By Adam Knorr
MUSKEGON HEIGHTS – For Tommie Elliott, life is about family and football.
Elliott, who began his second stint this season as the head varsity football coach at Muskegon Heights Academy, has seen his share of adversity in his 27 years in the profession.
But the current season – at least the first half – has been as difficult as any he’s endured.
Muskegon Heights Academy has been the subject of controversy in recent weeks, due to an ugly pattern of gun violence in the surrounding community that has some opposing schools and their fans frightened to play there.
The Tigers had one home game cancelled and were forced to relocate another one to Saginaw.
Elliott, 47, has also been dealing with a host of issues in his personal life. He walks with the help of a cane, largely due to four herniated disks in his back, spinal stenosis and degenerative bone disease.
He also has a 10-year-old daughter, Torrie Elliott, who has been battling brain cancer since the age of three.
“It’s been a challenge,” Elliott said, regarding the rough start to the football season. “In addition, I’m a husband and a father. I have a special needs daughter, and we thank God that he continues to give her the strength to deal with each obstacle as they come up.
“Because of the brain cancer, during surgery, she had a stroke on the right side of her body. So she has limitations with things, with strength and everything, on her right side. She has every type of seizure you can name, so she has a lot of side effects that happened because of the brain tumor.
“But she still has a big beautiful smile on her face every day, and if she can go through what she’s going through, I don’t complain about my pain, because my daughter deals with so much more than I have to.”
Great support system
Elliott’s wife, Roslyn Elliott, and their daughter aren’t the biggest football fans in Muskegon County. Far from it, in fact.
But that’s not what matters to Elliott. His wife and daughter are his support system. They take care of the home front during his busiest weeks and months, and provide crucial emotional support when times are tough.
In short, Roslyn and Torrie allow Elliott to do the things that are necessary to be Coach El, as his players call him.
Roslyn Elliott is a full-time caretaker for Torrie, constantly shuttling her to Grand Rapids for appointments with specialists. She does all she can to help her husband stick with the game he loves.
“I always think about the fact that my wife is a strong person,” Elliott said. “She spends a lot of time going back and forth on the highway taking my daughter to appointments and to her therapy.
“Just the inner strength that Roslyn and Torrie both show encourages me, even when things aren’t going great, to continue to press on and keep working to handle the things that I can control.”
Things haven’t been going great for Elliott and his Tigers in 2015.
Muskegon Heights (1-2) pulled out a 32-29 come-from-behind victory against Newaygo in Week 1, but since then it’s been a slippery slope on the Tiger football scene.
A home game against Muskegon Catholic in Week 2 was abruptly cancelled when local police told MCC officials that there was danger of violence at the game. That warning came hours after a man was found shot to death on a street a short distance from the high school.
The Michigan High School Athletic Association subsequently ruled it a non-game, and wiped it from each team’s schedule. Muskegon Heights and Muskegon Catholic can now both make the state playoffs with five wins, rather than the customary six.
The Tigers’ most recent game, a 43-6 loss to Saginaw Nouvel Catholic last Friday, was moved from Muskegon Heights to Saginaw, due to safety concerns expressed by Nouvel school officials.
While Elliott would like his team’s home games to remain home games, he’s simply happy to be playing football.
“We’ve had a lot of distractions and it’s hard to keep the kids focused because we’ve had numerous TV stations at our facility looking for a sound bite or a comment on what has been going on,” he said.
“The interviews and TV cameras and all of that stuff isn’t what I got into this for. This is year 27 coaching football for me. I’ve never experienced anything like this before, but we’re going to try to make the best of this bad situation.”
Muskegon Heights athletes have been deeply impacted by the violence that has plagued their community. Two varsity football players were killed in drive-by shootings in the past few years.
Elliott said he tries to encourage his players to remain upbeat and do the best they can, despite the frightening distractions around them.
“My message to them is that in life there’s going to be a lot of things that you have no control over,” the coach said. “All you can do is put your best foot forward and try to be the best that you can be on the things that you can control.
“Life is going to throw you a lot of curves, and to me the true character of a man is how well you deal with adversity.”
Coming back home
Elliott’s 27-year journey started back in 1988 at Muskegon High School where he held an assistant coaching position. He came to Muskegon Heights when the head coaching job opened up in 2005.
His first season was his best, when the Tigers went 7-3, made the playoffs and secured their first winning season since 1992. Things got progressively worse for Elliott’s teams, however, and he was let go following a 2-7 season in 2008.
“It was told to me that I did a good job of getting the program going but they wanted to go in another direction,” Elliott said. “They released me and brought in Willie Snead, and Willie did a great job.
“I had a lot of young guys the year we went 2-7 and (Willie) really got that offense moving and Heights was really an exciting football team to watch those two years.”
While Elliott was watching his former players excel under a new coach, he was on the move. He was an assistant coach at Mona Shores from 2009-2010 and at Grand Rapids Union from 2011-2014.
The Heights job opened back up prior to the 2015 season, and Elliott returned to the post.
He still lived there. His family still lived there. It was home.
“I’m just grateful for the opportunity to come back and get a chance to finish what we started,” Elliott said. “When I heard the opportunity to come back to Heights was available I put my name in hoping that my experience would give me the opportunity to get back at the helm and put Heights back where I think they belong.”
The 2015 season hasn’t been exactly what Elliott expected. His team is young and relatively inexperienced, but Elliott’s expectations remain high. One week soon, the Tigers will return home and play a game on their home turf. And at some point they will return to the playoffs.
While he works toward that goal, Elliott will continue to lean on his biggest fans when he goes home every night.
He’ll shut the door, and Roslyn will be there to meet him. Torrie will be waiting with a smile. The football field will fade into the back of his mind for a little while.
By the next day he’ll be recharged and ready to face whatever new challenges might await Coach El.