NORMAN — Bob Stoops received the photo in the mail, Stevy Cellum wearing James Winchester's Fiesta Bowl jersey and flashing the upside-down hook 'em sign, and just had to call.
Stoops was about to board the team bus to Dallas for the Texas game, a trip of some significance in Soonerville, but he dialed Tishomingo anyway, thanking Stevy for the support.
Eight days later, Stoops dialed the number again, returning a call. This time, there was no revelry. No Bevo bashing. Stevy's family had called to let him know she had passed. Dead of cancer at the age of 16.
It's not easy watching Stevy's videos, which tell the story of a full-of-life teenager's fight against a disease determined to get her. And that's for those of us who never knew her.
But how much harder to have actually known Stevy? To have sat by her bed and talked of football and what she would do when she was back in Johnston County, healthy and well? To have rolled Stevy out of her room at Children's Hospital for her breakout party, when she got to go home after a bone marrow transplant?
And to have befriended dozens and dozens and hundreds of kids, knowing that some would live and some would die?
Stoops goes to Children's most weeks, usually Thursday mornings. Chats up the kids on the 10th floor, most of whom have cancer. Gets to know some of them well, like Stevy Cellum. Like the 12-year-old girl he met eight years ago and now is cancer free. They're having lunch in a few days.
How hard is it to walk onto that elevator, up to the 10th floor, knowing you're about to meet some kids who will steal your heart, and then maybe break it?
“It's not easy,” Stoops said Tuesday, standing under the stadium where Saturday 80,000 fans will cheer him. “But you can't let it overwhelm you, because then I can't go back.
“And I need to go back.”
Stoops connects most with teenagers. Easier to talk with. Starting to dream dreams. Knowing what they're missing, lying in a hospital bed, perhaps hundreds of miles from home, isolated from friends, knowing that what they're losing they can't get back. Ballgames. Concerts. Proms.
“As opposed to a younger child, it's more of a relationship,” Stoops said. “You understand how they feel.”
Stoops does very little without a purpose. Answers questions. Hires assistant coaches. Keeps Landry Jones on the field for fourth downs. Those are decisions with a mission.
Same with going to Children's Hospital. Stoops goes not just because he thinks he should.
“I feel it's necessary,” Stoops said. “It lets 'em know they're important. If I'm able to give a little peace and give a little joy ... I've been lucky to have a lot of great relationships with my time up there.”
Like Stevy Cellum. Diagnosed on Feb. 20, 2009, she spent much of the rest of her 2½ years in a hospital.
She was in The Children's Center in Bethany for 156 days straight. Underwent 17 rounds of chemo, plus 15 hospital admissions with fever. That's thirtysomething hospital stays, three to 10 days at a time. In 2011 alone, Stevy was hospitalized eight times before she was sent home in June, told that there was nothing more medicine could do.
Thursdays at Children's Hospital, Stevy would be noticeably different. “The other six days, she might not have any energy,” said her mom, Gayla Cellum. “But Thursday mornings, she'd be ready.”
And it was darndest thing. If Stevy was asleep on Thursday when Stoops came in, “she could hear his voice, and automatically she'd be awake,” Gayla said.
Stoops and Stevy made a connection. He invited her to the 2009 and 2010 team banquets. She was able to attend and struck up friendships with Sooners Winchester, Landry Jones, Travis Lewis and Ben Sherrard.
“She was a special one,” Stoops said.
Stoops asked the Cellums to keep him updated on Stevy's condition. When the doctors delivered the news in June, Stevy took it bravely. During a visit with Stoops, she asked him to speak at her funeral, which will be Thursday in Tishomingo.
He said he would do what he could. Stoops won't make it, though. He's a football coach, remember, and this is game week.
Gayla Cellum understands.
“He's a very busy man,” she said. “That he would take time out to visit the hospital and know those kids. I have the utmost respect for him. There's no way to explain that feeling. Appreciation and respect are the things I would say about him.
“He'll never know. She loved him … she felt close to him.”
Stoops would like to accommodate Stevy's request. But he has a football team to coach and, being a Thursday, some people to see.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.