Tragedy on a street by the same name fulfilled Tony Elliott’s biggest dream
When Tony Elliott was hired to be Clemson’s running backs coach in January of 2011, it ushered in the start of a new chapter in his life and closed another. Ironically, it happened on the same street – at least one with the same name.
Sycamore Street to most of us is just a name of a street you can find in just about any town across the country. But to Tony Elliott it’s the street where his story begins.
It was a Sunday morning in 1988 when Elliott—nine years old at the time—got in the car with his mother, stepfather, brother and sister and headed to church just outside Anaheim, Calif. About one mile from the church, one of the more horrific things a child can witness took place.
A car coming from another direction ran a red light at a busy intersection and T-boned the car Elliott’s stepfather was driving. The impact was so strong it sent the car into a violent spin and ultimately a tumble.
It also partially ejected Elliott’s mother—Patricia—through the passenger window. As the car tumbled down the road, Patricia never had a chance. It ultimately crushed her and she later passed away in the ambulance on her way to the hospital.
“Up until just before I got to college, there wasn’t necessarily resentment towards God, but just a questioning,” Elliott recalls. “When you lose your mother on the way to church when you are nine years old, you don’t understand.
“You are the only one in the car without a seatbelt on and you walk away without injury, no scratch, no nothing. As a result, you see your mom pass away and you’re in the back seat thinking you should have passed away because you didn’t have a seatbelt on.
“I was angry. I questioned it. I was never belligerent, but I had my doubts. I felt like, if I did things the right way, then the world was going to pay me what it owed me for taking my Mom away. I knew about God and my Aunt used to make me go to church and Sunday school, but I was never engaged. I did what I needed to do to keep her off my back. God was not at the forefront of my mind. I just felt like I had a plan that I personally was going to execute to get the things that I wanted.
“Up until I graduated from high school, I thought it was going to work for me.”
Elliott’s plan was to be a college football player and go get himself an education at the same time. After his mother died, he turned to sports to get away from things. It was his way of blocking things out and staying focused on what his plan was.
Soon after his mother passed away, Elliott and his sister, Brandi, were sent to live with his father. His mother and father had split up when Elliott was five and got a divorce a year later.
“He wasn’t mature enough at that time to take on and raise two children,” Elliott said. “There were a lot of ups and downs and eventually his ways caught up with him and he got locked up.”
From there Elliott and his sister moved to Atlanta to stay with their Aunt and Uncle.
“They separated us because they did not have enough financial resources to keep us together,” Elliott remembers.
A year later his father was released from prison and claimed his life was together and was ready to take Elliott and Brandi back.
“We flew all the way back to California and in about a month he was locked up again,” Elliott said. “It was at that point I decided that I was not going to live that lifestyle again. I said, ‘if they were going to come get me again, I was never coming back.’”
Elliott and his sister eventually got back to Atlanta and this time he went and moved in with his Aunt Blondale in Charleston, where he grew up with her two sons and later reunited with his sister before his senior year of high school.
In Charleston, Elliott flourished as a football player at James Island High School and earned several scholarship offers to small schools and one with the Air Force Academy. It was amazing he even got to that point as an athlete after surviving not only the car accident, but also being hit by a truck when he was four years of age. He broke several ribs, punctured a lung and tore his spleen after the truck threw him from the point of impact.
Going to the Air Force Academy seemed like the perfect fit. He was getting a chance to be a Division I athlete. His plan had worked, or so he thought.
“I did a year at their prep school because my grades were not high enough to go straight into the academy,” Elliott said. “I didn’t like it there. I wanted to transfer out and leave, but I did not have any help or support. I could not go anywhere else. I felt like I was stuck with my appointment with the academy so I went to basic training and about two weeks in I realized I was taking up a spot from someone who really wanted to be there for the right reasons.
“I was at the academy for the wrong reasons. All I wanted to do was play Division I football, and that’s the wrong reason to go to the Air Force Academy. I made a decision that I was going to do whatever it took to make it somewhere else.”
Though he was counseled several times about his decision, Elliot left the Air Force Academy and returned to Charleston where he would work odd jobs to try and save up enough money to attend school somewhere else.
“Because of the timing of everything I was not able to go to school for the fall semester so I had to sit out a semester and wait until the spring,” he said. “I worked at the Publix as a bagger and did that for a couple of weeks before I realized I was not going to make the kind of money that I needed to pay and go back to school.
“My family had some mixed emotions and my Aunt understood my situation so she wanted me to come home because I wasn’t happy, but then again, no one wanted me to walk away from a full scholarship and really have no plan.”
Elliot’s plan soon involved being a construction worker where he made $8 an hour, while working 12-hour shifts. At one point, he worked 28 days straight without a day off.
“I remember there were times when I got home, I could not even take a shower I was so worn out,” he said. “I would fall straight to sleep.”
While he was working and saving his money, Elliott was also applying to other colleges. He applied to Georgia, South Carolina and Clemson, but it was Clemson that accepted him into school.
“It was the only one that did not give me any conditions before they accepted me,” he said. “They said if you want to come on, we have a spot for you. The University of Georgia had the Hope Scholarship so with me being out of state there was a whole bunch of hoops I would have to go through, while South Carolina wanted me to write a paper on why I wanted to leave the Air Force Academy.
“So, I decided Clemson is the only one that said I could come, so that’s where I’m going.”
That next semester, Elliott’s aunt dropped him off in front of the old Johnstone Building with an alarm clock and whatever cloths he could fit in his bag.
“If you know anything about the old Johnstone Building before they tore it down, it is not a very welcoming site,” Elliott said. “It looked very similar to the lifestyle I just left. Johnstone was an old military barracks.”
After settling in, Elliott walked over to the east gate at the top of the hill and stared into Memorial Stadium and at Howard’s Rock. He thought to himself, “How awesome would it be to play here? And maybe one day I will.”
But, that wasn’t Elliott’s plan, not at that time anyway. He had learned his lesson. Football wasn’t the most important thing to him anymore, he wanted to get his education and go on with his life.
An athlete for most of his life, it was hard for Elliott to totally step away from sports. He continued to work out at Fike and would occasionally play pickup basketball games. One evening, when playing, a guy named Marquise Mitchell recognized him.
Mitchell had played defensive back at Summerville High School and remembered going up against Elliott in their rivalry game. The two became friends and Mitchell talked Elliott into walking on to the football team with him.
“He kind of talked me into it,” Elliott said. “I decided I would give it a shot. I had no expectation of actually playing. I thought it would just be cool to be on the team and maybe get in on a couple of kickoffs and play some special teams.”
As a freshmen Elliott made the team as a travel squad player and played on special teams. That following spring, he moved himself up the depth chart to second-team wide receiver and potentially moved himself into playing time other than special teams. But at the Georgia Tech game in Atlanta that year, he broke his arm.
Elliott missed five games that season, but came back as a junior and saw a lot of playing time. Before the start of his senior year on the football field, he earned his degree in industrial engineering thanks to a team-high 3.55 GPA and was given a scholarship. However, the scholarship would not kick in until the fall so he had to sit out the spring semester and subsequently missed spring practice.
To make matters even worse, he had a new position coach—Dabo Swinney—that he could not work with until fall camp opened in August.
“The first time I was introduced to Coach Swinney was when fall camp started,” Elliott said. “Here I was, a fifth-year guy who was a walk-on, turned scholarship, back to walk-on, then back to scholarship guy, again and Roscoe Crosby was in the process of coming back and we were at the same position.
“There were a lot of different emotions going on that season, but it worked itself out.”
Indeed it did. Elliott ended up becoming a starter and was voted by the team as a co-captain. He finished his senior season with 23 catches for 286 yards and a touchdown. That touchdown came in the Tigers’ 63-17 victory over South Carolina.
It seemed as if Elliott had his happy ending. His planned was fulfilled. He got his education and became a productive Division I football player. He ended up getting a job with Michelin as an engineer and was engaged to Tamika Whitner, a young lady he met at Clemson.
Everything was going good. Or was it?
“I got in corporate America and had a great career ahead of me,” he said. “I was able to impress the folks at Michelin and create some great relationships with them and they were starting to put some plans together to potentially move myself up in management. They were making plans for me to go overseas and spend a little time learning the company from the global standpoint.
“But, I felt empty inside. I started volunteering as a coach at Easley High School and I did that through spring ball. My soon to be wife and I talked about it, and we were about to get married and she told me if I wanted to get into college coaching then, ‘this was the time.’”
With that little bit of a push from his fiancée, Elliott approached then head coach Tommy Bowden about coming back to Clemson as a graduate assistant so he can learn the ropes. Bowden and Swinney did all they could do to get Elliott on, but offensive coordinator Rob Spence had already hired someone else for the same position. It was a little bit of a setback, but it did not set him back for long.
Brad Scott, who was Clemson’s offensive line coach at the time, called his friend Buddy Pugh at S.C. State and asked for a favor. Before he knew it, Elliott was on his way to Orangeburg to interview for a coaching position on Pugh’s staff.
“I was so nervous going down there,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about being a position coach.”
But Pugh took a chance on Elliott and hired him.
“I got married on July 22. Then I went on my Honeymoon, and reported to camp at South Carolina State on August 2,” Elliott said. “Here I am … I’m a brand new position coach. I don’t know my players and I don’t know anything.
“I was scrambling. I didn’t have anywhere to live, either. I was living with another coach.”
But it all worked out. Elliott stayed on Pugh’s staff for two seasons in Orangeburg before moving on to Furman, where Tom Evangelista—a former graduate assistant at Clemson when Elliott played and an assistant coach at S.C. State during his first season—got him on Bobby Lamb’s staff.
Elliott spent the next three seasons coaching wide receivers at Furman, then after being retained and promoted to recruiting coordinator by coach Bruce Fowler, Elliott got the call he had always wanted, except at first he didn’t know who the call was from.
“I was excited. I’m getting ready to go to work,” he said. “I was coming back from the (coaches) convention, and I’m sitting on the plane to come home when a blocked number came up on my phone. Normally, I don’t answer blocked calls, but it was recruiting season and we had an official recruiting weekend coming up at Furman so I decided to see who it was.
“It happened to be Coach Swinney. There was a little bit of small talk and then he said, ‘I need you to come and talk to me.’ So I told him I was in Dallas, and I got home by four o’clock that afternoon, and I told him I would come and see him.”
But Elliott was not expecting to get offered the job because it was for a running backs coach and he had only been a wide receivers coach. He was thinking Coach Swinney was just going to talk to him and let him know he was probably going to go with a more experienced coach.
“My plan was to say, ‘Look Coach. I know how our relationship is and I know what we have talked about in the past, but I’m happy where I am. I can gain more experience. You do not have to hire me right now.’’
A few years before, Elliott and Swinney were at a coaches’ clinic in Anaheim when Elliott asked his mentor to go for a ride.
“I took him to the intersection of where the accident happened and where my mother died,” Elliott said. “I told him that this intersection right here is what made me the person I am.”
So as he is driving to his old position coach’s house, Elliott turns on to the street where Swinney’s old house sits.
Not really paying attention to the name of the street, he and his wife went into the Swinney house and shared a pot of homemade chili with Swinney and his wife Kathleen. After a little small talk, Swinney just comes out with it and offers Elliott the job to be his running backs coach.
It was an emotional moment for Elliott, but Swinney wanted to point out one more thing. The Clemson coach always knew Elliott wanted to come back to Clemson. He knew he loved his alma mater. But, he also knew how much he loved his mother and how her death drove him in everything he did and still does to this day.
“Coach Swinney doesn’t forget anything,” Elliott said. “It was part of his plan when he hired me. He brought up that day when I showed him the intersection of where my mom’s accident happened. He made the comparison and the kinds of similarities.
“He said, ‘The day that the accident happened on Sycamore Street was a day that made you who you are. Well, this is another great moment in your life because on Sycamore Street you are getting you’re opportunity to come back home and coach at Clemson.’”
That’s right. Swinney’s house is on Sycamore Street.
“I was like, ‘Man, that is God’s work right there,’” Elliot said. “He took her away from me and he had to because it was his plan. He took her away from me on Sycamore Street, but yet he gave me something that was a dream of mine on Sycamore Street. It is just amazing.”
Six years later, Elliott is now the top assistant coach in college football, after winning the Frank Broyles Award on Tuesday. He is still the running backs coach at Clemson and shares co-offensive coordinator duties with one of his closest friends in Jeff Scott.
Elliott has played a part in the greatest era in Clemson football history, helping guide the Tigers to an 82-14 record in his six seasons here, including four ACC Championships, three College Football Playoff appearances and last year’s National Championship.
And it was a part of God’s plan all along.