Overcoming obstacles

CLEMSON - Tony Elliott is proof that that life's obstacles are never too much to overcome.

The former Clemson wide receiver experienced almost a lifetime of struggle before joining the Tigers' football team in the fall of 1999.

Elliott, who's now in his first season as the Clemson running backs coach, recently sat down with CUTigers.com to share his story.

Born Nov. 26, 1979 in Watsonville, Calif., Elliott's upbringing was anything but normal.

His parents divorced when he was 5. At 6, he moved to Anaheim with his mother and younger sister, Brandi.

Three years later, on their way to church, Elliott's mother died tragically in a car accident.

Tony and Brandi moved to El Cajon (Calif.) with their father. Three years later, he was arrested, and the kids relocated to Atlanta, Ga. After a year, Tony moved back to California, following his father's release.

However, again, he was incarcerated.

Tony moved to Charleston with an aunt and vowed he would not return to California while Brandi stayed in Atlanta. They didn't live together again until he was a senior at James Island High School.

Elliott was hired to coach Clemson's running backs this past January. (Roy Philpott)
After graduating from high school in 1997, he accepted a football scholarship to play at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Elliott was required to spend a year at the academy's prep school before enrolling but after completing his prep requirement, he chose not to return to the academy.

Back home in Charleston, Elliott bagged groceries for a month before taking a better paying construction job, knowing all along that higher education was his next step.

But his mother was always in the back of his mind.

Growing up fast
"I remember a lot of it, just because I was in the car," Elliott said of his mother's death. "It forced me to grow up. I was in a situation where I had to start raising my sister, taking care of her and watching out for her."

Facing difficult circumstances, he immediately became the father-figure in Brandi's life.

"It was something I accepted, because I didn't know much better. I was 9-years-old. It got tougher, the older I got," Tony said. "Immediately, I didn't really understand. I know what happened, but I didn't really understand."

Coping with the loss of his motherm at such a young age, left him questioning many things ... including his own existence.

Why her and not him?

"There was a period of time when I was upset with God…I'd always asked, ‘Why couldn't you take me and leave my mom?' I went through that period for a while," he said.

"When I came back east, my aunt that was raising me, she's very strong in her faith. She would make me go to church. I was probably like any other kid in there. I was there, but I wasn't paying attention."

It was also back east where he began to make a name for himself on the gridiron.

A new beginning
Elliott lettered in football, basketball and baseball during his time at James Island, but football was the ticket. During his senior year, schools like Furman, Wofford and The Citadel were recruiting him heavily before he eventually settled with the Paladins as his first choice.

But just when he thought he was set to move to the upstate, life through him a curveball once again.

"I remember calling up to Furman, close to signing day, and telling them I was ready to come up there, sight unseen. I had never seen it," he said. "That's when they informed that they had another guy that they had offered, and he committed. That was the direction that they were going."

The move caught Elliott off-guard and forced him to re-evaluate his options.

He turned down The Citadel because he didn't want to attend a military school. From there, Elliott had only one other legitimate option if he was going to continue his athletic career - Air Force.

While the move made sense at the time, as soon as he arrived on campus he realized it likely wasn't going to work.

"I was there for the wrong reason," Elliott said. "There were kids there that had a life dream of going to the academy. I was there to play football, which is the wrong reason to be in that type of environment."

So he left. And from July 1998 until January 1999, Tony Elliott worked. Football was no longer a part of the equation... or so he thought.

Hello Clemson
Elliott enrolled at Clemson during the spring semester in 1999, looking to get an engineering degree and not giving the first thought about playing football. Shortly after his arrival, he met the Tamkia Whitner, the girl who would become his wife.

Elliott scored one of his two career touchdowns with this reception in 2003 against Georgia Tech. (Roy Philpott)
His path also crossed with Marcez Mitchell, a former low-country football standout himself.

"He was from Summerville. The best game of my football career came against Summerville my senior year. He happened to be on the defensive side of the ball, playing against me," Elliott said. "He recognized me when I got here. He was a walk-on and was just finishing up the process of becoming a part of the team. He encouraged me to do it.

"I wasn't real fired up about playing football anymore. At that point in time, I felt like the game didn't do me right. All along, it was the best thing that happened to me, having the game taken away and given back to me. It made me appreciate it more."

That appreciation led to success- almost immediately.

"I thought, best case scenario, I was going to be a guy that was going to be on the team, be a scout team guy for three years, then, as a senior, get a chance to run down on a couple kickoffs," he said.

Turns out Elliott would go on to play in 44 games, including four as a starter, catching 34 passes for 455 yards and two touchdowns.

He also was a co-captain of Clemson's 2003 team that finished the year with a 9-4 record and a No. 22 national ranking. And he was named a first-team Academic All-ACC selection that year, too.

Add that to the fact he was put on scholarship for two of his final three years on the football team, a rarity for walk-ons, and his decision to enroll at Clemson proved to be a smart one.

Still, football was much more than a game to Tony Elliott. During his time at Clemson, he also grew spiritually, and it was that maturation process helped him connect the dots, so to speak, with his life's calling.

"Not until I got to college and I was around coach [Tommy] Bowden and Darren Bruce, at the time, was the team chaplain. It started to appeal to me," he said. "I'd been through some instances where I'd come to the end of myself and I couldn't explain how I got to where I was at -- why I was at Clemson playing football.

"Considering where I came from, it all started to make sense."

The working world
After playing out his eligibility in 2003, Elliott, with engineering degree in hand, went to work as an industrial engineer at Michelin North America for two years. The job was stable, offered a comfortable living and allowed him to work with good people.

"[Michelin] had me ready to do some great things with the company," he said. "From a spiritual standpoint, I wasn't in the right arena for the testimony that I have been given. Coaching was the arena for me to be in."

From time to time, Elliott would bring co-workers by to watch practice and he was at most games throughout the season.

Once the itch to get into coaching got stronger, his visits to practice became more frequent.

"I just tried to let coach Bowden and the coaches who knew me know that I was genuinely interested in getting into the profession," Elliott said.

He eventually served as a volunteer assistant coach at Easley High School for one season under Jabo Burgess before he was hired to coach wide receivers at S.C. State in 2006.

After a two-year stint in Orangeburg, Elliott accepted the same position at Furman, where he worked from 2008-10.

During his time with the Paladins, he coached players like Adam Mims, an All-Southern Conference performer, and David Hendrix, who set a number of receiving records.

Not long after he was named the recruiting coordinator at Furman by newly hired head coach Bruce Fowler, Swinney, his old position coach at Clemson, came calling.

Back home at last
Elliott remembers every detail of when he first heard from his old position coach about an opening in Tigertown.

"I'm living the dream -- 31 years old, coaching running backs here for my position coach, who's the head coach [now]." (Roy Philpott)
"I was sitting on the plane and I was just getting ready to cut my phone off and I saw a call from a blocked number. It's the middle of recruiting season. It could be a prospect. It could be anybody trying to call me, so I picked it up," he said. "It was coach Swinney...he said, 'When can you come see me?'"

The offer to coach at Clemson soon followed, and it came as quite a surprise. Elliott, of course, accepted it on the spot.

"That was a dream come true," he said. "Once I decided that coaching was what I wanted to do, I think every college coach wants to go back and coach at his alma mater, if he has the opportunity.

"I'm living the dream -- 31 years old, coaching running backs here for my position coach, who's the head coach [now]."

Swinney was more than happy to make that dream a reality. Having coached Elliott in his first year on the job, he knew about his background, work ethic and desire to be the best.

"All he's done is just be successful in everything he's done," Swinney said, "Overcome so many things. That's why he's a great teacher. He's really going to be awesome for the players. He's got a lot of life experiences to draw from.

"That's what coaching is about, taking your knowledge, your life experiences and try to pass that onto your players."

And Elliott certainly has plenty to share.

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