The Zeke Squad: Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott's path to stardom
This story appears in the Nov. 16, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The debate over Ezekiel Elliott's greatest hits rages throughout the Ohio State football offices. The candidates for the top tracks do not include his hurdling over a Western Michigan defensive back, or mocking so-called SEC speed while zooming past the Alabama secondary, or scoring any of his four touchdowns as the offensive MVP of the inaugural College Football Playoff title game. To the Buckeyes' staff, Elliott's greatest hits are actual hits.
Running backs coach Tony Alford presents his selections after dimming his office lights. He shows an otherwise forgettable fly sweep during a double-overtime victory at Penn State last season. Elliott is the lead blocker, and the 6-foot, 225-pounder lowers his shoulder into safety Marcus Allen so hard that Alford exclaims, "Damn near breaks his femur!" The clips continue, with Ezekiel capsizing an Indiana safety 15 yards downfield on a four-yard run, then throwing not one but two key blocks on Braxton Miller's famous spin play in this year's opener at Virginia Tech. As senior right tackle Chase Farris says, "Zeke's violent without the ball in his hands."
When told of Alford's highlight reel later that day, Elliott nominates his personal favorite. Taking a break from his burrito bowl in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the junior grabs his smartphone and Googles "Ezekiel Elliott Purdue." The footage from a kickoff in 2013 shows Elliott sprinting down on coverage and crushing a returner with such brute force that he tumbles five yards out-of-bounds, stopping at the feet of the Boilermakers' cheerleaders. Elliott's eyes twinkle as he points out the final indignity: "There's a cheerleader," he says, "laughing at him on the sidelines."
These days No. 3 Ohio State and Elliott find themselves on a collision course with the College Football Playoff and the Heisman Trophy race with a couple of obstacles looming: 13th-ranked Michigan State (Nov. 21) and a trip to No. 14 Michigan (Nov. 28). Even among dueling quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones and star junior defensive end Joey Bosa, Elliott has been the standout on the 9–0 Buckeyes. He's run for 1,244 yards at 6.4 per carry, scored 14 touchdowns and stretched his streak of 100-yard games to 14.
Elliott's 114 yards against Minnesota may have pushed him past LSU sophomore running back Leonard Fournette—who disappeared in a 30–16 loss at Alabama (31 yards on 19 carries)—in the Heisman race. As Elliott jockeys with Alabama tailback Derrick Henry, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Baylor receiver Corey Coleman for the trophy, he's driven to pay back those who've driven him—his offensive line (aka the Slobs), his tight-knit family and the OSU coaches, who rode him when the temptations of success lurked this off-season. "Eddie George told me the Heisman isn't won in October," Elliott says of the former Buckeyes tailback and 1995 winner. "It's won in November."
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Every football play is a kind of synchronized violence. The one that changed everything for Elliott, Ohio State and the world order of college football—an outside zone read called Deuces Left Zin 99 Coke—looked as if it would amount to little more than a pileup at the line of scrimmage.
Clinging to a 34–28 lead in last year's playoff semifinal against Alabama, the Buckeyes looked vulnerable. They had mustered only 25 yards on 17 plays in their previous four drives and faced first-and-10 from their own 15-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Elliott sprinted left after taking the handoff from Jones and saw a familiar collage of maroon defenders. "Trust your landmark and run through the smoke," Elliott recalls telling himself. "It's going to open up eventually."
And so it did. Left guard Billy Price pulled in front of Elliott, sealing off the corner with tight end Nick Vannett. That opened a sliver of a hole for Elliott in the C gap, outside left tackle Taylor Decker. Then, as Elliott planted his left foot to turn upfield, wide receiver Evan Spencer cracked back on reserve linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton with such force that he toppled to the ground and rolled into 'backer Trey DePriest, who also fell. Elliott sprinted untouched toward history. "It opened up like the Red Sea," says Elliott, who wound up rushing for 230 yards. "It was me versus the field in a footrace, and it all happened so fast."
The run proved decisive in a 42–35 upset of the top-seeded Crimson Tide, which kept the SEC from the title game for the first time since the 2005 season. The Buckeyes then defeated Oregon 42–20 to earn the Big Ten's first national championship since Ohio State's in '02. "I'm getting chills," Elliott says, flashing a jack-o'-lantern grin, "just thinking about it."
Elliott was only an honorable-mention All-Big Ten selection in 2014, when he gained 1,182 yards on 197 carries in the regular season. But his life changed as fast as that hole opened up in the C gap. Three months later, when President Obama gave his crop-top number 15 jersey a shout-out at the White House, cellphone paparazzi began taking his picture at the grocery store, and teenage girls began shaking and crying upon meeting him. "That happens a lot," he says with a guilty smile. The run turned Elliott into a star, a celebrity and a target. That's why he relied on blockers to clear his path.
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As Signing Day approached in the winter of 2013, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer watched Elliott play basketball for John Burroughs High in St. Louis. Meyer couldn't decide what irritated him more that day, the vicious flu he'd been battling or the recent developments in Elliott's recruitment.
Ezekiel's father, Stacy, started as an outside linebacker from 1988 through '91 at Missouri, where he met his wife, Dawn, who competed in the heptathlon. Every year Ezekiel and his two sisters, Lailah, now 17, and Aaliyah, 10, attended Missouri's spring game, which also serves a reunion for former players. Some of Ezekiel's earliest memories are of running around Faurot Field postgame. Even after he verbally committed to Ohio State in April 2012—four months after Meyer's return to coaching—the tug of Mizzou lingered. Stacy kept peppering Meyer with questions about how he'd use Ezekiel, referring to an article sent to him by Iowa's coaches that noted a Meyer team had never produced a 1,000-yard tailback.
Having already passed up other top rushers, Meyer grew increasingly upset as the one who had committed to the Buckeyes played indifferent hoops against pedestrian competition. "I'm sick as a dog and putting up with people questioning how we're going to use him," Meyer recalls. "I almost got up and walked out of the gym and said, 'You guys go to Missouri.'" The Buckeyes' running backs coach at the time, Stan Drayton, kept patting Meyer on the leg, imploring him to hang in. "I'm really glad we didn't leave," Meyer says, mentioning that he still tweaks Zeke about his modest basketball skills.
Meyer's trump card in keeping Elliott's commitment proved to be Aaliyah. She liked Ohio State so much she chanted "O-H-I-O" at a Missouri football game, whispered "the Ohio State University" under her breath in Nebraska coach Bo Pelini's office and put on a sour-milk face while reluctantly posing for a picture with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. When Meyer found out about her support he sent her a letter, helping to seal the deal. "I'm saying, Urban, where'd you come from, man?" Stacy says. "You just changed the course of history for my family. Why? Why'd you have to come out of retirement?"
That Ezekiel became an FBS star wasn't really a surprise—he piled up 3,061 all-purpose yards and scored 50 touchdowns as a senior. The real upset was that Stacy also moved to Columbus and evolved from Ohio State adversary to ambassador. "Our children are sheltered," says Dawn, an account manager at an insurance company who stayed in suburban St. Louis with the girls while Stacy went to Ohio to look after his son in the summer of 2013. "You need to see Burroughs [High]. You walk in, and there's backpacks all over the place [with no worry about anything getting stolen]. It's not like that in the real world."
Stacy found a job on Craigslist with the Columbus Urban League working with gangs, similar to the social work he'd done in St. Louis. Ezekiel admits he was initially skeptical of his dad's presence but now appreciates the little things his father provides—getting the license plates for his 2014 Camaro convertible, picking up his cable box, retrieving his dry cleaning. Stacy is there for tougher times, too, such as last December, when his son served as a pallbearer at the funeral of Kosta Karageorge, a Buckeyes defensive lineman who took his own life. When Ezekiel had to deal with a stalker, Stacy was there to guide him and offer support. "People are drawn to him," Stacy says. "It's part of why I came here. A magnet can draw all types of things to it."
Stacy has become such a trusted ally that Meyer has had him speak to the parents of incoming freshmen the past two years. The Elliotts have also spent the last two Thanksgivings with the Meyers; the coach says the only player whose family he's become closer with is Tim Tebow's. "The Meyers and the Elliotts," Meyer says, "will be friends the rest of our lives."
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The Uber SUV idled outside the Hilton Anatole in Dallas after the national championship game last January. Elliott, fresh off blasting through Oregon for 246 yards, encountered greater resistance trying to get through the hotel lobby. As he and three friends pushed through the crowd, a Buckeyes fan in his mid-30s pursued them with a picture to sign. When Elliott refused, the fan hopped on the hood and slipped the photo through the driver's window. He slid off as they left with the picture. "It was at that point," says Alvarez Jackson, Elliott's best friend, "where I'm like, Wow. It's that serious."
Some of Elliott's most endearing qualities double as vulnerabilities. He's never met a stranger, enjoys college nightlife and is known to wriggle his hand like a fish between the ribs and inner arm of people as they're talking. (This is known as salmoning, and he looks to the Slobs with a mischievous grin for approval when he does it.)
Last February, Elliott drove alone to Nationwide Children's Hospital in downtown Columbus to visit a basketball player, Brooklyne Baldwin, whose high school career ended after a second ACL tear. He brought a teddy bear and an autographed Sports Illustrated, and stayed a half hour. "My family was absolutely shocked," says Baldwin, now a freshman at Wright State. For Elliott, the visit outweighed all the hassles of being a well-known Buckeye. "Who are we?" he says. "We run fast and jump high. To have an impact on someone's life means more than scoring a touchdown or holding up the national championship trophy."
On occasion, though, Elliott has been a bit too outgoing. Last year Drayton became concerned when internal reports said Elliott was missing classes and tutoring sessions. Elliott wasn't in danger of failing, but Drayton and Meyer decided to not start him in the Illinois game on Nov. 1. "From the day we met him," Drayton says, "Coach Meyer and I worried how he'd handle success. He's a social guy."
Once the coaches put Elliott into the game, he ran with an abandon they had never seen. He picked up 69 yards on nine carries, then 154 the next week at Michigan State. More important to Drayton, Elliott locked in academically and earned admittance to Ohio State's esteemed Fisher College of Business. "That's such a rare deal for an African-American football player," Drayton says. "We knew it could shape the rest of his life."
After the three-game postseason run to stardom—696 yards combined against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon—Elliott's excursions in Columbus turned into a social media bonanza. Elliott says he didn't go out more than he had previously, just that more people recognized him. Like many coaches, Meyer has spies tracking happy hour and last call, and the intelligence from the field led to three or four meetings with Elliott and his father, which Meyer admits "was probably me overreacting." Stacy recalls Meyer saying in one, "I will not allow someone who is an excessive drinker to be a leader of this team. Ezekiel, you might be the best player I've ever coached, but you're not yet. Don't ever forget you got here because you're a grinder."
It became the job of strength coach Mickey Marotti to keep Elliott grounded. Outside the window of Ohio State's weight room is a picture from the 2015 ESPYs of Elliott, linebacker Joshua Perry and receiver Braxton Miller in suits. Marotti recalls the way entitlement and off-field issues had undermined Meyer's teams at Florida. "It makes me sick to my stomach," Marotti says of the ESPYs picture. "Because I know what happened down [in Gainesville]. I just—that little stuff bugs me, man." To keep all the Buckeyes, and especially Elliott, from the same fate, Marotti stayed "up his ass" every day.
His efforts were only partly successful, but the party ended abruptly for Elliott the morning after his 20th birthday in July, when he arrived 35 minutes late for an early-morning workout. The tailback offered a tearful apology to the coaching staff, but Marotti had seen enough, and he put Elliott in a workout group with the Slobs, who wouldn't tolerate any shenanigans. "I had a couple of hiccups," says Elliott. "That's when I realized it all has to stop." When camp rolled around in August, Marotti told Meyer, "Our Zeke is back. That other Zeke is gone."
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During Ohio State's bye week in late October, Elliott brought the five starting offensive linemen to Hyde Park, a tiny Columbus steak house. They dined on 26-ounce rib eyes, devoured lobster mac and cheese, asparagus and garlic mashed potatoes. Only senior center Jacoby Boren didn't live up to the unit's nickname, drawing abuse for ordering a filet. The bill was not petit. "It was $432.59," Elliott says. "It was worth every penny. I would do it again, but I have to save up." (Elliott says if he reaches New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, he'd love to arrange for the linemen to come with him.)
There's a Last Supper feel to this two-year run at Ohio State, which was ranked No. 3 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. Less than a year after seizing the national spotlight by winning three postseason games as underdogs, the Buckeyes are staring at a program overhaul this winter. Entering this season, an NFL scout told SI that they could have as many as nine first-round picks and 15 players drafted. Now it looks as if five or six first-round picks will emerge out of the group that includes Elliott, Bosa, Decker, junior safety Vonn Bell, sophomore linebacker Darron Lee, junior receiver Michael Thomas and senior defensive tackle Adolphus Washington.
The Buckeyes signed the No. 2 recruiting class for 2016 and currently hold the top spot for '17, but the coaches know it will be tough to replace those true juniors—Elliott, Bosa, Lee and Bell—because their replacements haven't had as much time to mature. Elliott won't acknowledge NFL talk until the end of the season, but he's considered a mid-to-late first-rounder. "He can catch and block and is obviously a good runner," says an NFL scout. "He's a rare commodity, better than [San Diego Chargers rookie] Melvin Gordon because he's more versatile, bigger, stronger and probably faster."
The next few weeks will determine where Elliott ranks among the pantheon of great Ohio State running backs, as he's chasing Eddie George, Archie Griffin and Howard (Hopalong) Cassady. It's already November, and Elliott knows that the run to stardom can happen at any instant.