Bobby Elliott's Story: The greatest gift of all
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on Saturday, May 9, 2009. Bobby Elliott died Saturday at the age of 64.
This was one play Bobby Elliott knew he had to get just right, even though he was out of position. It was Mother's Day 1999, and Elliott was lying in an Iowa City hospital bed, his fate tied tenuously to his cousin's bone marrow, transplanted in him the previous month.
If this was to be the last time he would be able to give his wife a Mother's Day gift, he wanted it to be particularly symbolic.
Elliott, an assistant football coach at Iowa, worked with the team's secretaries to purchase a potted plant, and to have it placed on the doorstep of his home.
"It was the first thing I saw when I walked outdoors that morning," Joey Elliott recalled in a 1999 interview. "He knows how much I love gardening, but not knowing what was going to transpire, he had a Mother's Day present arranged."
The plant? A Just Joey hybrid tea rose.
A much bigger gift was in store. Later that morning, Bobby Elliott walked from University of Iowa Hospitals a cured man. He had beaten the odds, recovering from a disease that not only changed his life forever, but possibly altered the course of the Iowa Hawkeye football program.
Cancer never strikes at an opportune time, but it was particularly cruel to Bobby Elliott. At age 45, he was on the cusp of realizing a lifelong dream — to become head coach of the Hawkeye football team for which he once was a star defensive back. He would have been on athletic director Bob Bowlsby's short list when coach Hayden Fry retired after the 1998 season had he not been taking daily doses of chemotherapy to arrest the blood disorder, called polycythemia vera. His health declining, he had no choice but to watch as Bowlsby hired Kirk Ferentz.
"Right now, I'm unemployable," Elliott said at the time, his lip quivering. "The timing is all wrong."
Elliott first knew something was wrong with him in May 1998, when he started to itch uncontrollably. Doctors extracted and tested some bone marrow, then began chemotherapy treatments.
He broke the news to his players Nov. 10, the Tuesday before the Hawkeyes were to face Ohio State. He told them a bone marrow procedure was likely to happen the next spring, but that he would continue to coach as long as possible.
"It was absolutely shocking," defensive lineman Jared DeVries said then. "You try to stay strong, but he recruited me. He's been in my life every day."
Elliott entered University of Iowa Hospitals on April 4, 1999, to begin the process that culminated in his bone-marrow transplant. His donor was cousin Gregg Underwood of Chattanooga, Tenn.
"We were at a family reunion, and I asked everyone to get their marrow typed," Elliott explained.
His recovery began with the Mother's Day Miracle. By October 1999, Dr. Roger Gingrich was informing Elliott that his health had improved so dramatically that he could coach the following season.
In January 2000, he journeyed to Anaheim, Calif., to seek employment at the American Football Coaches Association convention. On March 9, 2000, he replaced Paul Rhoads as Iowa State's defensive backs coach, joining the staff of former Hawkeye roommate Dan McCarney.
But a routine test the following June turned up bad news — 10 percent of his old, bad cells had crept back into his bone marrow. Medication didn't work. Subsequent tests showed 30 percent of the damaged cells were back, then eventually more than 50 percent.
Chemotherapy treatments resumed in August, as did months of uncertainty.
Elliott continued to coach Iowa State defensive backs while undergoing treatments. He also started sharing thoughts weekly with The Des Moines Register, about his disappointment at not becoming Iowa's head football coach, how he prepared his son to become the head of the household in the event of his death, and his struggles with his disease.
He wanted cancer patients to know his never-say-die story, he said during a late-night call from his hospital bed.
"If we can help someone, let's do it," Elliott said.
Quotes from Elliott during the 2001 football season appear in italics below.
Living was no guarantee
Fry ended a successful 20-year reign during which he reinvented Iowa football with his December 1998 retirement. Hawkeye fans figured the head coaching tradition would continue that longtime assistant Elliott would lead the program with the same enthusiasm and class as Fry.
Initially, only Elliott's inner circle — McCarney, Fry, Bowlsby and family — knew of the serious blood disorder and risky bone marrow transplant. Even healthy coaches wear down during their 24/7 existence, let alone coaches with cancer.
He spared Bowlsby the burden of having to make the tough decision. Regrettably, Elliott told him to look elsewhere.
Living was no guarantee.
"I thought I had a real good shot to replace Hayden," Elliott said. "I'm not cocky or arrogant enough to know that there weren't other good candidates and that it wouldn't have been a hell of a battle — with Kirk Ferentz, Bobby Stoops and Terry Allen and some of the other guys on Hayden's staff all likely to be candidates."
Bowlsby admitted that Elliott would have been a strong candidate — if health wasn't a factor.
"At the time, he was certainly held in high esteem on the staff, by Hawkeye fans everywhere, in the coaching world, and certainly by me and my family," Bowlsby said. "We're age-contemporary. We felt comfortable with each other.
"There were other good candidates, too, but no question, Bobby certainly would have been right there in the mix."
Elliott made Bowlsby's decision easy during an afternoon office conversation on the Sunday that Fry announced his retirement.
"He was very forthright," Bowlsby said. "He said he had a health situation that could lead to a bone marrow transplant. He said he wanted to be the next Iowa coach, but that's something he didn't have to tell me, because I knew how passionate he was about the position.
"He told me he would have to spend time trying to get better."
"I'll never know," Elliott said, "but to me, I would have been given a good shot at it — and I would have done well."
With Elliott out of the picture, Bobby Stoops became the emotional favorite of many Iowa fans, who later became frenzied when Oklahoma suddenly hired Stoops.
Elliott kept his distance. Bowlsby designated him as transition recruiter during a coaching search that lasted 11 days. He was on the road when football secretary Rita Foley called to say Kirk Ferentz got the job.
"I was in Denver when I heard," Elliott said. "I didn't know what was going on. All I knew was that I saw Bobby Stoops' press conference at Oklahoma on TV, so I figure he's not going to Iowa. I was still out recruiting when Kirk had his press conference. I purposely tried to stay on the road recruiting for a while just to stay away from the stuff that was going on back in Iowa.
"When I got home, Kirk asked me to head up the recruiting during the transition. He asked Chuck Long, Bret Bielema and I to look at every single piece of tape on the guys who had been offered scholarships, and make sure they were good players. Some were, some weren't. We crossed off some and kept others. It turned out to be a pretty good class — Colin Cole, Fred Barr and guys like that."
Elliott can only wonder about being the head coach of his alma mater. After all, his father, Bump, once was the head football coach at Michigan before becoming athletic director at Iowa.
"I feel a little unfulfilled," Elliott said during one of our then-secret conversations. "I regret not having a chance to test myself. I'm very confident I would have been successful.
"Another thing I regret, like all people associated with sports, is the time I spent away from my family. That's a hard thing to come to grips with now that I don't even know what my future holds."
One of the toughest times for Bobby and Joey Elliott was telling their two children — Grant and Jessica — about the disease that could keep their father from coaching again.
Telling them in 1999 that he had polycythemia vera, a rare condition in which overly active bone marrow produces too many white and red blood cells, was tough enough. Doing it again, two-plus years later, proved tougher.
"You couldn't have written a scenario that could have been worse," Elliott said. "To have this happen out of the blue. ...
"We talked as a family about everybody having to do their part. They understood that my job was to continue coaching Iowa State football, Joey's job is to continue as a school teacher, and my children, Grant and Jessica, must continue to go to school."
He knew that this time, his coaching days could be over. His life, too.
"Second bone marrow operations aren't a lot of fun," he said. "I talked to Grant about being the male figure in the family. He knows he has to take care of Joey and Jessica, and I notice him spending more time now with Jessica than he used to."
Joey even worried that she'd walk alone to the center of the high school football field on Grant's senior night.
"Was I going to do this singular or plural?" she wondered.
They planned for the worst, and hoped for the best.
"Joey's trying to broach with them the subject about not being able to coach anymore," Elliott said, "and my daughter's question was 'Will he be ready for the bowl game?'
"Either she hadn't figured it out, or she didn't want to. I can't blame her for that. Maybe she's scared."
Elliott was scared, too.
"I experienced it once — taking all the drugs, ballooning up so much that no one even knew who I was, and then finally having the surgery — and now they say I might have to go through it again," he said. "I've seen not only what happened to me, but I've seen countless other people that I went into the hospital with the first time eventually lose their battle.
"The first time, there wasn't any doubt in my mind that we'd win this battle. This time, I know too much. I know the flip side. I'm on an emotional roller coaster."
Joey and the kids lived in Iowa City while Bobby continued coaching in Ames. He often called home after the kids were in bed.
"Joey knows what I'm thinking most times, but there were still some things I didn't even tell her," Elliott said. "I didn't ever talk to her about what's going to happen if this second procedure isn't going to work. Is this the last time I'll ever see the trees and green grass?
"Those were thoughts I tried to keep to myself. She teaches at Hoover Elementary School (in Iowa City). She's got her hands full with that and trying to keep the family together. I'm trying to stay as positive as I can. The only thing I have right now is hope."
A life-changing voice mail
Elliott's health worsened the week before Iowa State's Oct. 27, 2001, game at Texas A&M, a 24-21 Cyclone loss.
Tests revealed that 65 percent of his blood had become diseased, a 15 percent increase from the previous month.
Chemotherapy and radiation treatments failed.
"There's another test, but I'm not real confident," Elliott said.
Suddenly, never being able to coach again wasn't as much of a concern as not living.
"I'm doing my best to remain positive, although I know I might not make it," he said. "Football's taking my mind off things. Working with great young guys like I do every day — that's uplifting."
Elliott finally told Iowa State players about his situation.
"I looked each of them in the eye," Elliott said. "Some of them cried."
Atif Austin was in that small room.
"We didn't know anything at all," Austin said. "I knew before he came to Iowa State that he had cancer, but that he beat it with a bone marrow transplant.
"He fought, and until he told us, we all thought he was OK, because he was always so upbeat."
Elliott continued to coach, weaker from treatment and emotional stress.
"That's what I do," he said. "Coaching is my release. When I'm coaching, all I think about is making the guys better football players."
Practice for the next game, against Kansas State, continued to provide his emotional stimulus and medical distraction.
"I don't know which is tougher," Elliott said, "preparing for a great team like Kansas State or preparing to go back into the hospital and wondering if I'll be able to walk out."
Elliott and doctors were so sure he needed another operation that a room at University of Iowa Hospitals was reserved. He was already taking the drugs he took during the weeks leading up to his first transplant. Strength was waning, but he held on.
"It was tough some days," he said, "but I had an opponent to prepare for."
Austin noticed a gradual change.
"I don't remember who we were playing, but he had on gloves and more clothes than anybody else," Austin said, "and it wasn't an overly cold day."
His body's ability to absorb heat waned.
"Remember me as a fighter," Elliott said. "Somehow, I'm going to make it."
Coach-speak. This time, pure coach-speak.
"I was scared to death about this one," he said of a second procedure. "As we got closer to the Texas A&M game — forget the fact that we lost for a minute, I was wondering if it would be my last football road trip. Every day after that it was like I was going through the last something."
He returned to his office after practicing Thursday for the Kansas State game. The message light on his desk phone blinked.
It was the doctor.
The medicine had worked. No second transplant was needed.
But voice mail?
"The thing about Bobby was that he chose to stay focused on just getting on with life," Dr. Gingrich said. "I did a lot of conversing with Bobby through voice mail; if I needed to talk to an actual person, I'd always end up going through Joey, and eventually, Bobby would get back to me."
Even when news was good.
"It went from potentially being a final dark ending to knowing that I'm going to live," Elliott said during a telephone conversation shortly after talking to the doctor. "It's an incredible feeling.
"It's remarkable, to be quite honest, to see what can happen if you remain positive."
It’s that positive outlook, as well as his family and an opportunity to stay close to his sports passion, that kept him alive for almost two decades after he ordered the “Just Joey” flower for Mother’s Day 1999.
Iowa State columnist Randy Peterson has been with the Register for parts of five decades. Randy writes opinion and analysis of Iowa State football and basketball. You can reach Randy at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @RandyPete.