Jay Elliott looks at the photo now and can't help but laugh. "Who would have ever thought?" he marvels, thinking back 20 years, when he dressed his oldest son in a Florida State jersey. Like many fathers, he held out hope that one day, Javien, the oldest of his three boys, would be good enough to play college football.
Today Javien Elliott is a 5' 11", 176-pound senior defensive back for the Seminoles, a former walk-on who found his way to Florida State with help from a ruthless work ethic and an involved father. But Javien's journey doesn't involve a dad living vicariously through his kid. Instead, it's about relentless belief.
Jay cheered for 6-year-old Javien when he lined up and beat every other kid in the sprints at Pop Warner practice. He swelled with pride when Javien pulled on a jersey for the Springfield Panthers, the same team he had played for as a youth. When Javien graduated from Rutherford High in Panama City, Fla., in 2011 as an all-district and all-county receiver and defensive back with no scholarship offers, Jay ached for his son.
Jay knew he wasn't an X's and O's expert but held a deep belief that his boy deserved a shot at the next level. So, he picked up the phone and started asking questions. "There were no tricks, no handshake deals," Jay says on a phone call from North Atlanta, where he now lives. "I looked up Florida State's number on the website, called the football office and asked for Jimbo Fisher."
Fisher, then coming off his second season as the Seminoles head coach, didn't take the call. But a secretary told Jay he could send Javien's DVD clips to the office and gave him an address.
"Now, remember, we're way past the deadline," Jay says. "Signing Day has passed, the deadline for walk-on invites has passed, everything. But I didn't care, I was sending it anyway. I wasn't gonna stop until somebody told me, 'No.'"
Brimming with moxie, Jay told Javien that sometimes in life you have to force someone to reject you. And when that happens, you just have to find another way so that the answer becomes yes.
Eventually, Jay heard back from D.J. Eliot, the Seminoles then-defensive ends coach. (Eliot now coaches at Kentucky with former Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, the Wildcats head coach.) Eliot didn't sugarcoat anything: "He probably has no chance at playing time," Eliot told Jay, "but he should be able to make the scout team." Still, Eliot made it clear Florida State had no expectations.
For Javien and Jay, a sliver of opportunity was enough. But first, Javien had to get academically eligible. He moved 90 miles east to Tallahassee Community College, a short drive from Jay's home, and enrolled in classes. A member of the National Junior College Athletic Association, TCC offers four sports: men's and women's basketball, baseball and softball. Flag football is played in only an intramural setting. Javien ran and lifted weights on his own while working at Lids, a chain hat store popular in malls across the country. But everywhere he looked, he found reminders of what he was chasing.
He watched games on TV and thought he could make plays worthy of highlight reels. He scoured college rosters and realized he had the same high school honors as guys on scholarship. "I used to walk around campus and smell the freshly cut grass, and it reminded me of football," Javien says. "I missed the toughest parts: When you're out in the hot sun putting in work during summer, making sacrifices, away from your family and friends … I have a dedication and passion for football that I don't have for other stuff."
Jay remembers Javien as "miserable and desperate to play football" for that three-year stretch. But he told Javien to keep at it and trust that his time would come. "There are so many opportunities out there," Jay told him. "We've just gotta find them."
By early 2014, Javien had his associate's degree in hand and was ready to transfer. Jay still isn't sure what's more surprising: that Florida State remembered Javien when Jay called almost three years later, or that the Seminoles still showed interest just weeks after wining the national championship behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston. Javien's preferred walk-on offer still stood, so in the spring of '14, he joined a roster crowded with high school and collegiate All-America talent and went to work.
He earned a spot on the scout team last season, but after a summer proving himself to Fisher and the staff, Javien called Jay in August, discouraged and needing to vent. Again, Jay told him to be patient. "FSU has a plan for you, they just haven't revealed it yet," Jay said. "There's a reason they're keeping you around, but you have to keep your head up."
Days later, when classes began, Fisher called Javien to the football offices. "I didn't think I was in trouble walking to coaches office, but I had watched videos of when walk-ons get scholarships and how crazy it is and it wasn't that," Javien laughs. "I got to the office. He tells me I've been doing great things on the field, I'm a great player, and he pulls out this piece of paper and says, 'Here's a scholarship, if you want to sign it.'
"And I'm, like, 'Duh, of course I want to sign it!'"
Javien called his parents immediately—his mother, Faye Hines, lives in Panama City—and celebrated with teammates.
"He sent me the picture of him signing the scholarship," Jay says with pride. "He doesn't know it, but there were some tears when I saw that."
Tears have become a common theme of Javien's Florida State career. Jay first had them in spring, when he watched Javien rip through the Seminoles' banner and run onto the field for Florida State's spring game. Then again, when he saw proof of the scholarship. And when Javien picked off Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson on Oct. 17 to help the Seminoles beat the Cardinals in a 41–21 win, and Jay heard the crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium explode, "it hit my heart pretty hard, and I had to contain myself a little bit."
Javien "couldn't hear anything" until he snagged the ball. That's when he realized that load roar was for him. In the stands his family "lost our minds, we just went bananas," Jay says. Both parents lost their voices from screaming so much, and each has replayed the pick so many times on their DVRs they've lost count. The best part, everyone says, was when teammates mobbed Javien in celebration afterward.
He has blossomed since that moment, taking advantage of depleted secondary depth to start against Syracuse, Clemson and NC State. Javien has recorded 25 tackles (three for loss), two forced fumbles, an interception, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry. Last weekend in the Seminoles' 34–17 win over NC State, Javien turned in the best game of his career: eight tackles, including two for loss, and a forced fumble.
"It's crazy, 'cause he goes from walk-on to scholarship to starting," says Gio Newberry, a senior defensive tackle for Florida State. "He's out there making a name for himself.… You know who No. 14 is. I love watching him make plays, knowing where he came from."
Fisher is equally impressed and somewhat surprised. He awarded Javien a scholarship after watching him nab interceptions and blanket All-ACC receivers in practice. Doing it in games, though, is entirely different.
"It takes time to evolve to the field, a year or two sometimes, to get used to all that," Fisher says. "Well, he didn't have that and he knows that. It's quite remarkable to me how he's playing and what he's doing. But he prepares like that. He practices like that."
Like most college athletes, Javien hopes a professional career is next. Jay jokes that if he needs to send DVDs to NFL teams this off-season, he's ready. But for now they're both enjoying an improbable journey, one made better because they did it together.
"All I know is we believed in our son," Jay says. "I couldn't make this story up. Ever since that interception, when the whole stadium lit up …
"It's like he just reached up and snatched his opportunity from the stars."
Know a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com.