Elliott still coaching and inspiring
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- This was the scene following the third practice of freshman two-a-days at Iowa in 1993, a just-showered Kerry Cooks about to return to the dorms before the look in Bob Elliott's eyes stopped him on his way out the door.
Cooks had not been on campus for 48 hours, and already the man who recruited him needed a word outside the locker room.
Summoning Cooks to his office, Elliott relayed a message from the safety's parents in Irving, Texas, one they called on the Hawkeyes' secondary coach to share: Cooks' best friend, Clarence Harmon, had been killed in a car accident the night before.
"I have always respected him from that day forth, because everything he told me he would be during the recruiting process was tested early on, and he never let me down," Cooks recalled nearly 19 years later. "He called and cared for me during my time of grief like I was his son. I was a thousand miles away from my family and friends and out of my comfort zone, and he made sure I was going to be OK."
It is stories like this one that Cooks, Notre Dame's co-defensive coordinator, shares to illustrate the addition the Irish made this offseason when hiring Elliott as safeties coach. And it is stories like Cooks' ascent in the coaching world that remind Elliott why he simply would not take no for an answer when staring death in the face 14 years ago, during a season from hell at Iowa.
Elliott insists his story is not a sad one. It has been a good life, he says, coaching at schools like Iowa State, Kansas State and San Diego State. The only reason he agrees to speak for stories like this -- in which he talks about overcoming a deadly blood disorder and eventually landing here, in his 34th year of college coaching -- is because he and his wife, Joey, believe it can help.
"Oh," Joey said she's fond of saying, "so that's why we were supposed to be doing that."
Polycythemia vera, which leads to mass production of blood cells, became active in Bob before the 1998 season. If untreated, it could have led to a heart attack or stroke. Bob told few about it, instead working every day of the Hawkeyes' worst season in two decades before undergoing a bone marrow transplant.
It threatened his life, killed his chances of succeeding head coach Hayden Fry and unraveled many insignificant yet poignant moments in the Elliotts' lives.
Nightly self-chemotherapy made City High School football games bittersweet, Bob often taking 15-20 minutes to warm up in his car before braving the freezing rain and biting cold of fall Iowa City nights.
Gloves, baggy sweatshirt, heavy coat -- and still, he could not stop shivering while watching his son Grant, a junior, play linebacker.
Watching parents walk with their sons on senior night, Joey's mind wandered.
"I actually thought, 'What is it going to look like for us next year?'" she said. "Because we knew we were heading into his transplant, and I thought, 'Am I going to be out there by myself or with Bob?'"
The Elliotts were lucky in one sense: Bob's cousin, Gregg Underwood, gave blood regularly. Following a gas stop in Illinois on the way to a family reunion that summer in Kentucky, Joey took the wheel of their white Toyota Previa while Bob explained to his kids in the backseat what was ahead.
Grant, 16 at the time, took the news quietly. Daughter Jess, then 13, had two questions.
"Are you going to lose your job?"
"Are you going to die?"
Bob told relatives of his situation at the reunion, Underwood had his results sent to University of Iowa Hospitals, and the two were a perfect match on all six blood markers.
"My mother and Bob's mother are sisters, but from what I understood, the match was not from my maternal side but from my paternal side, which was extremely rare," said the 66-year-old Underwood, a Tennessee native.
Doctors detracted and froze Underwood's bone marrow in Iowa City. (A transplant during cold and flu season could be fatal.) Underwood later watched Iowa play Wisconsin from the suite of Bob's father, former athletic director Bump Elliott.
Elliott finished Iowa's 3-8 season. He napped in his office every day around noon. Only his family, Fry and a few others were aware of the daily beating his body was taking.
"What am I going to do?" he said. "We had a season that was impending; I was the defensive coordinator; I had a lot of people that relied on me and counted on me, players and coaches alike. I have a family I have to support. You just don't stop working just because you don't feel good. It was a miserable year physically, but it was still getting up every day doing what I like to do."
Making matters worse, Fry retired at season's end, revealing he had been undergoing prostate cancer treatment that fall.
"The timing was just terrible, but the timing's always terrible," a resigned Elliott said.
Then-athletic director Bob Bowlsby hired Elliott as an assistant to make certain he had insurance before entering the hospital in April. Elliott began chemo and radiation therapy to prepare for the transplant, and nine days later his family -- accompanied by future Pro Bowler Aaron Kampman -- saw him off to the operating room.
"I've always heard the old adage that you don't complain because no one's listening anyway," said Kampman, now with the Jaguars. "The kicker with him is that someone totally would've been listening and sympathized, but I don't think he wanted that attention on himself."
Nonetheless, attention came in droves during his month-long stay.
Having to keep germ-free, Elliott was generally secluded in his small room, which had a glass wall, a tiny entrance and an airflow system above his bed to keep the environment fresh. Only doctors, nurses and Joey were allowed in -- and only after they washed their hands thoroughly and put on gloves, gowns, masks, hairnets and shoe covers.
"I don't know if you're a 'Seinfeld' watcher, but he was a little like Bubble Boy," said Bowlsby, now Stanford's athletic director. "He was under a very carefully structured environment."
Elliott grew bored, trying not to think too much. He became engulfed in coverage of the Columbine shootings around that time. On the 13th day after the transplant, the night before his parents' 50th anniversary, white blood cells re-appeared, a positive sign.
His family devised small ways to ease his discomfort. They bought him an off-white comforter, which his daughter later took to college. Notes poured in from everywhere, and since Elliott insisted on responding to each, his family bought a small wooden shelf to put within reach of his bed. His skin sensitive from chemo, Elliott developed a blister on his right hand from writing so much -- which immediately sent everyone into a minor panic, hoping it would not become infected.
He made the less-than-three-mile trip home for a three-hour respite on his 46th birthday, May 6, blowing out candles but stopping there because he could not eat. Despite IVs preventing hunger, Elliott sometimes fantasized about a cheeseburger and a Coke, usually after McDonald's or Wendy's commercials he repeatedly saw. Joey took him on short trips, buying soda at drive-thrus as a mental exercise.
"He just wanted to purchase a drink," Joey said. "Not that he'd drink it, but he imagined what that might be like, so we'd go through a drive-thru and he'd get it. He wouldn't drink it, but he was at least doing the action of going there, and maybe next time following through."
Elliott was discharged three days after his birthday, on Mother's Day. Joey wiped every inch of his home office with Clorox since he remained vulnerable -- translation: mask on, home-bound -- 32 days and some 30 pounds after being admitted. Yet he returned to work for Bowlsby within three months.
But that was not enough. He wanted to coach.
Elliott laughed at the notion that programs were cautious of his health -- "Hesitant? Nobody would hire me." -- but Iowa State coach Dan McCarney offered him a staff position in 2000. Teammates at Iowa, McCarney had called Elliott each of his 32 days in the hospital.
I didn't need the doctors' or professionals' advice, because I couldn't hire him fast enough.” -- Former Iowa State coach Dan McCarney
"I didn't need the doctors' or professionals' advice, because I couldn't hire him fast enough," said McCarney, now North Texas' head coach.
During Year 2 in Ames, Elliott's disease returned and another transplant was scheduled. But some of the frozen marrow from earlier was re-introduced weekly, sparking an upward turn and scrapping operation plans.
Eleven years later, and Elliott has led the nation's No. 2 defense (Kansas State, 2002) and has won a Big 12 title (KSU, 2003). He has reunited at Notre Dame with Cooks, co-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and running backs coach Tony Alford, all of whom he had either worked with or coached.
Most of all, he has lived up to his vow of not letting the disease defeat him, as he is still making an impact 14 years after facing anything but a certain future.
So when safeties coach Chuck Martin became the Irish's offensive coordinator, Cooks, Diaco and Alford constantly communicated with head coach Brian Kelly, wanting to bring their marriages with Elliott full-circle two decades after they began.
In 2006, Bob spoke to blood-drive organizers aboard the USS Midway in San Diego.
There, Valeri Sacknoff and daughter Stefanie asked him to talk on the phone with their friend Hunter, a young boy going on 100 days in the hospital after a transplant.
The coach happily obliged.
Two months later, after Bob realized he misplaced Hunter's contact information, Joey went to her first dentist appointment since moving from Kansas.
"And lo and behold," she recalled, "the woman who came up to Bob on the Midway was my dentist."
Joey and Valeri talked about transplants, as Stefanie had a condition that required blood transfusions until she was 19. The Sacknoffs later founded Perfect Match, a mission to educate and register bone marrow donors during dental checkups.
Not long after, with Hunter fully recovered and interested in sports photography, the Elliotts invited him to a game to shadow the team's photographer.
That's the "that" that Joey Elliott was referring to, the reason Bob Elliott shares his story.
The reason, frankly, that Bob Elliott is coaching.
"You hope that you had some impact, because those guys are touching a lot of lives right now," Elliott said. "And so if you think of yourself as maybe somebody that can impact the lives of these kids and then they'll impact other lives later on, and that you have that multiplying effect -- boy, it's a great thrill to be able to see it firsthand."