Her son made the promise when he was about 15 and they were still living in Talladega, Alabama.
“He said, ‘Mom, I’m gonna get you to California one day,’” Jenell Shoals remembered. “He said, ‘I don’t know what we’re gonna be doing, but I’m going to get you there.’”
And last week Steve McElvene made good on his pledge. Thanks to him, his mom spent five days in Pasadena.
“Yes, he sure got me there,” she said quietly. “But I didn’t think it would be that way.”
Jenell, her husband, James, and her two sons, Trayshawn and Escarvar, took part in the Rose Bowl festivities, helped put the final decorating touches on one very meaningful float and then had special grandstand seating to watch the legendary Rose Bowl Parade.
That’s where Big Steve — as her son was known at the University of Dayton, where three seasons ago he was the shot-blocking, heart-stealing 6-foot-11 center of the Flyers basketball team — was being honored on the Donate Life float.
Just two months after he’d helped lead the Flyers to the NCAA Tournament — on May 12, 2016 while listening to music at his next door neighbor’s house on Romy Avenue in Fort Wayne — he died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
He was just 20.
Almost everyone who knew McElvene — whether it was back in Indiana, down in Alabama or here at UD, where he was the most beloved player on the team and the best known student on campus — will tell you he was one of the most giving people they ever met.
While he rejected shots with unforgiving forcefulness on the court, he was just as quick with an open, helping hand off of it. It came with that trademark smile, the easy laugh and, sometimes, with his dance moves or other light-hearted hijinks.
“He just had a big, lovin’ heart,” Jenell said.
And when that heat gave out, he still gave.
The day before he died, he had gone with his mom to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to renew his driver’s license. When he did, he signed up to be an organ door.
“The lady who was working there said to me, ‘Did you know he wants to be an organ donor?’” Jenell remembered. “I said, ‘Well, he’s grown, he can make his own decisions. And that’s who he is, that’s what he’s about.’”
As Jenell recounted that trip to the license bureau, I asked her an off-the cuff question about Big Steve’s driving and she started to laugh:
“It was pretty good, but I remember after my dad passed in Alabama, we gave his car, a ‘93 Cadillac, to Doody, that’s what we all call Steve. We had to get him a big car, but at first it wasn’t big enough. He was coming down a hill and backed it into a ditch ‘cause his knee got stuck under the dashboard.”
After that, they fixed the front seat so it moved all the way back against the rear seat. To passersby, his mom said, it looked like he was driving from the back seat.
That ability to adjust is how McElvene steered his way through UD, as well.
When he first got to school, he had to sit out a year of basketball because he was a partial academic qualifier. During that time he got his grades up and weight down, going from 315 pounds to 265.
Those initial struggles made him an embraceable underdog figure with Flyers fans. Then when they got to see the smile and witness the kindness, the bond was strengthened.
And once he got onto the court, and began dunking on suddenly wilted rivals or slapping their shots away from the hoop and toward the stands — he holds the school record for 55 blocked shots in one season and six in one game — everyone at UD Arena was hooked,
That’s why his sudden death stunned so many and left such a feeling of loss.
Now, with word of McElvene giving life to others — Jenell said she’s been told his tissue donation (skin grafts, bone grafts and vein) has provided healing to at least 75 other people — he stands taller than ever in the eyes of Flyers fans.
On Sunday — at halftime of Dayton’s noon game with Richmond at UD Arena – McElvene will be honored by Life Connection of Ohio for his gift.
Jenell, her immediate family, her sister and a couple of friends will be brought out to midcourt for the ceremony. A short video of Big Steve will play on the jumbo screens around the arena and the floragraph of him that was on the float — a portrait made of herbs, seeds and flowers — will be on display.
The ceremony is a way to draw attention to the ongoing need for more individuals to register as organ, eye and tissue donors, something both Trayshawn and Escarvar have done because of their big brother.
“I was talking to my sister the other day and said, ‘Every time I think that nobody’s thinking about Doody, something comes up where they want to talk about him and honor him,’” Jenell said. “It’s just a wonderful feeling. It kept him alive.
“And now with him being a donor, he really is still living in someone else and helping them.”
‘Your boy helped so many people’
According to Life Connection of Ohio, more than 115,000 men, women and children are awaiting transplants in the United States.
To register as a donor, you can go to www.lifeconnectionofohio.org, and to learn more about tissue donation visit www.communitytissue.org.
Since 2004, Donate Life has had a presence in the Rose Bowl Parade as a way of underscoring the need for transplants and celebrating the life-saving legacies of those who were donors..
McElvene was one off 44 people from around the nation featured on the Rhythm of Heart float that also highlighted the musical diversity and rhythms of Africa. Two dozen living donors and transplant recipients rode on the float or walked alongside of it.
Jenell said the likeness of Steve that would be on the float was first sent to her in Fort Wayne, where they did a little work on it and then displayed it at an open house, A youth basketball tournament was held in connection with it, and the 200 participating boys and girls all wore “Give like Big Steve” T-shirts that had his No. 5 on the back.
Then, in the end of December, Jenell made her first trip ever to California. She and her family took part in various activities, including a New Year’s Eve celebration, and then on New Year’s Day settled into their special seats to watch the parade.
“Watching the parade in person is a totally different experience than watching it on TV,” she said. “In person it’s just amazing.
“We were on top of a bridge and you could see almost a mile up the street from where we were. We were told the float was the eighth one in the parade and when it first got on the bridge, everyone was excited and taking pictures and yelling: ‘It’s coming! It’s coming!’
“When it got there, when I saw Doody’s picture, I was crying. I had seen it before, but now on the float – and in the parade – it brought it to life.
“It really hit me: ‘Your boy helped so many people and now he’s being honored in a major parade where millions and millions of people are seeing it.’”
Keeping a connection
Today the spotlight moves back to familiar confines for Jenell.
She used to come to all Steve’s games at UD Arena, as well as some on the road, including the A-10 Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and the NCAA Tournament game against Syracuse in St. Louis.
The last time she was at UD Arena was for the 2016-17 season opener against Austin Peay. She was honored at midcourt, and Archie Miller, then the Flyers head coach, presented her with her son’s A-10 Championship ring as the crowd stood and gave her, her family — and especially her son — a long and warm standing ovation.
Then the UD players — all wearing black No. 5 patches above their hearts — left the bench, gathered around Big Steve’s family and clasped their hands overhead in their trademark sign of “True Team,” which, by the way, is also engraved on Steve’s tombstone in the Covington Memorial Cemetery in Fort Wayne.
Out there on the court, huddled with the UD team, Vanessa Jackson, Jenell’s sister, said she told the players: “Somebody’s got to stand in the middle here and dance like he did. Everybody loved his dance moves.”
As she stood there bathed in the cheers and tears of the UD crowd, Vanessa said she finally got it: “I finally realized what he was always talking about. How it felt to be surrounded by so many fans and hearing all that noise. I know he loved it.”
Since then, most of the players have graduated or left and Miller has moved on to coach the Indiana Hoosiers.
“My middle son, Escarvar, is at IU now, too,” Jenell said. “I still talk to Archie from time to time and he offered me tickets anytime I want come to a game.
“And some of the guys Doody played with went on to the (NBA’s) G League. Charles Cooke got with me on Facebook and I went to one of his games last year when his team came to Fort Wayne to play the Mad Ants.
“I sometimes talk with Kendall (Pollard) on Facebook, too. And I follow all of them because I feel like they’re all my kids.”
She has a special kinship with former Flyers’ women’s player JaVonna Layfield, who was her son’s big buddy at UD: “She’s overseas now, but we talk a lot.”
Jenell still feels a connection to UD.
“From the very first game Doody played at Dayton, I knew he was at a good place,” she once told me. “We all just cried. My sisters went to college, but it was a whole different experience than his. People were yelling his name and waving signs. It was just wonderful, That’s why I’m a Dayton Flyer for life.”
She said she’s feeling “a few butterflies” about walking out onto the court again Sunday but figures she’ll get through it thanks to her son and the response he’ll get for something he did that eclipses all the wondrous moments he had on that very same court.
And that brings us to one other promise Big Steve has made good on with Jenell.
When he left for college, needing to improve on his books and his weight, he told his mom that one day he’d make her proud.
And he’s done that — yet again.