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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The most important reception of Notre Dame’s football season came on a Tuesday night after practice, two days before Thanksgiving.
Notre Dame safeties coach Bob Elliott greeted his sister, Betsy Stough, and she delivered the news that will extend his life. She simply said, “I’m your girl.”
After Betsy told Bob that she had been cleared by doctors to be his kidney transplant donor, the pair locked in a warm embrace on a chilly night.
Bob, 59, and Betsy, 58, are two of the children of former Michigan coach Bump Elliott, which means they aren’t much for emoting. Neither spoke of sacrifice, sibling bonds or anything particularly deep on that night. Instead, Bob sincerely thanked his sister, while his wife Joey snapped photographs. Then Bob introduced his sister to Irish coach Brian Kelly as “my kidney donor.” That prompted another impromptu hug.
Then, in typical professorial fashion, Elliott excused himself to watch film with Irish safety Matthias Farley.
“You can’t help but feel so blessed to have children that would help each other in any way possible,” said Bump.
That hug personified perhaps the most compelling untold story of this feel-good Notre Dame season. Few outside of the program know that Elliott, who is finishing his first year as an Irish assistant, has dealt with kidney failure for the past 11 months. He’ll receive a transplant on February 6 — in his words and world, “singing day,” not surgery day — and vows to be back for the start of spring practice.
Elliott has administered daily self-dialysis in the Irish’s afternoon defensive staff meeting room — using an IV pole nearly as tall as him for assistance — while wearing a white mask and purple rubber gloves for cleanliness. The dialysis essentially flushes waste out from the stomach cavity through a catheter tube with a sugar water-like liquid, mimicking the duties the kidneys can no longer perform. (This type of dialysis is known as peritoneal.)
Each night, Elliott hooks up for an eight-hour treatment. During the day, he fits in a 40-minute session — whether in a Notre Dame locker room in Dublin or a Target parking lot during a recruiting trip.
“With the mask on and bag hanging, anyone would look in the car and say, ‘What the heck is going on?’” Elliott said. “You just do it and go. I’ve learned to not be embarrassed.”
Elliott’s office is filled with reminders about his health situation, from a blue case filled with the approximately 15 pills he takes each day to a Formula 409 spray bottle that he uses to clear germs. There are even multiple boxes in which he stores his medical supplies.
But perhaps most remarkable is the way that Elliott’s self-dialysis has become so normal in the Irish football facility; no one looks at it as out of the ordinary. Elliott’s kidney failure didn’t cause him to miss a meeting, practice or recruiting trip. He rarely had to explain, never complained and just continued to coach.
“What a tough guy and an honorable man to go out and really not show it at all and going through the pain he must have been going through,” said Irish safety Zeke Motta. “I have so much respect for him.”
Elliott’s fellow defensive coaches eventually felt comfortable enough to tease him, sometimes by wearing a mask or asking, “Is there a doctor in the house?”
“We don’t take anything lightly,” said Notre Dame co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks, who Elliott formerly recruited to Iowa. “But we also try and keep it light, he’s one of the guys and we’ll joke with him.”
Elliott didn’t curse fate when his body let him down just as he was on the cusp of reaching his professional pinnacle. Instead, he simply worked to get back to coaching.
“One thing I learned when you get sick or hurt or whatever adversity that happens to you, if you stop fighting, you have no chance,” Elliott said. “This world will not stop and wait for you.”
There’s no pain associated with kidney failure, but a doctor’s appointment soon after he got the Notre Dame job last winter led to an awkward conversation. Elliott had to inform Kelly that his kidneys had failed, a side effect of a bone marrow transplant in 1998. Kelly is no stranger to the impact of cancer, as he endured his wife Paqui’s two battles with breast cancer and double mastectomy. Kelly offered Elliott his unwavering support.
“The only thing we thought about,” Kelly said, “was how we’re going to make this work.”
Not only has it worked, but Elliott has flourished — and the Irish secondary has transformed from a weak link into a linchpin. Elliott’s career came full circle by heading to Notre Dame; he works for two of his former Iowa players and graduate assistants, co-defensive coordinators Bob Diaco and Cooks. Now, he hopes his story can inspire others to overcome obstacles.
“This is not a sob story,” he said explaining why he shared his story with SI.com. “The plus for me is letting people know that other people with kidney disease or cancer can fight through and make it. That’s the only motivation I’d ever have for disclosing this, as it doesn’t help me or the team.”
Elliott’s fight to return to coaching is really a love story. It started with Joey and Bob’s first date, sledding beneath a full moon, during the couple’s freshman year at Iowa. They followed that with a trip to Elliott’s parents’ house for hot chocolate and popcorn. Joey jokes that the night was a “little too Norman Rockwell.”
Joey says she knew exactly what she was getting into by becoming a coach’s wife. Even when she dated Bob in college, she couldn’t attend Homecoming the year he was injured — he was such a serious student that they spent the night in the library.
“Hey, what a great date,” she chuckled. “If he’s not going to play, he’s going to be an academic. He’s that driven.”
Bob grew up in Ann Arbor with the Big House as his playground, but he chose to play at Iowa after his father became the athletic director there. Soon after, he became best friends with Dan McCarney, the police chief’s son. Then the two kids of well-known community figures moved off campus and squeezed eight guys, a lifetime of memories and a bit of trouble into a house intended for four residents.
McCarney, now the coach at North Texas, constantly teased Bob, who went on to be an academic All-American and a Rhodes Scholarship candidate. “All of his roommates used to tell everyone we were in charge of his tutoring,” McCarney joked.
Throughout college and beyond, Joey emerged as a constant. McCarney called it “love at first sight,” as she brought Elliott lunch when he was a graduate assistant. She would even help him splice the 16-millimeter film.
“I’d sit there and break down to the boundary and field to the tendency,” Joey said. “I’d help out just to have time with him.”
Joey worked teaching jobs as Bob bounced around the country. He completed coaching stints at Kent State, Ball State, North Carolina and Iowa State before landing back at Iowa. Along the way, the couple had two children, Grant and Jessica, and finally settled in for a decade-long stretch of stability in Iowa City when Hawkeyes coach Hayden Fry hired Bob in 1987.
Few football fans outside of Iowa knew about Elliott at the time, before he rose to become the Hawkeyes defensive coordinator and assistant head coach. But by the late 1990s, he was a hot young coach poised to take over as Fry’s potential successor. That’s impressive considering Fry’s coaching tree is one of the most prolific in college football history: It features Bill Snyder, Bob Stoops, Bret Bielema, Barry Alvarez, Kirk Ferentz and Bo Pelini. Former Iowa athletic director Bob Bowlsby, now the Big 12 commissioner, recalls that Elliott would have been “among a small group of leading candidates” considered to replace Fry.
But everything changed in 1998, when Elliott was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer that required a bone marrow transplant. “He came really close to dying,” Bowlsby said.
Yet that’s also when Joey dove in with both feet. She now jokes that she has degrees in education and nursing after all of the support she gave Bob. And he needed it. Doctors originally gave Elliott a 50-50 chance to live as the blood cancer — known as polycythemia vera — relentlessly attacked his body.
“I remember going to see him and I hardly recognized him his face and head were so swollen,” Bowlsby said. “He was really gravely ill.”
McCarney, who called every day to check in, said he still gets a lump in his throat when thinking about that period. Elliott was pumped so full of fluid that his weight ballooned from 175 pounds to more than 200. “This is my roommate, teammate, pal and buddy,” McCarney said. “It didn’t even look like the same human being.”
Elliott would have struggled to pay for treatment if not for a lifeline from Bowlsby at the end of the 1998 season, when Fry retired. After Elliott’s health declined to the point where he was physically unable to coach, Bowlsby created a position in administration at Iowa so Elliott could keep his benefits and fight through cancer.
“I can’t thank him enough,” Elliott said. “He’s one of the all-time great guys. He’s been highly successful and high profile, but deep down, he’s a great human being.”
Joey found out about her husband’s need for a transplant while on a field trip with her kindergartners. She immediately took over the medical details of the surgery, as Bob’s view on his medical issues revolves around the mindset that “less is more.”
Joey devoured information, tracked his medicine and forced him to go to the doctor if something like a swollen foot arose, perhaps a symptom of something bigger. When Bob’s kidney failed a decade later — a side effect of the bone marrow transplant — Joey and Bob digested a month’s worth of self-dialysis training in a week.
“We did two a days,” laughed Joey.
Joey now locates backup treatment centers for all of his games and recruiting trips, where he can receive supplies if needed. More importantly, she provides the spirit and optimism necessary to help the family make it through a difficult time.
“What’s important is not to survive these moments, but to thrive and tuck it away in its place so it’s not running your world,” she said.
Betsy has seen Joey’s role close-up now that she has put herself up to donate a kidney. She sums up Joey’s role concisely: “She has kept him alive.”
Through the years, Elliott learned both the demands and nuances of a career in college athletics. He watched his father as a coach and athletic director, and since he has held nearly every football staff position and even a few administrative ones.
“Always treat your families right and always treat your GAs right,” Elliott offered as a lesson, advice that often goes overlooked in a profession where GAs are exploited and families are ignored behind the demands of the job.
Elliott’s first bone marrow transplant came from a cousin, Gregg Underwood. His kidney transplant will come from his sister, one of 11 family members to offer. And his employment at Notre Dame comes via the hiring decision of two of his former GAs.
“We really didn’t even discuss anyone else,” Cooks said of he and Diaco’s discussions about which candidate to hire as the new safeties coach.
All of it has paid off. As Elliott has endured his kidney problems, he’s also put forth one of the most remarkable coaching efforts of his career. Notre Dame’s secondary entered the season as one of its biggest weaknesses, in stark contrast with an SEC-caliber front seven that included linebacker Manti Te’o and linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. By the end of September, Elliott’s job got even tougher; Notre Dame lost two of its top three safeties to injury, Jamoris Slaughter and Austin Collinsworth. The Irish also lost three of their top five defensive backs, as projected starter Lo Wood injured his Achilles in August and missed the entire 2012 season.
“All of a sudden it became really crucial that these guys had to step up,” Elliott said. “We certainly didn’t want the secondary to be the reason why we didn’t win. We had all the other pieces on defense.”
Elliott credits Diaco with designing gameplans that put pressure on the front seven and provided Motta and Farley, a raw sophomore, with time to develop. He credits Cooks with bringing along young corners KeiVarae Russell and Bennett Jackson, offensive players who changed positions in order to fill a need. But Elliott also played a pivotal role: Along the Irish’s improbable ride this season, he helped the secondary shift from a liability to a strength.
“What he’s been able to do here in a year is unquantifiable,” Motta said of Elliott. “I think that he’s definitely been a great fit for all the guys in the secondary, and he just brings that wise-owl kind of feel to it.”
In a month, Bob and Betsy will travel to Indianapolis for the kidney transplant. Bob’s recovery will take nearly a month after that, and Joey is already bracing for his restlessness upon his return to South Bend.
“I told the transplant people to send me home with duct tape,” Joey said. “I’m going to have to tape him to the chair.”
That’s a telling sentiment: Elliott has never stayed down for long.
All Elliott ever wanted to do was teach. And that circuitous path has brought him to the BCS national title game on Monday. An entourage of 14 family members, including 87-year old Bump, is in South Florida to watch.
And thanks to selflessness of Betsy and the care of Joey, Elliott now plans on coaching for 10 more years.
“I have two kidneys, I can do this and I’m happy to do it,” Betsy said. “I don’t think too long and hard about extending his life, this or that. I really think about helping him stay on this earth to do what he needs and wants to do.”