Kid Captain Eli Belser takes the field with Hawkeyes, celebrating two years cancer free

The seven-year-old is a neuroblastoma survivor and is ready for the first game of the Hawkeye season.


Grace Smith

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz shakes hands with kid captain Eli Belser during Iowa football’s Kids’ Day at Kinnick in Iowa City on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. Iowa introduced its 2022 kid captains before the team practiced in front of fans.

Eleanor Hildebrandt, Managing Editor

Eli Belser is living out a dream this weekend.

When the first Kid Captain of the 2022 Hawkeye football season was too sick to watch games, his mom Katie promised he would one day see Kinnick from the field, not from the halls of the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

Katie said she struggled making a promise she was unsure she could keep.

“Every day, I am scared of relapse because he still has a high chance,” she said. “But I promised him he would wave someday. And I asked him what seat he would sit in. He said ‘well, why can’t I be on the field?’ And I said, ‘you have to pick a seat.’ I promised him, but then COVID happened, and no one was in the stands. Last year was a crazy year without regular treatments, so he never got to go to a home game. Now that it’s happening, it’s super exciting.”

The seven-year-old and his family first took the near-two-hour drive from Elkader, Iowa, to Iowa City when he was four. Eli had been limping and a pediatrician referred him to Stead Family Children’s Hospital   once a few potential ailments were dismissed as causes of his symptoms.

Katie and her husband, Marcus, were frustrated when they had to wait for the appointment as their son’s condition worsened quickly. Katie said they hit a breaking point in June, as they waited for the August appointment.

“I have five kids, so I’ve dealt with the fevers, kids being sick, and all the different illnesses,” she said. “I knew this was definitely different. I asked the pediatrician and he said, if I knew something was wrong, to take him to Iowa City. So, that’s what we did. We showed up at the ER and told them everything and they took him in for testing and they noticed something.”

Initially, Eli was diagnosed in 2019 with a rare bone disease called chronic recurrent multifocal osteomyelitis, or CRMO. After choosing a treatment plan, Eli didn’t get better. The family returned to the UI with continuing symptoms a month later, and Eli received more testing.

Katie and Marcus then heard the words of a scarier diagnosis: stage 4 neuroblastoma.

Neuroblastoma is a cancer that develops from immature nerve cells. It has one of the most aggressive treatment plans given to children. That’s when Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner Mary Schlapkohl came into the Belsers’ lives.

Schlapkohl works in the pediatric oncology department; Eli calls her grandma. She said it’s normal for neuroblastoma patients to receive misdiagnoses.

“Sometimes, symptoms mimic other childhood illnesses, and in his case, his symptoms looked like CRMO,” she said. “It depends on how sick they are and how aggressive providers are when looking for a cause.”

Eli was treated with biopsies, surgeries, five cycles of chemotherapy, stem cell transplants, radiation, and immunotherapy.

In May 2022, the Belsers celebrated two years of Eli being cancer free.

Since his diagnosis and treatments, Katie said Eli has been a big advocate for childhood cancer awareness and he takes the field with the Hawkeyes during Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month.

“We were talking about something for school recently and he asked if he should ask for yellow ribbons since Pediatric Cancer Awareness month is September,” she said. “He cares about other kids still fighting and he still asks about the families we met.”

As the first Kid Captain this fall, Eli also is the first child to pick a song for the Hawkeye Wave. When fans take the stands on Saturday, Katie wants them to know the song is extremely important to her, Marcus, and their five children.

“The song that is going to be played at Kinnick was a song that got him through treatment, and it helped his siblings a lot,” she said. “They all love it.”

Eli is ecstatic to see his favorite player, Kaevon Merriweather, again when he joins the Hawkeyes as they take on South Dakota State. He already started telling friends at school and is looking forward to coming back to Iowa City.

“I’m excited about everything,” he said. “I’m ready.”

The Belsers plan to go to Texas Roadhouse to celebrate if the Hawkeyes win, something Eli is looking forward to.

With dreams of being a quarterback, Eli said he will one day be a Hawkeye or a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide. Those are his only two options, he said. Marcus is a big Alabama fan and head coach Nick Saban sent Eli signed gear when he was in the hospital for treatment.

Marcus said his son being a Kid Captain is a once in a lifetime experience and he’s thankful the Hawkeye Football Team changes kids like Eli’s lives.

“To pick Eli as a Kid Captain, it’s amazing,” he said. “I’m grateful for it all.”

Whenever Katie travels to Johnson County, she knows it could be the moment her fears come true, and she might hear her son has cancer again. Coming down to the UI this Saturday is a break in her normal pace — an exciting, fun, and needed break.

“After Kids Day, it was a whole different feeling we’ve never felt. It was like closure,” she said. “Families go through so much. When you go down there, it’s for very serious things and a lot of it is traumatic. It’s one of those things you sugar coat, and you don’t tell people how you really felt. For once, we’re going down there for fun … To go down there and feel loved and happy and not once think about a scan coming back bad, the experience is completely different. It was closure.”