Football helped Elliott in long battle with cancer
By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
The meetings occurred secretly every Monday or Tuesday and lasted for roughly 10-20 minutes during the fall of 2001.
Bob Elliott, in a private, second battle with a rare form of bone marrow cancer, had entrusted the services of Randy Peterson, a veteran sports reporter for the Des Moines Register, to tell his story.
Elliott, then associate head coach for the Iowa State football team, wanted his thoughts written, with one stipulation: Peterson wouldn’t write a single column inch until after Elliott’s death.
That, at the time, appeared imminent.
“He thought he was going to die,” Peterson told me during a phone interview Monday, explaining the behind-the-scenes work on a story that would actually be published eight years later.
(You can read the story here.)
Peterson isn’t sure what led to the story running then, what with Elliott alive and well and serving as assistant head coach at San Diego State.
But Peterson's outstanding work became timely again Sunday, when we learned Elliott, who joined the Nebraska football coaching staff in February, died of cancer. He was 64.
“He was a special guy,” Peterson said. “He was very, very good with the reporters. He cut right to the chase. He knew what we wanted. He was one of our go-to guys, at least my go-to guy, wherever he was.”
Peterson has covered both Iowa and Iowa State athletics, and Elliott, who starred as a defensive back at Iowa, coached at both schools. In fact, had it not been for his initial bout with cancer in 1998, Elliott was convinced he would’ve been named head coach at Iowa following Hayden Fry’s retirement. That job, of course, went to Kirk Ferentz, now the longest-tenured coach in the Big Ten Conference.
“Dan McCarney told me this,” Peterson said of the former Iowa State coach, who played with Elliott at Iowa and hired Elliott at Iowa State. “Bobby went to his grave knowing he would’ve been the Iowa coach had he not been sick. And that’s cool.”
Peterson earned the trust of Elliott, who always had a strong relationship with the media.
“It wasn’t often when Hayden Fry would let his assistants talk to reporters, but you could always find a way to talk to Bobby," Peterson said. "Maybe not quote him, but give you some insight on some stuff, some deep background stuff. He was a good resource in that respect. If he had any time, he’d do it. He’d talk to you.”
Elliott became everybody’s “go-to guy” at Iowa State, where assistants were allowed to talk to reporters. When he coached at places where reporters were off-limits, like Kansas State (2002-05), Peterson and others could still contact him and gain background information on whatever the topic.
“Whether it was about defensive backs or just football in general,” Peterson said, “because his knowledge of football was just off the charts and spectacular. He grew up football.”
Elliott was 45 and an assistant coach at Iowa when he initially learned he had polycythemia vera, a rare condition in which overly active bone marrow produces too many white and red blood cells. He underwent a successful bone marrow transplant in 1999 – his cousin, Gregg Underwood, was the donor.
Tests in June of 2001 showed some bad cells had returned to his bone marrow, and by August, he was receiving chemotherapy while still coaching Iowa State. He then began his weekly meetings with Peterson. They were secret, because not even McCarney, his staff nor his players knew of Elliott’s most recent health issue.
“We talked about a lot, how he was preparing his son, Grant, to be the man of the house,” Peterson said. “He was telling him, ‘Grant, you need to start getting along with your sister.’ He talked about his love for his family, for his wife, Joey. She’s a saint.
“Bobby mostly always thought he was going to lick it. There was the time, midway through the football season, when we were going through our once-a-week sessions, when he confided in me – McCarney, nobody knew what was going on – that he was afraid of if he had to go through a second bone marrow transplant, what the outcome would be. He was really scared of that. Bobby said second bone marrow operations don’t always turn out positive.
“But in that same breath, I remember him saying football practices, those are what got him through the days. It was football practice. Because at that time, Bobby’s family was living in Iowa City, and he was in Ames, living by himself in an apartment. Football got Bobby through the day. He told me he forgot everything about his cancer when he went on the practice field. He forgot everything. Everything.”
The week before the Cyclones were to play at Texas A&M that season, doctors called Elliott and told him tests revealed his blood had become more diseased and a second bone marrow transplant was likely, although there would be another test in a few weeks.
At that point, Elliott knew he had to share his health condition with others. He confided in his players what was happening.
“He would not allow me in the room when he told the players that, but I remember some of the players saying it was very, very emotional, because Bobby was the kind of person that could bridge the gap between athletes of all diversities,” Peterson said. “I mean, if you were from the most exclusive part of Omaha, he could get along with you and your family. Or if you were from someplace less fortunate, he’d get along with you. That was Bobby, he got along with everybody.”
In mid-November, Peterson received a call from Elliott the week before Iowa State was to play Kansas State. Peterson could tell Elliott had been crying.
“I said, ‘Bobby, what’s going on?’ And he said, ‘What we’ve been writing, we don’t have to meet anymore.’ I said, ‘Oh, Jesus.’ ”
Peterson figured the doctors told Elliott he’d need a second bone marrow transplant, a very dire prognosis.
“Bobby said, ‘No, the doctor said I don’t need it. I’m going to live. I’m healthy.’ I said to Bobby at that point in time, ‘You just wrote a happily-ever-after ending.’ ”
At the time, it was.
Peterson maintained contact with Elliott over the years. He most recently saw him at a basketball game at Iowa State, not long after Elliott had been hired as safeties coach at Nebraska.
“He came over on press row and talked to me. Shocked me. 'Bobby!' ” Peterson said.
On vacation the last 10 days, he regrets not driving to Iowa City to see Elliott, who'd entered hospice only days before his death.
“He fought this thing for years. I mean, he fought it,” Peterson said. “I bet he didn’t miss more than a handful of practices when he was actually on the field coaching. I bet he didn’t.”
Peterson will always remember Elliott’s compassion for others.
“When I broke my leg at the Iowa State game, Bobby was one of the first ones to reach out to me,” said Peterson, who suffered his injury during a court storming after a basketball game. “When my wife died a year ago April, Bobby was one of the first ones to reach out as well.
“That’s Bobby. It’s not just me. He would’ve done it to anybody. That’s Bobby.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.