The incredible underdog story of Clemson's Tony Elliott

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CLEMSON, S.C. -- SMU coach Chad Morris knows one thing for certain about Tony Elliott, who replaced him this season as Clemson's offensive playcaller.

"There's not much that's going to rattle Tony," Morris said. "He's very even-keeled and very level-headed. There's nothing that really shakes him or gets him out of his train of thought."

In his first season as the No. 12 Tigers' co-offensive coordinator, Elliott seems ready for just about anything that comes his way. No matter what happens in Saturday's game against No. 6 Notre Dame at Death Valley (8 p.m. ET, ABC) -- or in the rest of his coaching career -- it will undoubtedly seem trivial compared to what he has already overcome.

"It always challenged me to have a plan," Elliott said. "Going through all the adversity, overcoming so much and finding a relationship with the man above revealed my purpose. It gives me a peace and calmness that not only prepares me for the job, but helps me in life in general."

Only 35, Elliott has already endured a lifetime of heartache, tragedy and achievement. After Elliott's parents separated when he was 4, he briefly lived on the streets of Los Angeles with his mother and younger sister. He was in the car with his mother when she was killed in an accident when he was 9, and then Tony and his sister, Brandi, were separated after their father was jailed.

Somehow, Elliott was able to keep his life on track, even when everything seemed to be falling apart around him.

"He's a very disciplined man, and he was determined to make sure we were not a product of our circumstance," Brandi Elliott Allen, Tony's sister, said.

It would have been so much easier to surrender.

SANDRA AGUILAR OFTEN wondered what happened to the frightened 9-year-old boy who was screaming and running across the dew-covered lawn of Pearson Park in Anaheim, California, on the morning of June 11, 1989.

Aguilar, the wife of Set Free Church pastor Phillip Aguilar, was the first person to notice Tony running toward the park's amphitheater. She saw the terror in his face and heard his desperate cries for help.

"He was hysterical," Sandra Aguilar said. "I ran toward him to see what was wrong. He just kept saying, 'My mother! My mother!'"

Five years earlier, Aguilar and her husband were introduced to Patricia Ann Elliott and her two young children. They were homeless and living on the streets after Patricia Elliott fled her home in the middle of the night with nothing but her kids and a few clothes.

Patricia Elliott and her two children moved into the Aguilars' home and became active members of their church. Phil Aguilar, a tattoo-covered man who looks more like a biker than a pastor, founded Set Free Worldwide Ministries in 1982 to minister to ex-cons and recovering addicts. Tony and Brandi attended the church's Christian school, and Patricia cleaned, cooked and worked in the daycare facility. Tony became close friends with the Aguilars' sons.

"Tony was such a cute, beautiful kid," Sandra Aguilar said. "He was very much like his mom. He was very cautious around people. He was very timid but very sweet."

After divorcing her husband, Patricia Elliott fell in love with Wayne Lee Williams, a singer in the church choir, who had once tried to make it as an entertainer on the Las Vegas Strip. They were married and had a son of their own, Isaiah. Soon, Patricia was pregnant again, and they learned the baby was a girl. Finally, life seemed good for the growing family.

"Patricia was happy," Sandra Aguilar said. "She'd turned her life around."

But as Aguilar embraced Tony in Pearson Park, she feared the worst. She saw the blood on her white clothes and knew something was terribly wrong.

Before seeing Tony running across the park, Aguilar and other members of the church choir were conducting a sound check before their morning service. They didn't hear the awful sounds of a horrific car crash less than a block away.

"It was so traumatic for all of us," Aguilar said. "It was a day that I'll never forget."

TONY ELLIOTT WILL never forget riding to church in the back seat of his family's Volkswagen bus on that fateful morning more than 26 years ago.

He'll never forget hearing his mother screaming his stepfather's name before a violent collision with another car. He'll never forget their vehicle spinning and flipping several times before finally coming to rest on its roof. He'll never forget frantically rescuing his younger sister and stepbrother as they hung upside down in their car seats, then finding his injured stepfather lying next to the van.

More than anything, though, Tony will never forget seeing his pregnant mother lying motionless on the street. She was thrown through the van's windshield upon impact.

"When I found her, she was lifeless on the ground in a pool of her own blood," Tony said. "That's the last time I saw her. It was a sight you wouldn't want to see as a 9-year-old."

Wayne Williams, who had a badly injured leg, told his stepson to run to their church for help. Tony ran to the other side of Pearson Park, where Sandra Aguilar was the first person to notice him.

Patricia Ann Williams, 35, died at UC Irvine Medical Center at 11:15 that morning. Doctors tried unsuccessfully to save her unborn, 22-week-old baby, a girl they were going to name Whitney. Tony's 4-year-old sister, Brandi, and 1-year-old stepbrother, Isaiah, were uninjured. The 63-year-old woman driving the other car was treated for minor injuries and released.

Tony, who wasn't wearing a seatbelt, suffered only bumps and bruises. More than a quarter-century after the accident, he still can't believe he wasn't badly injured or killed.

"I was lucky to be alive to begin with," he said. It wasn't Tony's first close brush with death.

When he was 4, he was nearly killed when a truck hit him as he stepped into the street outside a salon where his mother worked in Watsonsville, California. The accident left him with a broken arm, four broken ribs, severe road burn and a lacerated spleen. After undergoing life-saving surgery, Tony had to learn to walk again.

The car accident that took his mother's life happened just five years later.

"It was a day that changed my life forever," Tony said. "It caused me to grow up. It was a gift and a curse. I honestly believe if that situation hadn't taken place, I wouldn't be the person I am. I hate that I had to experience a lot of things without my mom, but ultimately, I believe she sacrificed. Her time was done, and the Lord took her away so I could have life."

LIFE HIT Tony squarely in the face with a two-by-four. After their mother's tragic death, Tony and Brandi were reunited with their biological father, Jerome Elliott, who lived near San Diego. Sandra Aguilar said she and her husband wanted to keep Tony and his sister, but their father wanted them with him. Aguilar never saw Tony or Brandi again.

"I've always wondered what happened to them," Aguilar said.

About three months after being reunited with his children, Jerome Elliott was sentenced to prison. Tony and his sister moved to Atlanta, where they lived with their father's brother. When their father was released from jail, Tony and his sister returned to California to live with him. But their father was locked up again a few months later.

"That's when I decided I didn't want to be a part of it anymore," Tony said.

After his father went back to prison, Tony moved to James Island, South Carolina, near Charleston, to live with his aunt and uncle, Blondell and John Kidd. They didn't have the financial means to care for both children, so Brandi moved to Atlanta to live with another aunt.

"I think the separation from him was harder than losing my mother," said Brandi, who now lives in Atlanta with her husband, David Allen, and their two children. "I was young and didn't remember much about my mom. Knowing my brother, being with him and growing attached to him, it was very difficult when we were separated. He was essentially all I knew."

Even though they were separated by more than 300 miles, Brandi was never far from Tony's mind.

"There were a lot of nights when I cried myself to sleep wanting answers," Tony said. "I wasn't mad at anyone. I just wanted answers. The entire time, I had a little girl who looked up to me and saw me as her dad, mother and big brother."

Elliott eventually turned to sports as an outlet, and he became a basketball and football star at James Island High School. He was recruited by several FCS programs, including Furman, Wofford and The Citadel, and he eventually chose an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School in 1998. However, after a year in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he decided a military career wasn't the right fit for him.

"I thought I was there for the wrong reason," Elliott said. "I was there to play football and thought I was taking someone else's spot."

Elliott moved back to James Island, where he worked as a cashier at Publix and a construction laborer to save enough money to pay his college tuition. He enrolled at Clemson in 1999 and walked on to the football team as a freshman. The wide receiver lettered in four straight seasons and earned a scholarship as a junior. As a senior in 2003, Elliott was named a co-captain and had 23 catches for 286 yards with one touchdown.

His position coach was current Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney.

"He was such a great leader, and I had such great respect for him," Swinney said. "He was a student of the game, and I could never give him enough. He was a meticulous note-taker and would always ask great questions. He was always about maximizing his ability and loved his teammates. One of the things I always loved about him was that he was always trying to serve his teammates."

Elliott continued to serve his younger sister, too. He used part of his money from his athletic scholarship and Pell Grant to make sure Brandi had what she needed. He purchased her new shoes and clothes, sent her to cheerleading camp and paid for her braces.

"Everything that I ever needed, I could call him, and he would be there for me," Brandi said. "If he didn't have it, he'd find a way to get it for me."

After graduating from Clemson with a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering, Elliott took a job with Michelin North America in 2004. Although Elliott was making good money and seemed to have a bright future with the company, he wasn't completely satisfied. He missed football and believed his own experiences in life would make him a good mentor for kids. While working as a volunteer football coach at a high school in Easley, South Carolina, Elliott realized what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

"I was making great money, had a great job and a great boss," Elliott said. "I just felt a little empty inside. I needed something to validate my purpose."

AFTER CONSULTING WITH Swinney, who had become his mentor and close friend, Elliott quit his job at Michelin. He married his wife, Tamika, a week later and then started his first coaching job at FCS member South Carolina State in 2006. Two years later, he was named Furman's receivers coach.

Swinney, who replaced Tommy Bowden as Clemson's coach midway through the 2008 season, realized Elliott was a rising star in the coaching ranks.

"I told him to just bloom where you're planted and be great at whatever you're doing," Swinney said. "That's the epitome of Tony Elliott. I was so proud of him. I knew I would hire him when the right time came. I told him he needed to be ready when the time came."

In January 2010, when Elliott and Swinney were both in Los Angeles attending a coaching convention, they drove to see the house where Elliott lived in Anaheim. Then they drove to the intersection of West Sycamore Street and Harbor Boulevard, where Elliott's mother had died in the car wreck nearly two decades earlier. Elliott wanted his close friend and mentor to see the place where his life changed forever.

"You're a 9-year-old, and you see your mother take her last breath," Swinney said. "It's a hard scene to imagine."

About a year later, Swinney invited Elliott and Tamika to dinner at his house on Sycamore Drive in Clemson and offered him a job. Swinney hired Elliott as his team's running backs coach.

"I told him I wanted him to accept it right here," Swinney said. "It was [the same street name] where he'd had such a traumatic experience as a kid, and I wanted him to have a great experience now. I think God winks at you and gives you confirmation from time to time. I think God winked to me. I was kind of contemplating things, and that was the confirmation I needed."

Elliott coached Clemson's running backs for four years, then Swinney handed him the keys to the Tigers' high-octane offense late last season. After Morris left to become SMU's head coach in December, Swinney promoted Elliott and receivers coach Jeff Scott to be co-coordinators. They were stretching partners as Clemson players.

"I think he has a great demeanor, and he and I get along very well," Scott said. "Our personalities are a great fit. We've been in the same offense together, and we've been in the same meetings. It's been a seamless transition."

Their debut as Clemson's co-offensive coordinators couldn't have gone much better, either. With Elliott calling plays for the first time, the Tigers piled up 387 yards of offense in a 40-6 rout of Oklahoma last year in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

This season, the 3-0 Tigers are averaging 36.7 points and 442 yards of offense with Elliott calling the plays.

"He's a lot calmer than Chad," Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson said. "Chad could turn it up when he needed to."

Swinney believes it's only the beginning for Elliott, whom he calls a "future head coach."

Elliott's little sister couldn't be prouder of him -- and vice versa. Brandi completed a bachelor's degree at the University of South Carolina, attended nursing school and earned a master's degree in healthcare administration. Tony and Tamika helped pay for Brandi's health insurance and tuition, and they purchased her first car while she was in school. Brandi now works as an administrator for a chain of urgent care and occupational medical facilities.

Brandi and Tony have also reconnected with their father, Jerome Elliott, who lives in Simpsonville, South Carolina. Tony said he has forgiven his father for his past mistakes and wants him involved in his own sons' lives. Tamika and Tony have a 2-year-old son, A.J., and Tamika is expecting their second boy on Oct. 14, four days after the Tigers host Georgia Tech at Death Valley.

"It's all come full circle," Elliott said.

It wasn't an easy road for them, but Brandi and Tony managed to navigate life together.

"I know that my brother made a promise to my mother that he would always take care of me," Brandi said. "My brother is a man of his word. He was very determined that my mother wouldn't die in vain and would be proud of her children."