He is easy to spot on the practice field. In the sweltering heat, Ezekiel Elliott is one of the few wearing white leggings and sleeves under his practice jersey and navy shorts. Sadly, he doesn’t have his shirt tucked up in signature fashion to reveal his ripped midriff. Flanked at times by the behemoths whose job is to get people out of his way—offensive linemen Doug Free, Tyron Smith, Frederick Travis—Elliott looks small.
It’s the last day of practice at Valley Ranch before the team moves to its new digs at The Star in Frisco. Elliott appears unfazed by the heat and percolating nostalgia. For a team photo, the 20-year-old national champion from The Ohio State University firmly plants himself in the front row, immediately to the right of Tony Romo, a huge grin on his face. The kid—in many ways, that’s what this underage rookie still is—knows he can outsmart, out-jump, and outrun just about anyone on the field.
After the photo shoot, I meet him in an icy conference room and realize that, up close, there’s nothing small about him. Six feet tall, 225 pounds, with a sheepish smile, he opens his arms wide and, from 10 feet away, wordlessly walks toward me for a hug, as if we’re old friends who haven’t seen each other in years. I can report that Ezekiel Elliott is a superb hugger. If this fact did not influence the Cowboys’ decision to take him as the fourth overall player in the draft, it should have.
Elliott grew up in the St. Louis suburbs in a family closely knit by sports and academics. He’s the son of two Mizzou athletes, a linebacker father and heptathlete mother, and his younger sisters, Lailah, 17, and Aaliyah, 10, are track stars, too. He became a state champion hurdler when a collarbone injury forced him to take a break from football, but he hated wearing a singlet. Although his parents kept him busy with sports, his mom never talked about what happened on the field at the dinner table.
“She instilled her hard work, her tenacity, everything into me,” he says. “I remember being in kindergarten and riding to school and my mom drilling me in the back seat to do my homework while my dad was driving. She just made me demand excellence for myself. If it wasn’t perfect, then it wasn’t good enough. I have very pretty penmanship, because my mom made me have good penmanship.”
Instead of attending one of the local football powerhouses, his parents sent him off to private school to focus on academics. He liked math. Long before he realized he could have a professional career in sports, he thought about becoming a doctor or a dentist. He liked pulling out his sisters’ wobbly teeth. On the Wonderlic, the IQ test given to NFL draft prospects, Elliott scored a 32 out of 50. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did some research and reported that over the last 10 drafts, the average score of the first running backs picked was 17.2. Fellow rookie, quarterback Dak Prescott, is rumored to have scored a 25. Troy Aikman scored 29. Tony Romo scored 37.
His intelligence, his genial demeanor, his penmanship—all reasons to look forward to this season. Here is one more. This happened on November 29, 2014, when Ohio State was playing the University of Michigan, a rivalry game whose magnitude cannot be overstated. At game time, Elliott knew that his good friend and teammate Kosta Karageorge was missing. He would be found the following day in a dumpster, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
With 4:58 left on the clock, the Buckeyes had the ball at midfield and needed 1 yard to convert a fourth down. Cardale Jones, the third-string quarterback who had never started a game, had been sent in after the second-string quarterback had broken his ankle. Jones handed the ball to Elliott. He cut left and found a hole where there wasn’t one, slipping through the grasp of a tackler who never had a chance. With two hurdler’s high steps, he exploded. The other defenders fell away as he continued to accelerate, running 44 yards untouched for a touchdown.
Oh, yeah. And he did this with a broken left wrist.
This is reason to hope.