Taylor Brandt opens the cover of the audio book and triggers the embedded recorder.
The sound of a deep, soothing voice fills the 6-year-old's bedroom.
Merry Christmas, Taylor. It's your Cooper. I hope you like this, and any time you miss me, you can open this book up and it'll be like I'm right there.
Taylor giggles and smiles.
That's often her reaction when Oklahoma State defensive end Cooper Bassett is involved. To Cowboy fans, he is a fiery leader who will be counted on to beat Texas next weekend and other teams in the weekends that follow. To Taylor, he is a gentle giant who came into her life during a time of cancer and baldness and tutus, then stayed in her life long after she'd beat the disease.
He is the reason she papered her bedroom door and closet door with OSU pictures and newspaper clippings. He is the person she heists her mom's cell phone to text.
He is her Cooper.
And she is his Taylor.
The spunky little redhead who loves Tinkerbell and dance class has found a place in his heart. He visits her house in Yukon whenever he goes home to Tuttle. He attends family gatherings and birthday parties. He even wore a tiara and played in the bouncy castle at Taylor's last birthday.
“She loves that I play football,” Cooper said, “but if I didn't play from here on out, I think I would still be her Cooper. We love each other because of the people we are.”
The towering football player and the tiny first grader seem an unlikely pair, but their personalities are a perfect match.
Taylor Brandt was never sick.
Back in February 2010, she showed no signs of the cancer that was already attacking her body. She was healthy and happy, active and ornery. Her mom even joked that Taylor occasionally liked to test out her flying skills, jumping off couches and coffee tables.
It was one of those flights that led to some bruises, which led to some questions for the pediatrician. Blood work was ordered, and even though the bruises turned out to be nothing, the lab results showed that Taylor had low counts on her platelets, her white blood cells and her red blood cells.
More tests showed the same thing.
The pediatrician decided to do a bone marrow biopsy.
“What are you talking about?” Taylor's parents, Elicia and Phillip, asked. “Why are you doing this?”
Taylor was still on the table after the biopsy when doctors delivered the diagnosis: acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
The cancer affects the development of white blood cells. Known as the most common childhood cancer, its cure rate is high, but because it progresses quickly, it has to be treated aggressively.
“There were some times that she was really, really sick,” Elicia said. “It was pretty scary. Her platelets would get really low. She would get really anemic.”
Taylor didn't know all the medical terms, but even though she was only 4 years old at the time, she remembers how she felt having treatment once a week for more than a year.
“It kind of wore me down,” she said with a simplicity that nearly breaks your heart.
The chemotherapy killed the cancer cells, but it also attacked her little body. She lost her appetite, her hair, even lost her spunk.
Being tired all the time was her least favorite thing about having cancer.
Her next least favorite?
Being called a boy because she didn't have any hair.
That's why she started wearing tutus. Her mom bought the poufy skirts in every color of the rainbow, and Taylor wore them so often that the nurses at The Children's Hospital at OU Medical Center started calling her “Tutu Taylor.”
She was wearing an orange tutu the day she met Cooper.
Cooper Bassett was never small.
Even when he was a born, he was big. He weighed over 10 pounds at birth, and as he grew, he was forever the biggest kid in his class.
His parents were always reminding him how much bigger he was than all the other kids.
“Be gentle,” Vicki and John would tell him. “Be gentle.”
Cooper learned the lesson well.
He always had a gentle and kind way about him, which showed most when he dealt with children. He taught vacation bible school at church. He mentored elementary school kids at Tuttle.
Even since he has been at OSU, he's made a point of going back to the elementary school two or three times a year to talk to the kids.
They love him for it.
Earlier this year, Vicki and John got all of the Cowboys to sign a picture during OSU's fan day. They framed it and gave it to the Tuttle football booster club to raffle as a fundraiser. At the elementary school, the line of kids wanting to buy raffle tickets wrapped down and around the halls.
“I always thought he should be a pediatrician or something like that,” his mom said. “He has this gentle nature, which is kind of contrary to being a football player. But he has this love for children that is very special.”
As a college football player in a football-mad state, Cooper knows what an impact he can have on kids. That's because he remembers how it was for him growing up. He went to the same church as former Westmoore High and OSU standout Billy Bajema and lived in the same town as former OU quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jason White.
“I remember how much they meant to me and how if they just came over and gave me a high five or remembered my name, it was so big,” Cooper said. “I hope I can be that person for other kids.”
He was trying to be that person the day he met Taylor.
Cooper and Taylor were smitten with each other right away.
They met at during an event for Coaches vs. Cancer, a national college basketball movement that raises awareness and money for cancer research. At OSU, the events also bring together cancer patients and athletes. Back in February 2011 when Cooper was paired with Taylor, she was a year into her cancer treatment. She was bald and frail. She was a little bashful, too, but he was quick to make her feel comfortable.
“When he sees her, he immediately gets on his knees or picks her up so they are eye level,” said Kendria Cost, who's long overseen OSU's Coaches vs. Cancer efforts.
Taylor's mom said, “He's so big. But with her ... he just gets down on her level and it's just the two of them.”
Their relationship deepened through the spring and summer. Even though Taylor had to be hospitalized a couple times with bad headaches or high fevers, she and Cooper talked on the phone. Texted, too. Elicia was occasionally mortified when she'd discover Taylor had swiped her cell phone and was texting Cooper one word at a time.
Taylor wanted to hear his voice so badly that Elicia asked Cooper if he'd provide the voice for a “‘Twas the Night before Christmas” audio book. He jumped at the chance, and Taylor nearly wore out the batteries listening to it.
Cooper and his folks bought a special No. 80 jersey for Taylor a year ago with “BRANDT” instead of “BASSETT” on the back. Before the season started, Cooper and his mom took the jersey to Taylor's house. Everyone there said it was hard to tell who had a bigger smile — Taylor or Cooper.
A week later, Cooper got a new picture from Elicia. Taylor was sleeping in the jersey.
It became a security blanket last fall when Taylor started having complications. She was in the maintenance phase of her treatment, which sounds tame enough but still involved chemotherapy. The drugs were staying in her system too long. Her immune system went down again. Her hair, which had grown back, fell out again.
“Nothing major,” her mom said, “but she'd gone from fragile to looking almost normal with hair and then she went right back down again.”
But regardless of how Taylor was feeling, she would always put on her jersey every Saturday and watch the Cowboys.
She even had the folks at The Children's Hospital rearrange a fundraiser when she found out it was the same night as a game. She was scheduled to appear on stage with an OSU item during the auction, but she told them the only way she'd do it was if she could go first, then head home for the game.
Taylor had to see her Cooper.
“Their relationship was — and continues to be — a true bright spot for Taylor,” her mom said. “To see your sick, tired and frustrated child get so happy about something is a huge deal.”
Cooper Bassett sits in the back of the Cowboys' nearly empty postgame interview room. The game against Louisiana-Lafayette is long over, and most of his teammates have gone to meet family and friends. His family is waiting, too, but Cooper doesn't rush.
Not when he has a chance to talk about Taylor.
He remembers the day this summer when she came to Stillwater with her mom and older sisters, Hayley and Addison. They took him to lunch at Eskimo Joe's. When they were done, Taylor gave him a big hug.
“I wish you were our brother so you could come home with us,” she said.
He nearly teared up.
“Taylor,” he said, “I am your big brother.”
Cooper feels like he's gained a family.
“Very rarely do you make relationships like this,” he says. “To be honest, it's kind of a selfish thing for me. When I go over there, I get big smiles and hugs. They treat me like I'm the best thing ever.
“It gives me as much as it gives them.”
Cooper and Taylor know that their friendship is a bit unusual. College athletes regularly go to hospitals or attend events where they meet cancer patients. Rarely do they form bonds that last long after the cancer is gone.
Taylor is now done with her chemo, a milestone that her entire family celebrated in June. Cooper was there, of course, for the no-more-chemo party.
Neither of them knows what the future holds, but this much is sure — she will always be his Taylor and he will always be her Cooper.