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.