What Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliott Was Born With That Makes Him Great
No matter what sport Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott played as a kid, one thing was always the same. He reveled in competition. “Football was my love,” the running back said as he reminisced about his youth sports days with me in the locker room at Levi’s Stadium back in October after the second 100-yard rushing game of his inaugural NFL season. Flash forward six weeks. He’s one of the key reasons why the Cowboys are 8-1, has emerged as a leading candidate for the League’s MVP and is on pace to break the rookie single-season record for most rushing yards. Yet he’s still driven by the same thing that pushed him when he started playing football as a 7-year-old. “Honestly, I just like to compete,” says Elliott.
Athletics were a vital part of Elliott’s upbringing. “I played a lot of sports growing up; my mom always made sure I was playing a sport every season.”
His mother Dawn was a heptathlete at the University of Missouri and his father Stacy a linebacker for the Tigers. Ezekiel, or “Zeke” for short, started playing baseball when he was just three years old. His parents always opened the door to new opportunities, but he says they never pushed him to play. “You can introduce them to the sport, but there are a lot of people I’ve known whose parents coached them and they were burned out because they were so serious and that really was their life growing up and it’s really important to have a balance,” says Elliott. “You want to let your kid grow their own love for their sport; don’t try to force them to play.”
His parents didn’t. Elliott remembered the time he quit playing baseball because he didn’t want to go through the hassle of finding a new team. Instead, he spontaneously decided to give track a try. “So I was like, I’m going to try hurdles out because that’s what my mom did. And I ended up being really good.”
At John Burroughs High School in Missouri he was more than good. He was a three-sport star in basketball, football and track. His senior year Elliott won four state championships in the 100-meter dash, the 200 and 110 high hurdles and 300 hurdles.
Elliott’s athletic abilities had college recruiters from more than 20 universities, including Ohio State assistant head coach for offense and running back’s, Tony Alford, salivating. Back then Alford was coaching and recruiting at the University of Notre Dame. When he first visited with the Elliott’s he was equally impressed to find a family that prioritized work ethic, fun and raising a well-adjusted child.
“What I remember sitting down and talking to that family in the recruiting process was the admiration and love and respect they had for each other,” says Alford. “That shows up quickly when you sit in a young man’s home. It might just be a gesture of mom slapping her son on the knee, just patting him on the knee when they are talking or when they sit down and they have a whole room they can sit in but they all sit down scrunched up against each other all on one couch. Things like that show up.”
Alford made a mental note of the way Zeke joked around with his two younger sisters Lailah and Aaliyah. He recalls watching them walk down a hallway together, and the way they were playing and pranking each other was one of the intangibles Alford looks for when he visits with a recruit. A nuance, Alford says that showed him Elliott was a person who cared about his family and because of that would be a respectful and good teammate in college.
Elliott proved to be everything Alford thought he would be and more. He was so freakishly good at Ohio State that Alford is among the group who is not the least bit surprised by Elliott’s immediate success in the NFL. “Zeke was by far the best player I’ve ever been associated with. Unbelievable,” marvels Alford, who has been coaching running backs for nearly 20 years. “Athletically his ability is off the charts and his sheer toughness. He may be one of the toughest people I’ve ever been around.”
If the 21-year-old Elliott has an off switch, Alford says he never found it. “He’d get beat to shreds and come in the next day like nothing ever happened.” On a Buckeyes team stacked with talented running backs including the San Francisco 49ers Carlos Hyde, Alford recalls how Elliott made a point to do things differently, like how he would finish runs in practice, in order to stand out. “He’d get the ball and most guys would run 10 to 15 yards, Zeke might run 30. As hard as he could go for 30 more yards. He would act like there was an imaginary safety and make him miss. So, all of the sudden when he gets in a game and there is a real person back there, he’s been working on making him miss every day in practice.”
Nowadays Alford finds himself drawing on some of what he learned watching Zeke to advise his own three boys, telling them, “If you want to be really special at something … Practice hard.”
As for what Ezekiel Elliott suggests for parents like his former coach, hoping to raise an athlete as good as him …
“Talk about everything with your kids BUT their performance,” Elliott recommends, saying this about his mom, “One thing she never did, we never really talked about sports, we never talked about performances and what I could do better. She let the coaches handle that and I think that worked out perfectly.”
Dallas Cowboys fans would have to agree.
(Photos Courtesy ezekielelliot )