IOWA CITY, Iowa — On paper, like the man itself, it was hard to miss the heart. The leaflet handed out at the service celebrating the life of former Nebraska Cornhuskers and Iowa Hawkeyes assistant football coach Bob Elliott this weekend was five sides of love and grace. The sixth, fittingly, was saved for hope:
“I think he realized he could inspire even more people and help even more people through the life he’s led,” said Dan McCarney, the former Iowa State and North Texas football coach who was among the hundreds at a public memorial Saturday to say farewell to Elliott, who’d passed away July 8 at the age of 64. “And through the adversity he’s overcome and challenges that had hit him right in the face.
“If he can do it, you can do it. ‘If I can make it, you can make it.’”
It takes a strong man to give a hand. It takes a giant to give a soul.
Cancer played chicken with Bobby Elliott’s body and career. He never blinked. The man had neither time, or interest, in pity. He wanted to be an example, a testament to the power of family, the power of faith, the power of laughter, the power of possibility.
The power of tomorrow.
A cousin, Gregg Underwood, donated bone marrow to Elliott in 1999. Bob’s sister, Betsy Stough, gifted him a kidney in 2013. The next year, Elliott was stumping for the National Kidney Foundation, helping to raise thousands of dollars on behalf of Team Scoop & Score.
You take what you do for yourself to the grave. What you do for others lives on forever.
“He inspired so many people that I know of firsthand,” McCarney told Land of 10. “No matter what it was or how bad it was, who it was, he was going to inspire people.”
Elliott gave pep talks to organ donors, lighting a fire under the scared, the wary, the angry, the confused. He walked. He preached. He listened.
He approached cancer the way he approached the next opponent on the docket. As Rev. Kyle Otterbein noted during the service Saturday, in football and in life, Bobby Elliott coached people up.
“Because he was incredible that way,” McCarney continued. “To give help to others, make ‘em feel good, and make their day a little brighter. And he was sooo good at it. He was amazing that way.”
Elliott was amazing on several fronts, to the last. He and McCarney were a remarkable double act for decades, friends since meeting as teenagers in Iowa City. Elliott’s father, Bump, was the athletic director at the University of Iowa; McCarney’s father, Patrick was the city’s chief of police. They were as thick as thieves, in part, because they always understood the stakes.
“No matter what it was or how bad it was, who it was, he was going to inspire people.”
— Iowa Hawkeyes alum and former Iowa State and North Texas coach Dan McCarney, on friend Bob Elliott
So the news in 1998 that Elliott was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer, that his body was fighting him from the inside, threw everyone for a loop. The diagnosis was horrible, but the timing was almost as cruel: Hawkeyes coach Hayden Fry, who was battling cancer himself, would be retiring soon, and Elliott — highly regarded as Iowa’s defensive coordinator — was a logical candidate to replace him.
Cancer didn’t give a damn about that.
Bobby being Bobby, he fought back. Underwood’s bone marrow flipped the script. Of course, the doctors had also pumped Elliott so full of fluids — 25, 30 pounds of the stuff — that he started to swell like a hot dog on a backyard grill.
When McCarney and wife Margy went to visit Elliott at the hospital, they were required to wear full-body protective suits to prevent any risk of infection.
“He doesn’t know how long he’s going to live,” McCarney recalled, chuckling. “And the first thing that comes out of his mouth is, ‘You guys look like Mr. and Mrs. John Glenn.’”
And back and forth they went. Old friends trading jabs, like a couple of forever teenagers.
“I see you haven’t been missing many meals,” McCarney cracked.
“‘Well, I always wanted to look like a linebacker,” Elliott countered. “Which one do you think I look like: Ray Nitschke or Dick Butkus?”
“It just speaks so well to his attitude,” McCarney recalled Saturday.
“The bottom line in his life was so consistent wherever he went. And to be able to overcome all of those unbelievable challenges — not only the challenges that you have every Saturday in a season but all the health setbacks and all these obstacles and setbacks. No one should have to go through that. But if they did, you would want it to be a guy like Bobby Elliott because he’s such an example of [coping] with dignity, with poise, and with as much mental toughness as anybody I’ve ever been around.”
He had cause to grieve, cause to rage, cause to weep. For the next two decades, Bobby Elliott instead did something remarkable: He tried to kill the fates with kindness. Smiling with every blow.
To donate blood with the Red Cross, please visit RedCrossBlood.org. To register to donate organs and tissue, please visit BeTheMatch.org or DonateLife.net.