Sept. 19, 2013
By: Todd Burlage
No matter how inspiring and interesting it is to share Bob Elliott’s story of perseverance, the Notre Dame assistant coach has never been the least bit interested in any of the headlines, articles or inquiries about his personal health, or the struggles he faced upon his arrival at Notre Dame in January of 2012.
The details of Elliott and his triumphs over blood cancer 15 years ago, and over full kidney failure seven months ago, have been chronicled and documented more than the Irish defensive safeties coach cares to count.
Recovered fully today after kidney transplant surgery in February 2013, Elliott appreciates the well wishes, but he doesn’t feel he deserves all the attention, even after beating not one, but two potentially fatal medical conditions – the recent kidney failure an unfortunate side effect from his bone marrow transplant in 1998.
Like it or not, anyone willing to administer self-dialysis wherever and whenever with an IV bag hooked into a tube running to his stomach – all for the sake of not missing any work – deserves at least some recognition for his dedication. Just don’t try to convince Elliott of that.
“You want to talk about that?” says Elliott to one reporter, borderline irritated at being asked about something other than his team. “I thought we were going to talk continuity in our coaching staff. All of that other stuff is yesterday’s news.”
But old news can often teach us new lessons.
Whether Elliott was in his football office, in the film room with players or fellow coaches, or even in a Target parking lot on a recruiting trip, four times each day for about 40 minutes per session over 11 months, Elliott would pull out the IV bag and deliver its fluids into his stomach through a catheter tube.
The necessary treatments would break down any food in the stomach and flush the waste from his digestive system, essentially performing the job that Elliott’s failed kidneys once did. His four daily dialysis sessions were in addition to the eight-hour treatments required every night.
When asked about the challenges and inconveniences he faced during the months he spent hooked to an IV bag and waiting for a kidney transplant, Elliott expectedly deflected any attention away from himself.
“I haven’t made a big deal out of it, because I just don’t consider it a big deal,” says Elliott, in a personal assessment that perfectly reflects his understated approach to everyday life. “Everybody in our program has had to show toughness and make sacrifices. It’s not relegated to me, or any one person, or any one situation. Everybody on this team has to do that.”
For this 60-year-old survivor, accounts of perseverance and dedication should never be about the grown men in the program. After 35 years in the coaching business, Elliott believes those triumph-over-tragedy stories are reserved for the young players.
“I’ve been blessed and lucky. My situation pales in comparison to some of the things our guys go through every day,” Elliott says. “When people count on you, you have to come through.”
Instead of celebrating his own recovery, Elliott shares his appreciation for the generosity and love of his numerous family members who offered to donate one of their two kidneys so save Bob’s life. After several compatibility tests, Elliott’s younger sister Betsy was the best match, and on February 6, 2013, Bob had his new kidney implanted and finally a chance to ditch the IV bags after almost a calendar year, and through the entire 2012 football season.
“It was difficult but all of us have been through difficult things in our lives,” Elliott says. “Whether it’s the loss of loved ones, or physical problems, whatever they are. That’s part of the human condition is to have bad things happen and see how you react.” But self-dialysis four times a day? And eight more hours of it every night? And wondering if a donor match would be found? And never being too sick or tired to miss any work?
“It’s not new to me or anybody else to have to continue to do your job well when things are a little more difficult,” he says. “That doesn’t change the equation. It’s just something you have to do.” Elliott’s selfless approach left him less worried about his personal hardships than the potential reaction he would get when he shared the news of his kidney failure with head coach Brian Kelly.
Because Elliott arrived on his new job only about two weeks before his diagnosis, he worried that his new boss wouldn’t find him up to the work and go in a different direction. But through his personal life experiences, Kelly never wavered in his support of Elliott.
Kelly’s wife, Paqui, is a two-time breast cancer survivor, so the Irish coach understands firsthand the level of support needed to work through serious medical situations, and he immediately extended that same encouragement to his new hire. Elliott returned the favor by vowing not to let any medical condition get in the way of improving the Irish secondary.
“It’s not talked about a lot but everybody knows what (Elliott) has gone through physically,” Kelly says. “What he did last year, with self-dialysis in his office, is the ultimate sacrifice to be with a football team, and our players really respect the heck out of him for what he did.”
A Fighting Chance
To fully understand Elliott’s journey from near death to Notre Dame assistant, the best place to start is in 1998 when this 45-year-old up-and-coming assistant was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer.
Up to that life-altering event, Elliott had steadily built his coaching résumé from 1977 and 1986 through brief stops at Kent State, Ball State, Iowa State and North Carolina before finding a more permanent home at the University of Iowa under legendary Hawkeye head coach Hayden Fry.
In his 11 seasons at Iowa, Elliott worked his way from secondary coach in 1987 to assistant head coach/defensive coordinator in 1998. Among his students there were current Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and Irish safety coach Kerry Cooks. Elliott’s defensive success and tireless work put him on a short list to replace Fry as the next Hawkeye head coach. That’s when everything changed.
A regular medical checkup revealed that Elliott was suffering from a lethal and aggressive form of blood cancer that required immediate and extensive medical attention, and came with only about a 50-50 chance of survival.
“Well, anytime you have a bone marrow transplant, you’re pretty damn sick. That’s not anything to mess with,” Elliott says of the most difficult time in his life. “In the world of transplants, that’s probably the most difficult and problematic of all.”
Through his strength of spirit, and the love and support of his wife, Joey, Elliott beat the cancer – a fight that left an indelible mark on those who knew him best, but a battle that removed him from football for a year and essentially ended any aspirations of becoming the next head coach at Iowa.
After recovering from the bone marrow transplant surgery, Elliott turned down a full-time administrative job at Iowa and made coaching stops at Iowa State, Kansas State and San Diego State before landing at Notre Dame.
Current Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby was the athletic director at Iowa at the time Elliott fell ill there. And when it became apparent that intense medical attention was going to take Elliott away from his coaching responsibilities, Bowlsby found Elliott an administrative job so he could stay on the payroll, keep his medical insurance and get the best healthcare possible. Because with only about coin-flip odds of survival, Elliott was going to need it.
Bowlsby says, “Without the bone marrow transplant, I don’t think there is any question that he wouldn’t be here today.” Elliott found a bone marrow match with his cousin, Gregg Underwood, and a successful transplant was made, but not without a lot of scares and prayers. Elliott was kept on constant watch in ICU after surgery and had so many fluids being pumped into his body, he had gone from about 175 pounds to 200 pounds.
“I remember going to the hospital and his face, and his arms, and all of his limbs we so swollen you could hardly recognize him,” Bowlsby says. “If I hadn’t known it was him, I wouldn’t have known it was him. He went through some very difficult times.” Yet here we are, 15 years later, and Bob Elliott is still doing his thing, helping to groom an inexperienced Irish secondary into one of the best units on the team the last two seasons, with no time to spare or reflect.
“Over a lot of years of coaching,” Elliott says. “I have learned that just when you start to feel comfortable about something is when all hell breaks loose. You can never get comfortable or stop trying to improve.”
And that’s Bob Elliott – the man who instead of taking a year off to get traditional medical care packed up his IV bags, mask and gloves every day and administered self-dialysis in a Target parking lot so he wouldn’t miss a recruiting trip.
“You see this man who has gone through all the health things he has went through and he keeps fighting and battling,” Cooks says. “Everything we talk to our kids about – toughness, being a fighter, being a leader, and not making excuses, and being thankful for what’s been given to them – that’s Coach Elliott.”