopes was recruited by universities like Stanford, Oregon, and Washington to play football. Ultimately, the former Duchesne High School star choose to play basketball at Southern Utah.
After college, Hoopes moved back to his small town and began working as a high school counselor and basketball coach at Duchesne. He continued to live an active lifestyle – until he got sick. Diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, an autoimmune disease that affects the liver, Hoopes’ physical condition began to deteriorate in 2018. A transplant became necessary.
“One of the things for me, it was hard to see him go from the kind of guy he was before he got sick. And then, when his illness took a toll on his body, and it was tough to see him like that,” says Derek Herrera, Hoopes’ longtime friend and brother-in-law, told ABC4.
Wanting to see his friend return to full health and provide him a new lease on life, Herrera joined a group of Hoopes’ friends and family members to see if he could be a compatible organ donor.
“He had already decided like ‘if I’m compatible, let’s do it,’” Hoopes recalls of Herrera’s willingness to donate. “I mean there was no hesitation, that’s the kind of guy he is.”
Herrera was the first one of the group tested and right off the bat, he was a perfect match.
“It was pretty amazing how it worked out, they told us that it usually takes anywhere from five to 20 people that to get tested to find a match and I was the first of all, that was pretty incredible,” says Herrera.
The procedure was successfully performed on May 11, 2020, at Intermountain Medical Center. Since then, the two have both recovered and returned to working and living in the Uintah Basin area, but their story has continued to inspire and receive attention.
Bruce Tippets, a local newspaper reporter in the Eastern Utah area, took note of Hoopes and Herrera’s story from an article written by his colleague. Tippets was especially inspired, having benefited from an organ transplant himself.
After receiving a life-changing kidney transplant a few years earlier, Tippets and a friend, Joel Brown, founded Dreams in Motion, a group that honors people who have given back their communities while also battling a significant health challenge. As he learned more about Hoopes and Herrera and met Hoopes in person, Tippets found that that the two friends were exactly the kind of folks that the organization works to recognize.
“He was super down to earth, great guy, great example,” describes Tibbets of his first meeting with Hoopes. “He was somebody that we wanted to honor.”
Tibbets then returned to work with the board of his organization to come up with a way to give back to the high school counselor and his friend. Being a sports fan himself, and wanting to give the local basketball coach a memorable night out, there was only one idea in Tibbet’s mind; a trip to a Utah Jazz game at Vivint Arena for Hoopes, Herrera, and their wives.
At an assembly at Duchesne High School last week, Tibbets presented Hoopes with tickets and a night in a downtown Salt Lake City hotel to Monday’s Jazz game against the Washington Wizards.
After receiving the tickets and admitting his shock at the gesture, Hoopes was given a standing ovation by the students in attendance.
Growing up as Jazz fans and having taken the trek into Salt Lake City a few times for games, Hoopes is excited for Monday’s game, especially when the team is in the middle of a 24-game home winning streak.
“Oh yeah, the Jazz don’t lose at home,” Hoopes brags. “I expect them to win.”
While receiving basketball tickets and recognition can be nice, Herrera told ABC4 that he didn’t offer to donate a piece of his body for any reason other than to help his friend.
“I have people tell me all the time that I’m a hero and I just feel that anyone can do it for someone they love,” says Herrera. “I did it because I wanted to see Sam be healthy.”