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STAR: Surrounded By Milestones, Elliott Has One Real Goal - A Championship
Sure, Ezekiel Elliott is young, ridiculously so by NFL standards. The youngest offensive player in the entire league, the second youngest among the 2,000-plus who took the field this season. He didn’t even turn 21 until the week training camp started and was just 6 months old the last time the Cowboys raised a Lombardi Trophy.
Yet here we are, now in the midst of playoff football, and he’s one of the favorites to win the NFL’s MVP award. Never mind Offensive Rookie of the Year, which seemed like a given on that Thursday night in April when the Cowboys selected him with the fourth overall pick of the draft. This carries, oh, so much more historical significance.
“Zeke” could break Jim Brown’s 59-year-old mark as the league’s youngest MVP. There’s breaking an NFL record and then there’s being in the same sentence as Brown, by all accounts the most dominant player to take a handoff. In 1957, Brown topped the league in rushing yards and total touchdowns while leading his Cleveland squad to a 9-2-1 mark. Thing is, in just 11 games Elliott already had rushed for more yards (1,199 to 942) and scored more touchdowns (11) than Brown did during his entire rookie campaign.
When Brown was named MVP that January, he was 21 years and 11 months. Elliott would be five months younger.
There had also been rampant talk, seemingly since April, about the kid from Ohio State breaking the 23-year-old rookie mark of Eric Dickerson, who rushed for 1,808 for the Los Angeles Rams in 1983. Elliott eventually came up short, totaling 1,631, the third-highest mark by rookie.
As for whether all this history, the numbers, the awards, the attention, is something Elliott spends much time pondering, well, let’s just say not so much.
“I don’t think it’s really healthy to be mesmerized by numbers and records, consumed by winning awards and that stuff, I really don’t,” Elliott said. “It’s a team sport and you aren’t remembered for your numbers. You’re remembered by how many championships you won. You win a few championships, you’ve had a memorable career at that point.
“That’s the honest truth. In football, you are remembered for winning championships. Winning games and titles are more important than some soon-to-be-forgotten numbers, point-blank, period.
“No one remembers how many yards I rushed for in the championship game when I was at Ohio State, but they know we won, and I’m a champion. They remember that. We win a Super Bowl, I promise you the fans, the media, they will remember that.”
At every level, from his first season at 7 years of age through this stunning start in 2016 by the Cowboys, Elliott has been a winner. His combined record at John Burroughs High School, just outside of St. Louis, Ohio State and thus far with the Cowboys is 91-12. His teams played for a state or national championship in four of his five years as the starting running back.
Like most elite athletes, especially team-orientated ones, Elliott remembers each of those rare defeats. He remembers fighting back tears after losing the state championship during his senior year of high school, the devastation last season at Ohio State when its undefeated title dreams were dashed by Michigan State, and even the frustration of rushing for just 51 yards on 20 carries during the Cowboys’ 20-19 loss to the Giants in Week 1.
“Without question, definitely the losses of my career fuel me to become a better football player, a better teammate,” Elliott said. “The best competitors are the ones who truly hate to lose. You have to hate to lose so you want to win more. You also have to learn how to lose, though. How to take something from them to make you better, to build as a player and a teammate after a loss.
“You also have to try to forget the losses. You can’t worry about it. In all phases of life, really, you can’t dwell on the negative. I try and think very positive. If you’re always negative, always dwelling on the losses and the negatives, it’s hard to learn. And if you aren’t learning, you aren’t growing. Then you are just wasting time, and that’s no good.”
This particular story, if it’s not already obvious, is about Elliott the football player. Considering his meteoric run through the NFL these past four months or so, it seemed more than appropriate. It’s just that, well, landing a one-on-one interview with the in-demand rookie has been as challenging as tackling him in the open field.
Outside of his mandatory weekly session with reporters at his locker, Elliott hadn’t done a sit-down interview since the beginning of the season, and he wasn’t thrilled, to say the least, with how that story was reported, so that was that. Finally, though, Elliott agreed to 15 minutes after the media cleared from the open locker room session.
He pulled the athletic tape from around his ankles, taking the rolled up end result and shooting it like a basketball into a nearby hamper. The former high school basketball star missed, though, the tape hitting the side and falling to the left. Elliott laughed and said, “Guess I picked the right sport.”
So was football always his first choice?
“Always, I loved the physicality of it, even as a kid.”
There are some legendary, often humorous stories from those early days on the gridiron. In his very first game, six weeks removed from turning 7, Elliott scored a touchdown, a long run, because, well, of course he did. Young Zeke was quick even then, and while he didn’t know the majority of the rules, he knew how to run through the holes and keep running to daylight. He also knew to stop running once he found the end zone, there’s no Forest Gump/Bo Jackson tale of him running into the parking lot or anything.
There was really just one minor issue, that being the 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty with which he was flagged for immediately spiking the football.
“I had no idea we couldn’t do that. They did it on TV, so I figured that’s what I was supposed to do,” Elliott said. “I remember asking my coach why they threw the flag. I was clueless.”
A season or two later, Elliott was running around blocking every opposing player before, during and after the play was taking place. And not just those around the ball. That poor kid on the opposite side of the field, just biding his time before his parents allowed him to return to the video games? He, too, found himself on his rear end following an Elliott visit. The reason was simple enough: His coach told him he needed to block to stay on the field.
There was always that innocence with Elliott. He once gave an extra set of cleats to an opposing player who showed up wearing illegal metal spikes. The kid even ran for a touchdown in them, which was fine by Elliott. He just ran for one of his own on the following possession. In fact, in every photo of his youth, there’s the megawatt smile.
“I was always a fun kid. I was always having fun. And it’s not just the photos you see. I always had a smile on my face,” Elliott said. “I still do most of the time. But yeah, I was a pretty happy kid.
“I never had any problems making friends, but that’s the case with most athletes. Playing sports definitely helped. I could be friends with anyone, though, and usually was. I’d sit with the athletes at lunch one day, the theatre kids the next, the smart dudes the next. I’ve always been an outgoing guy and genuinely like talking with people.”
Growing up in St. Louis, Elliott was a huge Marshall Faulk fan. He would watch the Hall of Fame running back on Sundays and try to emulate his moves when he next took the field. But after the “Greatest Show on Turf” kind of sputtered out, Elliott didn’t watch much of the game going forward. Even in college, even today, he plays football, practices football, watches film of opposing defenses and that’s about it.
“Once the Rams weren’t any good, I more or less stopped watching pro football,” Elliott said. “On Sundays at Ohio State, we had practice or were watching film, receiving treatment. We had no time to watch the NFL, not that I really wanted to anyhow. Maybe the night game, but you’re exhausted by then.”
Still, while he doesn’t watch a ton of football, at least recreationally speaking, Elliott is a student of the game. His high school coach, former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte, told The New York Times that his former all-state back was that player who was aware of what every other position was supposed to be doing on every snap.
“Zeke was that kid who knew everything,” Frerotte said. “You could tell him to go play offensive line, he could play that. Tell him to go play receiver, he could play that. He could play quarterback, but he couldn’t throw.”
His coach at Ohio State, Urban Meyer, gave perhaps the greatest praise possible, claiming that Elliott was the best player he has ever coached with the ball not in his hands. That’s saying a lot.
And honestly, while his two fourth-quarter touchdowns against Pittsburgh will probably be remembered more, Elliott’s most impressive plays this season have been somehow gaining a yard when every other running back in the league would have lost three or four, blowing up a defensive end twice his size on the blitz, breaking three tackles on a dump-off screen, third-and-9 and somehow finding the first-down marker. Yes, maybe on a few of those, long-term, he’d be better off jogging out of bounds and avoiding the contact, but that’s not his game. That’s simply not who he is.
During an outing in his rookie season with the Boston Celtics, a veteran opposing player told Larry Bird that if he kept diving for loose balls and throwing his body around, his career wouldn’t last very long. Bird responded that he didn’t know how else to play. That’s Elliott.
The Cowboys entered the draft process thinking pass rusher, possibly a cornerback, but definitely a defensive player with the fourth overall pick. Running back was considered a later-round option, maybe as soon as the second or third round. These days, the position is rarely addressed early in the draft. In 2013 and 2014, a running back wasn’t even taken in the first round. And since 2000, the only times a rusher was taken among the top four were Ronnie Brown and Cedric Benson in 2005, Reggie Bush the following year, Darren McFadden in 2008 and Trent Richardson in 2012. Those five selections combined for just one Pro Bowl nod, so teams weren’t exactly in a hurry to buck the trend of waiting.
Still, the more the Cowboys brass looked at film, the more they discussed their needs, the more they thought about it, the more Jason Garrett believed Elliott was a fit for the Cowboys’ offensive scheme. It helped that the scouts and front office never fell in love with a pass rusher or cornerback, either. And while it probably didn’t really factor into the decision, Elliott was obsessed with the idea of the Cowboys drafting him. He told everyone with whom he spoke in the weeks leading up to the draft that Dallas was his top destination of choice.
“I knew the Cowboys had all the pieces to win,” Elliott said. “It would be great to come to a team with a great offensive line, a great receiving corps, a world-class tight end, one of the best quarterbacks, so Dallas was without question where I wanted to go. That was my best case.
“It’s not like I was scouting teams or anything. My agent, people around me told me about the Cowboys situation and then I looked into it and that was the team for me. That was my perfect fit. I would say it’s worked out.”
There were reports during the offseason, after the draft, that Elliott wasn’t in tip-top condition, that his weight was higher than the team would like, and a bunch of other blah, blah, blah that hasn’t amounted to circumcising a mosquito, to steal a line from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. On the first day of training camp in Oxnard, Calif., though, it was apparent that Elliott would be playing himself into shape.
He would throw himself into drills at breakneck speed and intensity, as if it were the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, and within 30 seconds or so, be gasping for breath, sweating like a boxer in the final weeks of training for a title bout. But then he was back at it again. Elliott would routinely double the reps of his backfield mates during blocking drills, willing to push himself to whatever the point of exhaustion is where the body can still function.
“You can do as much conditioning as you want during the offseason, but it’s nothing compared to getting out there in the heat with the pads on, banging. That’s just a different kind of shape,” Elliott said. “You can run all you want, run every day of the offseason and that’s not going to prepare you, conditioning-wise, for football.
“Just like running the 40-yard dash. There’s a difference between running that and running on a football field in pads with opposing players trying to tackle you. It’s different with the pads on and playing that physical style of football. You can’t prepare for that in the offseason. Once camp starts, I start working as hard as I can to get myself into the kind of shape I need to be in.
“Look, you definitely need to do some conditioning in the offseason. I’m just saying you can train your butt off in the offseason, but football shape is totally different. You can’t simulate being hit and having to jump back up and line up again. Then being hit again. There’s no substitute for that. You can’t do that. There’s no practice for that until camp starts.”
As for the talk about a rookie wall, which at one time was making the rounds, the worry that his workload might have been a little too much, Elliott thinks that’s ridiculous.
“I don’t believe in the rookie wall, whatever that is supposed to be. I think it’s more of a mental thing. I think if you’re a mentally strong individual, then you know the rookie wall doesn’t even sound right. If you take care of your body and you’re strong mentally, then you should be fine.”
Unlike former Cowboys Ring of Honor running back Emmitt Smith, who is the league’s career rushing leader, Elliott doesn’t write down his goals. Smith was famous for jotting down rushing goals all over the place – notebooks, chalkboards, post-it-notes in his locker. His theory was a goal isn’t a goal until you write it down.
“I wouldn’t say I’m goal orientated,” Elliott said. “I don’t write down specific goals or yardages. For me, if I’m going to do something, I want to do it the best possible. You don’t have to write down goals when you want to be the best because you know what that is. You know what the best is.
“Accomplishing some individual goals on the way to winning a championship or two, that’s OK, but all of that, all of that focus needs to be on how can I help my teammates and coaches win football games. I’ll block, I’ll catch, whatever they need. If it helps us win, I’m all in.”
As for his “Feed Me” gesture during games, his former Ohio State teammate Carlos Hyde actually started it, and Elliott just continued the tradition. He said, “It’s to let Coach know I’m feeling it. I have the hot hand and let’s keep it going. I’m ready for more.”
Needless to say, Elliott has been enjoying his rookie campaign with the Cowboys. He’s downright jovial in the locker room, often walking around, talking and joking with teammates, usually sitting down for a few minutes with quarterback Dak Prescott. The duo is rarely out of his each other’s company, on and off the field.
Really, the only part of his week that Elliott doesn’t enjoy is waking up the morning after a game. Yes, he’s young, he’s healthy, but until one has experienced it, there’s really nothing like how a running back feels after a night’s sleep following 25 or 30 touches.
“It’s exhausting. Even after sleeping you wake up exhausted,” Elliott said. “You find hurt in places you were hit the day before that you didn’t even know existed. I’ll find a bruise or a scratch somewhere and be like, ‘How did that get there? How could someone even hit you there?’ Everything hurts. The only way to get rid of the soreness is to get moving. You can’t lay in bed all day. I don’t sleep in after games. It’s time to start the day. And I love starting the day. I’m loving playing for the Cowboys.
“It’s a physical game, so there’s going to be some hurt and pain in the morning. I’ll deal with that, especially after wins.”
And the wins have been plentiful for Elliott and the Cowboys. They have been the talk of the league this season. It’s been a magical ride like none other in the team’s history. And perhaps it’ll end with Elliott becoming the youngest MVP the league has ever known.
Much more important to him, though, would be becoming the youngest Super Bowl MVP. Because then and only then will his lone goal be checked off for his dream rookie season – a championship.