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Despite More Leadership, Zeke Still Having Fun 


He is only 23 years old, but already heading toward the latter part of his third year in the National Football League.

Already he has won an NFL rushing title with the third-most rushing yards of any rookie running back in league history, and currently after 11 games in 2018 is in hot pursuit of yet another crown.

He's already been to the Pro Bowl, just the fourth rookie all time and but the second as a rookie running back.

But deep down, one Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth pick in the 2016 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys, is a kid at heart. "Zeke" still bounces around the Cowboys locker room as if he's a 12-year-old, causing most around him to roll their eyes. But that's just him.

He has a grin as wide as that Mississippi River he grew up adjacent to in Missouri.

And get this: For this past Halloween, Elliott, a highly-noticeable personality around the Dallas-Fort Worth area, dressed up as Eeyore, the grey stuffed donkey from Winnie the Pooh, and actually passed out candy to the trick or treaters in his neighborhood.

"I was never really a big Halloween guy, but I decided to pass out candy and dress up a little bit, have my buddies come over. We were Eeyore and Winnie the Pooh," Elliott admitted during the Cowboys' bye week that included Halloween. "We had a good turnout, probably had like 100 kids come out."

And what did he pass out to the kids for Halloween?

"I didn't have king-sized candy bars, but I let them take however much they wanted so I made sure I had enough," Elliott said. "And, you know, kids were taking big handfuls."

Kids will be kids, and Zeke knows that only too well. was

But still, in this his third NFL season, Elliott has taken on more of a leadership role for a Cowboys team void of the likes of Tony Romo and Jason Witten and Barry Church and Anthony Hitchens and Brandon Carr and Doug Free – guys he looked up to when arriving in 2016.

Evidence of that arose right from the start of this year's training camp. Not only did he jump to the front of the running back line for every drill, he would even suggest to position coach Gary Brown for group do-overs if the drill didn't seem to go smoothly.

Brown was only too happy to oblige.

Then there was practice. Seemingly on every handoff taken, and no matter where he was touched up – there is no tackling of a Pro Bowl-worthy running back in practice – he would sprint the entire length of the field until reaching the end zone.

He was engaged. He was becoming a leader.

And even more so after Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick was diagnosed and wound up on Injured Reserve with the rare Guillian-Barre syndrome. Other than quarterback Dak Prescott, a leadership void arose on the offense, especially since Witten, the guy Elliott playfully referred to as "old-man Witt," traded in his cleats for a comfy television booth.

Suddenly, we started seeing Elliott showing up in the middle of the pregame huddle, replacing old-man Witt in pumping up the guys jumping all around him with emotionally fired-up words.

Why, before the Cowboys game at Philadelphia just a few weeks ago, when a little brush-up with the Eagles players occurred on the field near the Dallas bench, of all people, there was Elliott trying to calm things down.

"I'm not a guy who talks a lot of smack, man," he would say after the Cowboys surprised the defending Super Bowl champions with a 27-20 beating at The Linc. "I don't do all that talking. We talk with our play, we talk with our pads. We'd just be wasting our time, wasting our energy, yapping before the game."

A week later in Atlanta, Zeke made sure do a little bit of talking at the end of the game. Just after the Falcons had tied the score at 19 in the final two minutes, the running back found kicker Brett Maher on the sidelines and gave him a quick pep talk to get his confidence back up. Maher had missed an extra point and nearly another one in the fourth quarter but Elliott knew he would get another chance.

He tapped Maher on the chest and helmet and pointed towards the end of the field that he predicted the offense would be. And sure enough, thanks to big runs by Elliott and some timely throws from Dak Prescott, the Cowboys were down there for Maher to drill a 42-yard field goal as time expired.

"As a leader, I've got to go out there and do what I'm capable of doing," Elliott said. "But it's really the other 10 guys around me who give me the opportunity to go out and do what I'm doing."

Well, he has certainly let his pads do the yapping, pushing the Cowboys record to 6-5, tied for first in the NFC East with the streaking New Orleans Saints coming to town this Thursday night before again facing the rival Eagles the following week.

Elliott erupted for 151 yards rushing in that win at Philadelphia, just 1 yard short of his season high against Detroit and the fifth time in his three-year career he has topped 150 yards rushing. In addition, he caught six passes for 36 yards.

All told against the Eagles, Elliott produced 187 yards from scrimmage, the fifth most during his short career. And his high of 240 came earlier this season in the 26-24, last-second win over Detroit with 152 yards rushing and 88 receiving. He also became only the sixth Cowboys player during the franchise's 59-year history to total at least 175 yards from scrimmage and score two touchdowns, joining the likes of Bob Hayes (1965), Tony Dorsett (1977), Tony Hill (1979), Herschel Walker (1986) and Emmitt Smith (1995).

His streak continued, though. He then followed that up with 122 rushing yards and 201 yards from scrimmage in the win at Atlanta before earning 121 and 143 yards, respectively, in the victory over rival Washington on Thanksgiving. His effort after 11 games this season had seen his receiving totals increase to 47 catches, which was already a personal best, for 363 yards and two touchdowns.

 "As a leader, I've got to go out there and do what I'm capable of doing," Elliott said. "But it's really the other 10 guys around me who give me the opportunity to go out and do what I'm doing." place

A dose of humility or reality?

"I owe the game I had [against the Eagles] to that offensive line," said Elliott, knowing not only were the Cowboys still playing without Frederick, but were also missing starting left guard Connor Williams, along with Pro Bowl tackle Zack Martin being sidelined for 13 plays while having his already nicked up left knee braced up again.

But not only that, Elliott of course knew that this line had been taking a lot of grief for a perceived lack of pass protection as well as the brunt of the blame for the Cowboys averaging just 81 yards rushing in their three previous losses.

"I think those guys are jelling up front," he said. "They were doing a great job getting the plays started and giving me holes."

Ah, but there was one more memorable play in the game against Philadelphia, one that definitely went viral:

The Leap!

That's right, Elliott rumbling up field deciding that instead of trying to run through a would-be tackler, he might as well just go over him, knowing he was a decorated track guy in high school at St. Louis John Burroughs, actually winning four first-place medals in a two-and-a-half-hour span at the Class 3A state championships, which included the 110-meter high hurdles and the grueling 300-meter hurdles. There definitely is jumpin' in his genes since his mother, Dawn, ran track at the University of Missouri, hurdles of course.

She immediately Tweeted out after his hurdle, It runs in the family.

After all, mothers do know best.

At the time, the Cowboys led 3-0 over Philadelphia, facing a second-and-10 at the Eagles' 40-yard line. The Cowboys ran a zone-read run play, Prescott deciding to give Elliott the ball at the 43-yard line. There was a massive hole, and off he went, the only player between him and the goal line being Eagles safety Tre Sullivan.

Once Elliott reached the 29-yard line, he began preparing to leap over Sullivan, clearing him at the 27. Sullivan was standing up, just bent over from the waist at about a 45-degree angle, and barely grazed his helmet on Elliott, who came down at the 24 on his right foot and bounded forward.

Unfortunately, all of that momentum from the jump caused him to eventually stumble at the 12, then lose his balance at the 10 before he was touched up sliding to a stop at the 8-yard line.

"That could have been one of the coolest plays of my career," Elliott said, "and it turns out to be one of the goofiest toward the end, tripping on the 10-yard line, yeah."

And he laughs heartily, you know, that kid in him.

Maybe so, but when he competes, there is no kidding around.

Said Martin, "The more we get him the ball, the better," and not a bad philosophy to follow. Especially since adding wide receiver Amari Cooper to the offense, who already in his first three games prior to the Cowboys playing Washington had commanded attention away from the line of scrimmage.

As for Jason Garrett, he can't say enough about his energetic running back.

"He's a great football player," said the Cowboys head coach, "and more than anything else it's his spirit, it's his competitiveness, it's his fire. He loves to play. He loves to be in the big moment. He loves to be the guy who's carrying the load.

"He's really an inspiration to his teammates and everybody on the football team."

And so far this season, the fun has returned for Elliott, on the field and off the field. Last year's suspension, appeals, court cases and further legal appeals became an overwhelming drag. Most weeks he was unsure if he was playing or starting his suspension. He retreated from the media's attention, knowing anything he said could be held against him in the court of law and public opinion.

And you could tell the ordeal weighed heavily on his soul. Even on his face, that fabulous grin narrowing by the day.

So this season's Game 10 against the Falcons brought that whole ordeal full circle, since his six-game suspension in 2017 began when the Cowboys went to Atlanta, their playoff hopes starting to unravel that day without Elliott on the field. His suspension commenced then, as did the Cowboys' three-game losing streak, a 5-3 team looking up three weeks later at 5-6.

"I was home watching it, tough time for me, but I'm glad (I was) out there this year," Elliott said. "But that's all behind me."

He would excuse himself from further discussion of that lost period in his young career, saying, "I don't want to dwell on last year."

And why would he?

The suspension he likely feels to this day he did not deserve took something away from him he dearly loves – the game, the joy.

"The one thing you knew about Zeke, right from the start through the draft process, we knew once he got here, he loves football," Garrett said. "He works hard at it, cares a great deal about it. He wants to be a great player, he wants to help our team. … We feel really good about him, where he is and where he's going."

Of course, they do. After those first 11 games, Elliott was atop the NFL in rushing yards, his 1,074 yards slightly ahead of Todd Gurley's 1,043. Elliott had scored eight touchdowns, six rushing, two receiving, and was on pace for 1,562 yards and 12 touchdowns to lead this Cowboys offense.

And you could see, just in the little time around him in the locker room, that he sure was having fun again, the kid in him resurfacing.

Along with that great, big smile.