Eye disease can’t stop Plymouth, Murray State grad Elliott

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Brandon Elliott may not view the world the way he once did.

But the former standout ballplayer is not letting a rare eye disease keep him from living life to its fullest.

A three-sport athlete in the Plymouth (Ind.) High School Class of 2009 (he captained the football and baseball teams as a senior and also played basketball) who went on to play NCAA Division I baseball at Murray (Ky.) State University.

Brandon, the son of Todd Elliott and Julie and Dave Shook, was born in Munster, Ind., and played youth baseball in nearby Schererville before moving to Plymouth in 2003. His brother is Tyler Shook. His sisters are Shannon Elliott, Andria Shook and Allie Shook.

He was a college graduate and working at his dream job when Brandon began to notice something wasn’t right with the vision in his left eye.

Trying to get some answers, he went to optometrists and opthomalogists in Kentucky.

It was the opinion of Dr. Landen Meeks in Paducah that Brandon likely had Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON) — a sudden, painless loss of central vision. The condition typically starts in one eye and progresses to the other eye within eight months.

Meeks had never diagnosed LHON before. Brandon underwent a spinal tap done to rule out other things.

“He was a straight shooter and Brandon liked that,” says Julie Shook. “He told him there is no cure (for LHON).”

Meanwhile, central vision in the right eye was also going cloudy. Though blurry, Brandon could see shadows and movement in his peripheral vision. He described looking straight ahead like looking into the hole of a donut.

Julie Shook found Dr. Sophia Chung, a neuro-opthalmologist with SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, and took her son to St. Louis. Only genetic blood tests would determine the cause of Brandon’s vision loss so he went through eight hours of testing.

Several weeks went by. On May 10, 2016, the call came. A 25-year-old Brandon Elliott was diagnosed with LHON.

The condition is an inherited form of vision loss. This inheritance applies to genes contained in mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria produce most of the energy that cells need to function and these inherited mutations disrupt the mitochondria and cause cells in the retina to stop working or die.

LHON is a maternal hereditary disease, which means it is passed from the mother. Shannon Elliott was tested and she is a carrier. It is more prominent coming out in males in their mid- to late-20’s. It is not as common to come out in females.

“It is rare,” says Julie Shook. “Everyday they’re learning more. It’s hard as a mother when you find out something they have is something you gave them. But I had no idea.”

After learning of his condition, Brandon let it be known that his life was in Murray, Ky., and he had no intention of returning to Plymouth.

“That was hard,” says Julie Shook, who is dean’s administrative assistant at the University of Notre Dame Law School. “I also know you need to let people make their own decisions on their own time.

“I needed to be strong for him and listen to what he wanted.”

After the tests in St. Louis, the ride back to Kentucky was quiet at first. Then Brandon asked his mother a question.

“He said , ‘How do you go from seeing a 90 mph fastball to not being able to see it?,’” says Julie Shook. “‘It is what it is. God gave it to me for a reason. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I’m strong and maybe I can help someone somehow.

“‘I just have to go on with life. This is what I’ve been given. I have to go on and enjoy life.’”

That life includes marriage and children, a fulfilling occupation and plenty of support from family and friends.

About six months after graduating with a business administration degree from Murray State in 2013, Elliott went to work for Sportable Scoreboards in Murray.

The family-owned company started in 1986 by Mike Cowen serves clients all over the place and has one of their boards at Johnny Reagan Field — home of Murray State baseball and the place where Elliott earned Freshman All-America honors in 2010 and finished his four-year career with a .323 average, six home runs, 35 doubles, 85 runs batted in and 135 runs scored in 180 games (171 as a starter).

Brandon was employed in the customer service department and one day a new employee came along — digital designer Meagan Cowen. He soon learned that she was Mike and Joyce Cowen’s granddaughter.

While Brandon and Meagan knew each other before the diagnosis, they began dating after it. They did not tell their grandparents until they had become serious. The young couple was married April 14, 2018 in Paris, Tenn.

“It was an emotional day,” says Julie Shook. “He told me in the morning of that day, ‘Mom, you don’t need to worry about me anymore. This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.’

“What a statement for a 27-year-old to make who lost their vision at 25.”

When she walked down the aisle to become Meagan Elliott, Brandon took out a pair of binoculars to see her when she first appeared.

“That brought everybody to tears,” says Brandon Eggenschwiler, whose Murray State career parallels Elliott’s. “It’s truly amazing. He hasn’t missed a step in his daily life. He still goes on golf outings.

“He’s been a real champ about this whole situation.”

Shannon Elliott expresses her gratitude for Meagan coming into her brother’s life.

“Brandon thought he would never get another girlfriend again,” says Shannon, a 2011 Plymouth High School graduate who played tennis at Saint Mary’s College, graduating in 2015, and earned a mortuary science degree from Vincennes University in 2017. “Mom and I prayed he’d find someone who would accept him for who he is.

“It’s a touching thing.”

While the 25-year-old works for a funeral home in Austin, Texas, sister and brother remain very close.

“He’s my best friend,” says Shannon of Brandon. “I talk to him and his family in Kentucky probably three times a week.

“Meagan been there for him. It’s been unbelievable. I can’t imagine being in her shoes. She has to drive everywhere. I couldn’t be more thankful for what she does for him.”

Brandon and Meagan expect to welcome a baby girl on Thanksgiving Day.

Shannon has been raising money and awareness of her brother and LHON through a website — howhesees.org. She sells bracelets with the inscription “VI510N” — which tells the date his brother was diagnosed.

Brandon and Meagan wrote their own wedding vows. Brandon also wrote vows to Meagan’s young son, Bentley (who would turned 5 in September).

The wedding party was quite large and included Tyler Shook, Brandon Eggenschwiler, Ty Stetson and Reed Thompson.

Three of them had been the top three batters in the Murray State Racers’ lineup at the end of 2013 — left fielder Stetson (Carmel, Ind.) leading off, followed by third baseman Elliott and designated hitter Eggenschwiler (Lexington, Ky). First baseman Michael Kozolowski (Crown Point, (Ind.) was the clean-up hitter. Those four were also roommates in 2012-13.

“Brandon has so many wonderful friends,” says Shook. “That’s just a tribute to Brandon. He’s just such a sweet kid. He has a big heart. People are just drawn to him.

“He’s an inspiration.”

Tyler Shook, a 2010 Plymouth graduate, played baseball and football with stepbrother Brandon in high school and was also an American Legion teammate.

“He was one of the best athletes I’ve ever played with or against,” says Tyler. “He was just good at everything and a quick learner.”

There was competition for competitive bragging rights around the Shook/Elliott household. But never any animosity.

“We all got along really well,” says Tyler. “we still do. Brandon was pretty humble for the skill he had. He wasn’t going out and telling everybody about it. It was always about the team.”

One the football field, defensive end/linebacker Brandon and safety Tyler were called the “Bash Brothers” for their ability to hit on defense even though they wore casts on their hands much of the 2008 season as the John Barron-coached Rockies went 10-1.

“My dad (Dave) raised us with the mindset of ‘tough it out,’” says Tyler. “For lack of better words, ‘If your legs aren’t broken you walk yourself off the field, play through it for the team’ kind of mindset.

“(Brandon) had the grit and was not afraid to stick his nose in there. They called him ’Squirrel’  because he was one of the smallest guys on the field — maybe 5-10, 170. He was not a big guy, but definitely played like one.

“He’s always been incredibly competitive whether it be team sports, golf, video games, you name it. He just has the biggest and strongest heart and drive of anyone I know. I think that mentality is what has helped him through the ups and down of the last few years.”

Thompson, an outfielder from Cheyenne, Wyoming, did not play with Brandon. But he lived near him and was around when his vision began to change and has witnessed how he has adjusted since the LHON diagnosis.

“He can still move around just fine,” says Thompson. “He just has a hard time seeing fine details. His work has been awesome for him. They’ve gotten him a 40-inch flat screen as computer monitor.

“He loves that job. That’s why he stayed in Murray.”

Tony Plothow was both head baseball coach at Plymouth High School and manager for Plymouth American Legion Post 27 when Brandon was a player. Plothow also coached Brandon in basketball at PHS.

Brandon played for Post 27 each summer after his four years of high school and first year of college.

“(Brandon) started for us as a freshman,” says Plothow. “He came in with a lot of confidence and he fit in pretty well. He became a mentor to younger kids.

“He was one of those kids you didn’t have to motive. As he got older, he was a great leader in the locker room.”

Brandon hit .438 with three homers, 22 RBIs and 42 runs scored as a Plymouth senior  and was named MVP of the 2009 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series. In Legion ball, he shined against tough competition and got the the attention of Murray State, where he played for head coach Rob McDonald.

Mike Hite was an assistant coach for PHS and Post 27 when Brandon was a player.

“As an athlete, he was a competitor,” says Hite of Brandon. “He was a winner. He was a perfectionist. He always wanted to be the one that came through in the clutch. That was pretty special.”

As Plymouth parks superintendent, Hite employed Brandon for several summers. Allie Shook, Brandon’s stepsister, works for Hite now.

“(Brandon) wanted to excel in whatever he was doing — cutting grass, pulling weeds or going deep in the hole to turn a double play (at shortstop).

“He’s used to succeeding in everything he does and he still is.”

Former Plymouth head basketball coach John Scott recalls Brandon’s contributions in 2007-08, a season that saw the Pilgrims go 22-4 and make it to the Class 3A Warsaw Semistate.

“Brandon was so very athletic,” says Scott. “He was a very streaky shooter. We played NorthWood just before Christmas. He hit some huge 3-pointers for us that night on the road. He, along with a great game from Nick Neidlinger, got us off to a good start in the (Northern Lakes Conference).”

Scott is also assistant athletic director and longtime public address announcer for Pilgrims/Rockies sports.

Evan Jurjevic got to know Brandon as a fellow middle infielder for Plymouth Post 27. Shortstop Elliott was the lone Plymouth High product surrounded by three LaPorte Slicers — second baseman Jurjevic, first baseman Shawn Rogers and third baseman Jake McMahan.

“(Brandon) was an incredible baseball player,” says Jurjevic. “He was extremely hard-working and talented. He played with a lot of energy and heart.

“He was an overall great guy, a good team player. He was always pushing others to get better.”

Jurjevic, a part-time strength coordinator and instructor for the Indiana Chargers travel organization who is pursuing a physical therapy doctorate at Trine University-Fort Wayne, sees his old friend meeting his condition head-on.

“Baseball is easy compared to something like this,” says Jurjevic. “It’s puts things into perspective.

“It’s definitely a challenge and an obstacle he had to overcome.”

While he must sit very close to view television and uses a large monitor at work, Brandon tries to lead as normal a life as possible. He bowls, plays golf and has fun in the backyard with Bentley.

“He doesn’t want people to know,” says Julie. “He was very hesitant about seeing someone about visual needs.”

Dave Shook spent a week with his stepson and they met with Kentucky Visual Aid. Brandon told them he could not take the aids because they were too expensive.

Then he was asked: “Do you pay taxes?”

His answer: “Yes.”

The reply: “You’ve paid for it.”

For more information on Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, visit lhonsociety.org.

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Brandon Elliott, a Plymouth (Ind.) High School graduate, hits the baseball for Murray (Ky.) State University, where he graduated in 2013 after four seasons. (Murray State University Photo)

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Brandon Elliott finished his four-year baseball career at Murray (Ky.) State University with a .323 average, six home runs, 35 doubles, 85 runs batted in and 135 runs scored in 180 games (171 as a starter). He earned Freshman All-America honors in 2010. (Murray State University Photo)

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Brandon Elliott, a 2009 Plymouth (Ind.) High School graduate, is on the school’s athletic Wall of Fame for being named MVP of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series. He also excelled at football and basketball at Plymouth.

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Meagan and Brandon Elliott on their wedding day — April 14, 2018.

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Brandon, Meagan and Shannon Elliott share a moment during Brandon and Meagan’s wedding on April 14, 2018.

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Brandon Elliott, who was diagnosed in 2016 with Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON) — a sudden, painless loss of central vision — uses binoculars to see his bride, Meagan, during their wedding April 14, 2018. The couple met at Sportable Scoreboards in Murray, Ky. Her grandfather, Mike Cowen, founded the company.

 

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