Archdeacon: New Central State track coach on lessons learned from late brother — ‘he taught me so much’

Elliott Lightfoot, new Central State University track coach. Nick Novy/Central State Athletics
Elliott Lightfoot, new Central State University track coach. Nick Novy/Central State Athletics

“I was mad at God,” he said quietly. “It hit me hard. I felt my brother was gone way too soon. I wanted him here …”

As his voice trailed off, he repeated the lament: “I wanted him here.”

When they were growing up, Elliott Lightfoot said he and his brother Mark, who was three years younger, were “so close some people thought we were twins. He was my best friend.”

“We used to play with little Army men and action figures. We’d play cops ‘n robbers and he always did the cops. By the time he was 7, he wanted to be a police officer and that never changed. He never veered.

“He wanted to be a police officer.”

Elliott was a sports standout at Wilkinsburg High School in suburban Pittsburgh and then became an All American sprinter at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Later he was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.

After college he became a track and football coach at four different high schools, as well as at Lincoln and at Montclair State in New Jersey.

Monday, the 54-year-old Lightfoot officially took over as the new track and field coach and the cross country coach at Central State.

As we talked this week, he shared some of the indelible moments he’d had with his brother.

Mark eventually did become a police officer, though only after many obstacles and detours.

Lightfoot said when his brother was growing up he had a learning disability and struggled with math. Later that contributed to him twice failing the police exam.

Mark joined the Army Reserve and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he ended up guarding an Army depot in Pennsylvania and then was deployed to Iraq.

Once back home he did well on the police exams – he had worked tirelessly to improve his math skills, his brother said – and became an officer with Prince George’s County in Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C.

“He loved being a cop,” Lightfoot said. “He was living his dream.”

Prince George's County Md. police office Mark Lightfoot CONTRIBUTED
Prince George's County Md. police office Mark Lightfoot CONTRIBUTED

But soon after, Mark began feeling ill and eventually was admitted to the University of Maryland Medical Center where he was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer.

He underwent chemotherapy, but it soon was determined he needed a stem cell transplant to survive.

Elliott was a match and donated the stem cells. Mark recovered and had been in remission a couple of years when he underwent a routine checkup on his 41st birthday in October of 2010 and got devastating news.

“He called me and just said ‘It’s back! … My cancer is back!’ And for 45 minutes we both just sat there on the phone and didn’t say a word,” Lightfoot remembered. Mark quickly underwent another transplant and again Elliott was the donor. But within a few weeks Mark’s health was failing and he died on Jan. 31, 2011.

“It was hard for me to talk about for years,” Lightfoot said. “But finally I’ve seen it differently. He accomplished his goal. He was living his dream. He didn’t let obstacles get in his way.

“That’s an important lesson for me, one I can pass on to the athletes I coach.

“That’s why I now share my brother’s story.”

Importance of family

Family has had a lot to do in shaping Elliott Lightfoot as a person and a coach.

His dad, Dr. James Lightfoot, was a longtime coach, teacher and administrator in the Pittsburg public school system. His mom, MaryAnn, was a social worker and later a minster. She’d gone back to college at age 35 and gotten her undergrad and then masters degrees.

“My brothers (older brother Maurice and Mark) and I were lucky to have two parents who nurtured us and taught us life lessons,” he said.

“Our house was the gathering spot for all the kids in the neighborhood, but my mom would give us reading and writing assignments to do before we could go outside. Then we’d have to wait until she corrected them.

“When we finally did get outside, there’d be six or seven kids just sitting there on the porch waiting for us.”

He played three sports in high school and had colleges recruit him in each of the three.

A friend of his mother’s suggested he look at an HBCU (Historically Black College & University) and he chose Lincoln, which won the NCAA Division III outdoor championship once he got there. And, along the way, he said he developed a “special appreciation” of HBCUs:

“I know the love and nurturing you can get at them. We weren’t just a number there. The classes were small enough that our professors knew us and went out of their way to help us

“And if you weren’t applying yourself, they called our coach and he was knocking on our door.” He credits his track coach, Cyrus Jones, himself a Lincoln Hall of Famer, for developing him as an athlete and a person.

After college Lightfoot worked for a dozen years at Holy Family Institute, a century-old Catholic facility in Pittsburgh.

“I worked on the residential side with kids who had been sexually abused or neglected because their mom might be on crack or their dad’s in jail,” he said. His first coaching job was at Harold S. Vincent High in Milwaukee, where along with coaching three players who ended up in the NFL – DeAndre Levy, Adrian Battles and Nick Polk – he met Donneisha “Nee Nee” Smith, an athlete with an impossible home life.

“Her father wasn’t in the picture and her mother had problems that took her away,” Lightfoot said. “One year Donneisha lived in 12 different homes. One time I realized she was at home, caring for her brothers and sisters and they had no food.

“I talked to my wife (Kim) about it and we left our door open and Nee Nee eventually came to live with us.”

That was before the couple had their own two kids: daughter Kennedy is now 17 and “Little Elliott” is 12.

Lightfoot said Donneisha had a 4.0 GPA and was a candidate for the High School Heisman. She, too, went to Lincoln, made a mark as a two-sport athlete and then went to Barry University in Miami for her masters’ degree.

Today, at age 34, she is a travelling occupational therapist, living in California and about to get her pilot’s license

Lightfoot returned to Lincoln in 2006 and spent five years coaching football and track and serving as an assistant athletics director. He then went to Montclair State and most recently coached five seasons at Cuthbertson High in North Carolina, where he helped develop a track program that had 40 kids when he took over and nearly 200 – along with multiple state titles – when he left this spring.

‘Everybody has the same vision’

The only other time Lightfoot came to Central Sate was when he was a high school senior and was brought in on a recruiting visit by football coach, Billy Joe, who soon would lead the Marauders to the first two of their three NAIA national titles.

Now back at CSU three-and-a-half decades later, Lightfoot is being asked to take over a program during challenging times.

Former head coach, James Rollins, a CSU Hall of Fame sprinter himself, was let go over the summer. And the team’s top two athletes won’t be back either.

Juan Scott, a six-time All American hurdler and two-time national champion out of Dunbar, was a senior last season and has opted not to use a remaining season of NCAA-granted eligibility.

Denisha Cartwright, an All American freshman hurdler last year from the Bahamas, has entered the transfer portal and is likely headed to a Division I program.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc and CSU has cancelled intercollegiate competition this spring.

But Lightfoot was undaunted when we spoke: “I’ve liked what I’ve seen in the athletic department. There are new coaches in every sport and I could feel the energy, the vibe. Everybody has the same vision.

“And I can see there’s track talent here. I think I can help the kids improve. That’s been my niche everywhere I’ve been.”

Lightfoot 6 -- Prince George's County, Md. police officer Mark Lightfoot (left) and his older brother Elliott Lightfoot, now Central State's new track and field coach and cross country coach. CONTRIBUTED
Lightfoot 6 -- Prince George's County, Md. police officer Mark Lightfoot (left) and his older brother Elliott Lightfoot, now Central State's new track and field coach and cross country coach. CONTRIBUTED

In doing so, he draws on the lessons that have shaped his life – none more so than those with his brother Mark.

He said it’s still not easy, but he’s no longer mad at God:

“I’m thankful to God for the time I got with my brother. He taught me so much.”

And those are some of the lessons he now hopes to pass on to the athletes at Central State.

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