Six days into summer vacation, a gathering of high school girls disperses from an open soccer field on the north side of the St. Teresa’s Academy campus.
By SAM McDOWELL
The Kansas City Star
Inside the school, their coach, Jeremy McElduff, walks into the gym and unlocks a door that leads to a tucked away corner office.
“We can talk in here,” he says.
The conversation is sure to be lively. McElduff has led St. Teresa’s into the state semifinals for the first time in his three seasons. The Stars will meet St. Joseph’s at 7 p.m. Friday at Blue Springs South.
Their journey to reach this point is a story worth telling, but it’s not the one McElduff is walking into a quiet back room to share.
A year ago — almost to the day — McElduff nearly lost his life.
He says he is finally ready to recount the details of what could have been his final days, but reliving them isn’t easy.
So a few seconds after he tilts his head and squirts two eye drops into each eye, he leans forward and opens with a dry joke.
“The wind bothers my eyes,” he says.
“But it’s better than being dead.”
Jeremy McElduff remembers very little about his 28-day stay inside the burn unit of the University of Kansas Hospital.
His wife, Becky, vividly remembers those 28 days as fearful ones.
McElduff spent time on life support, battling a disease called Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. Only 10 months after the birth of his first daughter, Audrey, McElduff was fighting for his life.
And he didn’t even know it.
“I think the first night was the worst for me,” Becky says now. “I had a major sleepless night thinking I was going to be a single mom.”
A week earlier in late May, McElduff had fallen ill while attending the 2012 Rockhurst High School graduation. He began teaching at Rockhurst in 2000, where he serves an assistant boys soccer coach in the fall prior to the St. Teresa’s girls season in the spring. He told Becky it was the beginning stages of the flu.
But three days after graduation, McElduff woke up with red, itchy eyes, no voice and inch-long blisters on his neck.
After a call to the doctor’s office, Becky rushed her husband to the hospital, where an internist diagnosed him with Stevens-Johnson Syndrome — a rare life-threatening skin condition often caused by medication. McElduff had been taking ibuprofen.
He developed second-degree burn blisters from his head down to his waist. His eyes became so inflamed that he couldn’t see, and nurses had to drain the buildup under his eyelids daily. The worst of it came when the burns reached his lungs, causing him to crash.
It was then that doctors greeted Becky with bad news. Her husband was no sure bet to survive.
McElduff never planned to coach soccer, but while living in Columbia in the early 1990s, an acquaintance of a friend needed one more coach to fill out a recreational soccer league.
Reluctantly, McElduff volunteered. He’s coached every year since — a streak that remains intact.
Three months following his fight with Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, McElduff hesitantly returned to his duties as an assistant coach for Rockhurst in the fall.
“Nobody knew, including myself, if I would ever recover,” McElduff said. “I was freaked out because when I first got out there, I couldn’t see. My eyes were a major problem.”
In fact, his eyesight was so bad that he couldn’t distinguish one player from another.
After his first day at Rockhurst tryouts in August, McElduff considered calling St. Teresa’s and telling them he couldn’t coach in the spring— “I didn’t want to leave them hanging,” he says — but Rockhurst head coach Chris Lawson talked him out of that.
As the tryouts continued, McElduff no longer needed convincing. He felt healthy, even as he still battled lingering effects. Most of all, he felt home.
“It was my happy place,” McElduff said. “Stepping onto the soccer field and coaching again allowed me to feel like everything was going to be OK.”
Doctors told McElduff they aren’t sure how he bounced back so quickly.
After his monthlong stay was over, though, he returned to the hospital two weeks later when food lodged in his throat. Another week later, he was back for an unrelated emergency appendectomy.
McElduff still struggles with his eyesight and uses eye drops regularly. On the first day of spring practice at St. Teresa’s in February, he warned his players that his eyes often appear infected.
“We’re just grateful that he’s OK,” senior captain Morgan Trees said. “We knew it was a pretty big deal that he was able to survive. We’re really excited he decided to come back.”
The decision to return to St. Teresa’s wasn’t an easy one — McElduff debated if it was truly best for the school — but he didn’t want to miss this season.
The Stars, 17-2, are immensely talented and opened the spring as the No. 3-ranked high school team in the nation. They are the odds-on favorites in the Class 3 bracket.
None of that, though, will matter when McElduff takes the field with his team Friday night.
“When I walk onto the field, I think I’ll feel like I’ve achieved something, yes,” McElduff said. “You know, I just want the girls to enjoy themselves.
“I know, win or lose, I’m going to enjoy myself. If I’ve learned anything from this, (it’s that) you have to enjoy moments like this.”