UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

STORY and VIDEO: The Magic endures

Every December, the UND football team provides gifts for sick children through the Holiday Magic from Markus program

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the website of the UND Alumni Association & Foundation. 


By Chad O’Shea

It was the best day of his life. On Dec. 8, 2001, 13-year-old Markus Bryant celebrated with the UND football team as they captured their first national championship. As he hoisted the trophy with the team, he pushed his personal battle aside.

That season, Markus had become a regular guest at games and practices after writing letters of support to the team. “Never give up, because then you will achieve your goal,” he wrote. He also revealed that he had cancer.

Markus Bryant hoists the trophy with the UND football team after the team defeated Grand Valley State University 17-14 to win the 2001 NCAA Division II National Championship. UND archival photo.

A courageous battle

At age 11, Markus was diagnosed with a rare form of neuroblastoma, a difficult-to-cure cancer that forms in early stages of nerve cell development around the abdomen or chest.

But his mom, Deb Oatman, said he wouldn’t let the sickness control his attitude. “He just loved life and loved people.” He attended school regularly and participated in sports, even when his schedule became dictated by doctors, nurses, and appointments. And he found time for his favorite team: UND Football, writing letters of encouragement throughout the season.

His messages of positivity were received. After a turbulent 2002 season, UND Football wanted to leave an impact on the community, and created Holiday Magic from Markus to support families in tough circumstances.

When the team first presented the idea to Markus, he was hesitant. “He didn’t want to stick out. He didn’t want to be more important than anybody else. But the team eventually convinced him,” Deb said.

Unfortunately, Markus couldn’t witness the start of the magic. Shortly after UND Football established Holiday Magic from Markus, the cancer took his life.

In this screenshot from the accompanying video, members of the UND football team are shown buying gifts at Target in December as part of the Holiday Magic From Markus program.

Delivering magic

Every year since, the program has provided gifts and essentials for sick children during the holidays. Sue (Frank) Hafner, ’74, Markus’s nurse during his battle with cancer who helped to start the initiative, chooses the families based on referrals from local doctors and nurses.

“We wanted to take the stress of Christmas off people’s plates and make it one less financial thing to worry about,” Sue said. “When a child has a serious illness, the whole family’s life revolves around doctor’s appointments and medical treatments, so this is our way of making their Christmas special.”

Holiday Magic benefits up to seven families each year, who humbly accept the gifts with gratitude as Markus would have. Fundraising happens year-round through a special memorial website.

As defensive coordinator on the 2001 national championship team, current UND head coach Bubba Schweigert, ’95, remembers the never-give-up spirit of Markus.

“I think we’re all pretty amazed at how much this has grown over the years, and it’s become such an important part of our football program,” Bubba said. “So much credit goes to the players for starting this tradition and keeping it going every year.”

The annual Holiday Magic From Markus holiday shopping spree has become a cherished tradition for UND Football that has lasted for more than 20 years. Photo courtesy of UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

Captains step up

Before the football season, team leaders are chosen to be captains of Holiday Magic from Markus. One player who demonstrates positive qualities like Markus also receives a scholarship in his honor.

Ted Mullin, a fifth-year linebacker and team captain, helped lead the initiative in 2023. “It’s fun to be a part of this tradition that we’ve had for over 20 years and to play a role in making the holidays special for these families,” Ted said.

After getting a wish list from each family, the team goes shopping. Then, Sue and Deb host a gift-wrapping party that includes current and former players, coaches, and others who had a connection to Markus.

The final and most important part: delivering the presents. This year, families met at the Pollard Athletic Center to open gifts and spend time with the team. Players played with the kids, signed autographs, and took photos; the children set their personal struggles aside and created lasting memories.

“It’s very special to see the joy on kids’ faces when they receive the gifts and I’ll definitely miss it a lot,” Ted said.

In December, “families met at the Pollard Athletic Center to open gifts and spend time with the team,” the story reports. “Players played with the kids, signed autographs, and took photos.” Photo courtesy of UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

Two decades of magic

For over 20 years, Holiday Magic from Markus has helped sick children find joy during challenging circumstances. The program is a lasting symbol of Markus Bryant’s selfless and positive spirit.

“He had a smile that you could never forget, and it was truly remarkable to see how he affected people around him at such a young age,” Bubba said. “Even in his toughest days, he seemed to enjoy providing encouragement.”

Markus’s magic lives on.

Keep the tradition going

Holiday Magic From Markus remains a strong annual tradition thanks to generous donors who share the desire to make the holiday season special.

Support Holiday Magic From Markus


About the author:

Chad O’Shea is associate director of stewardship communication at UND.