Troy Howell stared at his own headstone, looking into the eyes of his mortality.
Among the more morbid parts of a terminal illness are the months and years of not just knowing you are going to die, but waiting for it, wondering what the world will be like when you’re lying six feet below and the world moves on.
There are also logistics to figure out. Questions need to be asked. Finances need to be arranged. Funeral and burial plans need to be sorted out. When the stone was planted in the fall of 2012, Howell and his wife, Mary, went to the cemetery. He was not doing well. Mary worried he’d be gone by Christmas.
She needed to see the headstone with him. To process. To grieve. Perhaps to prepare herself. They sat in front of what would be both their final resting spots, talking and crying until they had no more tears to shed.
And then Troy thought of a brilliant idea. He told his wife to grab her phone and he inched forward a few feet. Then Troy lay in front of his headstone, chuckling to himself as he played dead.
“I’ve got to share this with my friends,” Troy, who taught seminary at Meridian High School, said with a grin. “This is the funniest thing. Who gets to do this? This is amazing.”
“He was literally joking about himself dying until the end,” his daughter Cheryl Augustus said. “Like, ‘It’s OK, I’ll be dead in a few months anyway.”
It’s been just over a decade since pancreatic cancer claimed Troy’s life at the age of 43. Still, his widow Mary loves to tell that story. He found humor in everything — risk and death be damned.
He might have crashed a motorcycle — “that should have killed him,” Cheryl says. Years earlier, when he served his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ireland, swirling winds blew into the Cliffs of Moher one day — which made for quite the picture as Troy executed the Michael Jackson lean over the edge, trusting the wind to hold him up.
“Oh all the things, the millions of times you should have died — or could have died — and you get cancer?” Mary asks, almost talking to Troy. “He lived three lifetimes in his 43 years.”
His family will never forget when they learned of the cancer. They were pulling onto the Ten Mile Road exit driving home from a Boise State loss — and because those were so rare, they do not know the date their life changed, but rather who Boise State was playing the day their life changed.
“It was the TCU/BSU game and dad was really mad because TCU won,” Cheryl said. “2011.”
Ten years later, reminders of Troy are not just welcomed by his family, but needed. Which is why there is a 1984 Ford Bronco sitting in a dirt lot on a farm in Caldwell as a 5-year-old named Troy runs around.
At some point everyone chases nostalgia. We clinch to the most joyous moments of the past and can get consumed trying to replicate anything that brings us back to those moments
The author Wright Thompson often points out the word nostalgia comes from Greek words meaning “To come home,” and “pain,” which seems about right. Nostalgia is a feeling. It is a picture. It is a smell. It is an item that transports you back to the past. Back home. Back to a time before the pain.
All the good of Troy Howell comes out when his family stares at his 1984 Ford Bronco. It embodies him.
Like Troy, it is over the top. This was the same guy who did not just skip work to greet the Boise State football team as they returned from the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, but sprinted up and down the stretch of fans, screaming “Go!” as fans yelled back, “Broncos.”
“Everybody was freezing and nobody was talking,” Mary remembered. “And Troy couldn’t handle it anymore. … He just started hooting and hollering.”
Like Troy, it is loud. It is boisterous and hilarious and ridiculous all at the same time.
“He was always trying to take things to the extreme,” said his longtime friend, Richie Gines. “At the football games — back then, you could take your cooler and everything in there — and he had a megaphone. He’d flip on the megaphone on and would be yelling, making noises and being really obnoxious. He had no filter.”
Like Troy, it is hard to forget.
It is the Bronco Bronco, a fully customized Broncomobile with enough orange and blue paint to ensure it can be seen from space. There is a massive Boise State logo on the hood, the words “GO BRONCOS” written across each side and a Bronco head just above the rear wheels.
For the next several years, from the 2007 Bowl season to the Kellen Moore era, it was the perfect tailgating vehicle. Troy would drive his Bronco to every home Boise State game, parking on the east side of the side of the stadium next to the white Christ Chapel.
Almost two decades later, the clearcoat Troy plastered on has held up well, but the sun is not kind to white paint. The interior, too, has been well kept, aside from just a few small rips and stains on the Bronco blue leather and striped gray fabric that make up the five seats.
But the truck has never been all that reliable. Perhaps that is part of its charm, the uncertainty of what would need fixing next. At the moment, it’s the entire engine. After 129,219 miles, the Bronco Bronco will sit idle on Karl’s parent’s family farm until it is either loaded on a tailor or equipped with a new engine.
But that is a problem that can be fixed by time and money. Over the past decade, following Troy’s death, the truck was sold, then bought back, then donated, then lost, somehow found and then bought back.
As the Bronco rests like a statue, it is free to look at, free to touch, free to draw nostalgia from. And, right now, that’s enough.
The story goes back to the days of Pokey Allen and Houston Nutt and Dirk Koetter. Back in the late 90s, when Boise State was new to Division I-A football and the only thing fans cared about was beating Idaho, Ricky Tullis — one of Troy’s high-school buddies from Marsing — purchased a new car.
There was no more need for the old, 1989 Ford Bronco with a rusted-out gas tank. He asked his wife if he could paint it blue and orange. Shockingly, she was not gung-ho about the idea. But they came to an agreement: Tullis had to list the Bronco for sale, but if it sat on the market for 30 days, he could keep it.
A month later, after listing the Bronco for probably $1,500 more than it was worth, Tullis had the Bronco parked in his driveway as he and some buddies from high school — Troy and Gines — spent the next three days painting the Bronco and, on the fourth, drove it to Bronco Stadium for Boise State’s home-opener.
“Troy actually designed all the artwork on the Bronco,” Tullis said. “He was a seminary teacher and he would take the (images) and blow them up on the overhead projector. He basically traced it out on this sticky paper that we then put on the Bronco and then painted around it. It was a real hack job.”
A few years later, Troy was driving with Cheryl when he spotted a brown 1984 Bronco sitting in some lot with a “for sale” sign. It looked just like Tullis’. A few hours and a few thousand dollars later, the Bronco was sitting in the Howells’ driveway.
This was his passion project. Troy had originally gone to Boise State for an art degree before finding his calling as a seminary teacher. He had a creative eye and the actual artistic talent to pull it off. After months of thinking of a design, he bought the best car paint and clearcoat he could find and spent a week inside his garage until it was perfect.
Every Saturday for years, you could find Troy and Tullis’ Broncos parked next to each other, providing inspiration for other die-hards.
“When we did that, everybody started,” Tullis said. “Like the next year, there were a few more vehicles. And the next year, there were a few more. And then there were dozens and dozens of vehicles.”
To talk with Boise State fans about those days is like talking to someone younger about TSA before 9/11. They almost can’t believe how easy and fun everything was.
Troy would pay $5 to park his Bronco — and even when the school jacked that up, he’d park it on the street the night before and then get a ride home. He would also bring tortillas into the game and huck them on the field during breaks. Apparently, Troy was the best. According to his friends and family, the only reason Boise State cracked down on the tortilla throwing is because Troy somehow hit an opposing coach … from the opposite side of the field.
But it was not the actual Bronco that Troy loved so much. It was everything that came with the Bronco.
“He loved the attention,” Cheryl, said.
The Bronco attracted a million honks. People would come up to Troy and the family at gas stations to ask about it. Fans would see it in the parking lot and take pictures. And Troy would talk all of their ears off.
“To me, what made that car valuable wasn’t what he thought of it,” Gines said. “For me, what he loved was his passion for Boise State and the Bronco was a representation of what he loved. … It’s a reminder of a part of him.”
Added his widow, Mary: “The fun, social part of my husband — this is him,” she said, tapping on his Bronco. “The essence of my husband — what was most important. What meant everything to him was me and our gospel and church and his family.”
By the time Troy died in 2013, the Bronco was all but out of commission. It hadn’t run in a few years and the family wasn’t going to pay to fix it as Troy’s medical bills rose.
Eight months after he passed, Mary sold the Bronco for $1,500. It was enough money for her to travel to Alaska and see, for the first time, her birth mother, who was also dealing with cancer.
“Getting rid of it was really hard,” Mary said, “I would have liked to have kept it. But, financially, it made no sense.”
“We knew we were going to have to get rid of it,” Cheryl added. “But it was emotional. I think we all cried. We all went to drop it off.”
Over the next decade, the Bronco had a wild ride. It might have been used for an auction, but nonetheless was sold a couple times before Troy’s father, Ormond, heard it was sitting at a Nampa car lot in 2015. He purchased it and asked Mary if she wanted it back. She declined. So Ormond donated it to Boise State’s automotive repair department.
The school had it for seven years and either didn’t care about it or couldn’t fix it. It sat in a parking lot of the south side of campus for most of Bryan Harsin’s tenure as head coach. Cheryl and Karl would sometimes drive by after games just to peek at it.
A few years back, though, they didn’t see it anymore. Perhaps it was lost. Maybe it was sold. Who knew? But it didn’t bother them until April of last year. Cheryl couldn’t stop thinking about the Bronco, couldn’t stop thinking about her dad.
“She needed closure,” Karl said.
“I just wanted to have some sort of connection with my dad that was more than just memories. You know? I have some of his art, I have stuff,” she said. “But I was just feeling like I wanted to be closer to him and I was like, ‘What happened to the flippin’ Bronco?’ Because everyone remembers the Bronco. People talk about the Bronco.”
They learned that Boise State had an auction and offloaded the Bronco. Luckily, Boise State Fleet manager Larry Stolworthy gave the buyer’s contact information, a Bronco enthusiast who was looking for a fun restoration project. Karl and Cheryl sent him an email explaining the situation, explaining the Bronco’s history and why it meant so much.
He agreed to sell it back to them for what he paid. And in June, they met the man — and the Bronco — at the TK Bar in southeast Boise. Karl and Cheryl beat the guy by 10 minutes, which meant they had 10 minutes to fully process everything.
“It was surreal. I never thought I’d see the thing again,” Cheryl said. “I saw it and I was like, ‘That’s dad’s Bronco.’”
She FaceTimed her mom in tears and called her Uncle Darin, yelling, “We got it.” Not long after, Cheryl made a Facebook post about finally having the Bronco back in her possession, where Troy’s buddies saw the good news.
“I was ecstatic,” Tullis said.
“It made me want to cry,” Gines said.
Karl and Cheryl have massive plans for the Bronco. The dream is to re-do the paint back to where Troy had it. New upholstery. A six-inch lift. A new engine. Perhaps blue turf in the trunk. A little bit at a time until it’s majestic. They set up a GoFundMe to expedite the process but will roll on regardless.
“Our plan, we’re just gonna do what my dad wanted,” Cheryl said. “We’re gonna make it the sickest, most-tricked-out tailgating vehicle. It’s just gonna be disgusting.”
Karl looks at his son playing on the ground, a 5-year-old boy named Troy.
“We want it for him to be able to take it to games,” he said.