Football makes father-son bond stronger for Eastern Illinois coaches

Football makes father-son bond stronger for Eastern Illinois coaches

‘Football family’ appreciates game that helped them through father’s cancer treatments

Greg Stevens has coached college football for 25 seasons.

For many of those years, the Eastern Illinois assistant head coach/offensive coordinator has had company.

Starting in 1999, when he was coaching at NCAA Division II Arkansas-Monticello, his oldest son Tyler has been a regular companion.

“When he was 8, he would come to practice every day,” said Stevens, who just finished his third season with the Football Championship Subdivision’s Panthers. “He’d go on the trips with me and always ride on the bus with me. Back then, we had cords on our headsets, and he’d hold my cords.

“He got to where I couldn’t get him away,” Stevens joked. “He was like my shadow.”

This fall, 25-year-old Tyler was back at practice every day with his father, taking every trip and riding buses with EIU’s football team, strengthening their father-son bond.

This season, which ended Saturday with EIU (6-5) shutting out Eastern Kentucky, 24-0, on Saturday, Tyler was a coaching peer of his father as EIU’s first-year running backs coach.

“It’s in my blood,” Tyler said. “I grew up in a football family and we were always around it. I always played.”

Serious cancer concerns

During his time at Eastern, Greg Stevens has been used to having Tyler around, but for more serious reasons.

“Not long after I got here, I got cancer,” Greg said.

Tyler, who was living in the family’s home state of Utah, returned to Illinois along with his younger brother Ryan, 22.

The diagnosis, which came in June 2014, was stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s large B-cell lymphoma. It was most difficult, Tyler said, on his mother, Amy, and his younger sister, Hannah, 17.

“Knowing that his percentage of beating cancer wasn’t really high, you worry about whether he would pull through or not,” Tyler said. “He always believed he would, but when a doctor says his percentage (of survival) is only 5 percent, it lingers around.”

Greg Stevens said he underwent chemotherapy treatments and a bone marrow transplant. Yet four months after his treatments, he learned the stage 4 cancer had returned.

“So I had to go through it all again,” he said.

Football as therapy

Just like when Tyler was 8 and roaming the sidelines at Arkansas-Monticello, the father and son used football to fill their days.

“I tried to make it as normal as possible,” Tyler said. “I tried to act as if he didn’t have it, as much as I could.”

Tyler worked as a student assistant coach during the 2014 and 2015 seasons while completing his bachelor’s degree at EIU. His father never missed a practice or a game during his treatments.

“It was really good to have football and work,” Greg said. “It helps keep your mind off things. You have some normalcy in your life, and you’re not sitting around thinking, ‘Poor me.’”

During the 2015 season opener at Western Illinois, Greg coached on the sidelines while wearing a surgical mask.

“It was a tough two years,” Greg said. “I’m doing great now. It’s been about a year and three months. I’m cancer free, doing great. A year ago, on July 24, is when I had my last transplant. I’m really blessed.”

Coaching evolution

Tyler’s transition to a full-time coach has been a smooth one this season.

“He’s an extremely hard worker, and he knows football,” Greg said. “He knows our offense well, and he puts in a lot of extra time. He wants to learn more, and he’s always wanted to be successful.

“It’s been real good (to coach together),” Greg said. “It’s always good to have family around.”

Even though Greg joked he and his wife tried to discourage Tyler’s interest in a coaching career, the eldest son didn’t listen. Instead, Tyler worked toward his goal of coaching with his father.

“Even in high school, I knew I wanted to be a college football coach,” Tyler said. “It was always my dream to one day coach with him. I never thought it would happen as soon as it has.”

Along with displaying immense courage in the face of serious health concerns, he provided examples of the coach his son wants to be.

“There are still, to this day, guys he coached at (Arkansas-Monticello) who call to see how he’s doing,” Tyler said. “That’s something that I look up to him for.”

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