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On the rebound: Faith, family and fortitude help a yound basketball player overcome a near-fatal brain tumor
Herald & Review/Kate Dougherty After having a tumor the size of an orange removed from his brain at age 13, Eric Elliott fought the disabling side effects through continued therapy and went on to become the leading scorer as a freshman on the Carl Sandburg College basketball team.

DECATUR - Eric Elliott knows what failure feels like.

As a skinny, cross-eyed teenager, he repeatedly heard the silence of an air ball, followed by a thud of the basketball landing in the snow.

Yet the 4-inch scar stretching from the back of his head to the middle of his neck does not taint his positive attitude.

Now a 19-year-old college athlete, he's a brain tumor survivor, a thankful son and the founder of "Hug a Geek Day."

"I believe that I was kept alive for a reason," he said. "I feel like I've gone through a lot of hard work, and I want to give hope to other people."

If his basketball teammates at Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg ask what's wrong with his head, he'll tell them. He'll even let them touch it, then immediately fall to the ground and yelp, "It hurts!" just to scare them.

"I can laugh about it," he said.

Faith

Five years ago was a different story.

Before a Bloomington doctor identified a tennis-ball-sized tumor nestled above Eric's brainstem, numerous brain scans missed the cause of Eric's awkward stumbles and misjudged depth perception.

He would secretly throw up during basketball games, adding another overlooked piece to the puzzle. Three jumps in his eye prescription provided another.

His mother, Ruth, took mental notes that would come into play one critical Sunday night in 1999.

A 14-inch snowstorm ignited a series of events that seemed more like a Hollywood drama than a life-altering reality.

After helping his father, Jeff, shovel the driveway, Eric complained he saw two of everything. His parents saw his eyes cross, but rural snow drifts made an immediate drive to the hospital nearly impossible.

While Eric's mother and sister stayed at home praying, he and his father escaped a snow trap and made it to an emergency room.

"Eric was the most critical patient - we just didn't know it," Jeff said.

While they waited, a brain surgeon happened to walk past an MRI mounted on a screen. He stopped at the sight of a large brain tumor, which could have been mistaken for a normal part of the brain because of its comparative size.

Dr. Keith Kattner said Eric's tumor was one of his top seven cases.

"He had a rather complicated case," said Kattner, the director of Cerebrovascular and Skull Base Surgery with the Central Illinois Neuro ;science Foundation in Bloom ;ington. "He would probably not have survived within three months."

Kattner first told Jeff how the tumor applied pressure to his son's brain stem, which controls heart rate and one's ability to breath. The brain stem also controls balance and mobility of the eyes.

Upon hearing the news, Jeff broke down crying without realizing his 13-year-old son saw his reflection in some mirrors.

But Eric's composure characteristically surpassed expectations of a teenager.

Jeff recalled his son's attitude: "I'm in a win-win situation. If I die, I'm going to heaven."

Eric had a successful surgery the next day. About 270 visitors from his church visited him in the hospital that week.

His baseball coach gave him a tape of his voice, citing Eric's baseball statistics.

"Just hearing him and all my stats gave me hope of what I was going to be doing again," Eric said.

On the seventh day, Eric still had double vision. But he wanted to go to church.

"Fresh staples and all," his mother said.

"I like church," Eric said. "If I miss a week of church, I just feel like something's missing."

Family

Eric's life without sports would also feel incomplete.

Knowing his son's dream was to play college basketball, Jeff and his fellow firefighters built a homemade basketball court on the family's Shirley farm outside of Bloomington.

Eric would shoot for hours, wearing his corrective glasses with a patch covering one eye. Each shot would sail 4-feet wide of the backboard. Yet he never seemed discouraged, his dad said.

One month after his surgery, his family experienced another shock.

His older sister, Jennifer, was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. She, too, had double vision. Upon returning home from the hospital, Jennifer could not comprehend the meaning of simple words, such as "woman."

Eric started reading aloud to her to help her understand.

She, in turn, helped him with his therapy to strengthen his vision and balance. He eventually graduated from walking on lines of toilet paper to balancing on wooden boards.

"Both having near death experiences and helping each other recover, we both realized how much we relied on each other," said Jennifer, now 21. "We became very close. He's my best friend."

"They fit together like a puzzle," Jeff said. "Both were in bad situations, and that was the good that came out."

Fortitude

Jeff remembered only once when Eric wanted to quit despite continuous failure.

So he popped the movie "Rudy" into the VCR.

The story of "Rudy" documented Rudy Reuttiger's work ethic to overcome dyslexia and all odds to play football at the University of Notre Dame.

"Rudy was an underdog," Eric said. "No one thought he could do what his dreams were. My dream was to play basketball. Doctors were telling me, 'No. You're never going to do this.' "

"I thought he would get to a functional, relatively normal life," Kattner said, "but I didn't think he would excel to get to be a basketball player of his magnitude."

Eric said he has since watched "Rudy" "umpteen" times, but that one time was a turning point.

"It was like a message from God: 'You can do this. Be like Rudy.' "

He never stopped working. The summer after surgery, Eric woke up with single vision, meaning his brain was able to focus both eyes on one object.

He started playing basketball for Olympia High School's B-team.

"B-Team All Stars," Eric pointed out, flashing his wide grin after one of his typical sarcastic comments.

He was later told a trace of the tumor still existed in his brain, and his condition one year after surgery would remain permanent.

Eric surpassed expectations again. He gained 25 pounds and 6 inches on his vertical jump.

His girlfriend, Alex Colclasure, said Eric doesn't want anyone to think he can't achieve something because of his brain tumor. A few missed free throws were unacceptable.

"He immediately got a basketball and went to the line and shot free throws until we got kicked out of the gym," Colclasure said.

Others wanted to be like him.

He would tell them, "It's not impossible - if you saw me my freshman year with my eyes crossed in basketball -"

Remembering his skinny, pre-surgery days has given him an ability to relate to people of all types. He initiated "Hug a Geek Day" at school, when he tried to compliment or hug someone regardless of their social circle.

"He will try to make conversation with anyone," Colclasure said. "He is so good about making people feel good about themselves and smile."

His pre-surgery days also remind him of his progress on the basketball court.

His parents are still in awe. They watched their son sink his first two shots of his Division II college basketball career. Both shots were three-pointers from beyond the arch.

"It made me realize - at a miraculous standpoint - where someone has come through brain surgery to play college sports," Jeff said. "They don't take statistics on that."

The hours of shooting air balls on a homemade basketball court not only paid off but also signified the power of faith, family and fortitude.

"I was just basically a puppet," Eric said. "I think God controlled everything. The determination and hard work, I think God gave me strength for that.

"And getting through the brain tumor deal, that wasn't me, either."

Bethany Carson can be reached at bcarson@;herald-review.com or 421-6968.

Book signing

Eric Elliott's story was published in his father's book, "Rebounding From Death's Door," described at www.reboundingfromdeathsdoor.com. Author Jeff Elliott will hold a book signing in October at Waldenbooks in Hickory Point Mall, Forsyth.

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