The Road Not Taken for Elijah Zabludoff stood just a few inches away. Not just the inches of height that almost certainly kept him from landing a Pac-12 scholarship offer, but for about five minutes at L.A.’s Hollywood & Highland Center, The Road Not Taken also stood right there in the form of UCLA center Scott Quessenberry, a 6' 3", 310-pound redshirt senior. This scene took place at last month’s Pac-12 Media Days, when Josh Rosen’s old center was interviewing his current one. Quessenberry was there representing the Bruins. Zabludoff was representing Fox Sports West, where he is interning.
“I always do wonder, what if?” says Zabludoff, the anchor of the 2013 St. John Bosco (Calif.) team, quarterbacked by Rosen, that went 16–0 and won a mythical national title. “I’d be lying to myself if I said I didn’t. I started at a big-time program. I played against big-time competition. It’s still difficult for me sometimes.”
Next week Zabludoff will head 3,000 miles east for his senior year at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he is a double major in English and Film. But football is still a huge part of his world: The 6' 1", 278-pound center is an all-conference lineman in the NESCAC (New England Small Colleges Athletic Conference). Zabludoff says he loves Amherst; loves the education he’s getting, loves the freedom of being far away from home, loves how his teammates have the same view on college as he does. That what-if does still sometimes dart into his mind like a blitzing linebacker right before he’s about to snap the ball, but he says he has no regrets about not walking on at a Pac-12 program. His story is the flip side to the feel-good walk-on pieces we see all over college football, the kind that often include viral moments of a swarm of teammates and coaches celebrating their beloved underdog who has just been shocked to learn that he’s going on scholarship.
On National Signing Day in 2014, nine of Zabludoff’s teammates at Bosco stepped up to a podium one by one to announce where they would be continuing their football careers. Seven were headed to Pac-12 schools on scholarships: offensive lineman Damien Mama and defensive lineman Malik Dorton were going to USC; defensive back Jaleel Wadood and defensive lineman Jacob Tuioti-Mariner were bound for UCLA. Wide receiver Shay Fields signed with Colorado. DB Naijiel Hale was going to be a Washington Husky and linebacker Chandler Leniu put on a Cal hat. Two more Braves, safety Brett Baldwin (Air Force) and DB Chandler Hawkins (Navy), picked service academies.
Zabludoff, a student with a 4.1 GPA, stayed home that day. “I just couldn’t swallow the pill,” he says. “I was thinking I’m going to go out there, ‘Here’s my Amherst hat and I’m going to play in the NESCAC.’ People would be like, What the heck is that? Is that an online-accredited university? As much as I love these guys. I thought, ‘I just don’t wanna feel crappy.’”
Zabludoff had reason to be frustrated. He not only played with high-level talent in high school, he’d often lined up nose-to-nose against it. The Braves beat mighty De La Salle due in part to how he neutralized 6' 3", 345-pound tackle Khalil McKenzie, a five-star recruit now at Tennessee. He’d also more than held his own against Olive Sagapolu, a 340-pounder who now starts at Wisconsin, and against Toa Lobendahn, now at USC.
Chad Johnson, Bosco’s offensive coordinator, remembers his postgame interaction with one college recruiter, then-UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, after the Braves crushed Clovis North, a program that had won back-to-back CIF Division I Central Section titles, 48–0. Clovis North’s star defensive tackle was 6' 4" and 310 pounds, had been offered by Tennessee and would later sign with USC. “Elijah just demolished the kid,” Johnson says. “Klemm walked over and said, ‘Well, if I’m gonna offer that kid, I’d better offer Elijah.’ ”
But the Bruins never offered Zabludoff. No one did.
Jim Adams, Bosco’s offensive line coach, started four seasons on the O-line at Oregon. Adams has developed a bunch of FBS recruits, from several Pac-12 linemen to guys that ended up in the Mountain West to Wyatt Davis, his latest five-star prospect, who is now a freshman at Ohio State. Adams says Zabludoff is one of the five best linemen he’s ever coached and the best center Bosco has had. Still, Adams points out that when many college recruiters would see a 6' 1" listing on a high school’s recruiting sheet of prospects when they visit a school, “they’re like, ‘Don’t even bother showing me the video.’ ”
Asked if he would have offered Zabludoff were he coaching at a Pac-12 program right now, Adams conceded that might be hard to pull the trigger, but he says if he were at San Diego State, Fresno State, “I wouldn’t hesitate.”
The odds of an undersized, walk-on offensive lineman actually getting extensive playing time, much less winning a starting position at the major college level, are steep. One SEC offensive line coach said in two decades of working in FBS football that 6' 1" was about his limit for offering an OL prospect. “The problem is that at that height, he would basically be a single-position [center] player. And he better be a complete badass,” says the coach. “Length is obviously [an even bigger concern than just the lack of height] but it’s not a complete deal-breaker. The other issue is weight and girth and whether or not he can hold up when he has to single-block a 340-pound nose guard. Those are all things you take into consideration.”
There have been a handful of centers at Power 5 programs who were around the same height as Zabludoff in recent years. UCLA had Kai Maiva, Texas A&M started Mike Matthews and William Vlachos helped lead Alabama to its first national title since 1992 as a redshirt sophomore and went on to make All-SEC and start 40 consecutive games. For those who lack length at the major college level, the vast majority of opponents are going to have longer arms, creating big challenges in pass protection and when trying to sustain blocks in the run game. Shorter players are almost always going to be giving up quite a bit of heft, yet they still have to find ways to move and control a good nose tackle by themselves. Since mauling the defender isn’t an option, they have to win with quickness.
“Elijah was super athletic,” says Johnson, his former offensive coordinator. “We could pull him. He was very strong in the weight room. He was a stud, a leader.”
It didn’t help Zabludoff’s cause that he was unable to compete at many summer camps and combines before his senior year of high school after sustaining a torn labrum in his junior year. He says he played with it for 11 games and was in a sling for six and a half months. He also needed to have his meniscus cleaned up as well. The only camps he was able to attend were at USC and Stanford.
Zabludoff tried to stay optimistic that some Power 5 program would notice him and buy in, but by late in Bosco’s national title run, that feeling was waning. The same day he got an offer from FCS San Diego and was being pursued by another FCS program back east, he received a call from a team captain at Amherst. Danny Chun, too, had played at a prep powerhouse that had been anointed with a mythical high school national title. His high school alma mater was Bosco, too. Only it was Don Bosco Prep, in New Jersey. Chun knew what it was like to play with big-time teammates, but he also knew what Zabludoff was wrestling with.
“The chances of making it in the NFL are pretty slim,” Zabludoff recalls Chun saying. “The chances of getting a great degree and getting a great job out of Amherst are very high, though. Don’t be discouraged that it’s Division-III football. I promise you that it’s a lot better than you think.” They discussed getting a full college experience and what his life would be like as a student athlete there. “This is one of the best degrees in the nation."
“It felt like saying no to Harvard,” Zabludoff says.
Zabludoff already had developed a taste for what he hoped to do after college. Thanks to his play on the field for Bosco, he had a weekly column in the Los Angeles Times during his senior year called “Huddle Up”, where he wrote about his experiences as a high school football player. “It really opened my eyes,” he says. “I just fell in love with it.” Having writing deadlines after games sparked an adrenaline rush, as did walking around the LA Times newsroom as a 16-year-old kid, where he could watch Times columnist Bill Plaschke tape his Around the Horn episodes for ESPN. Attending a college that had produced Dan Brown, David Foster Wallace and Scott Turow, among others, made sense for an aspiring writer.
“Amherst is known for writing, and I never thought I would go to the NFL,” he says. “I know I’m not 6' 6", but I knew I could become successful in a different way.”
One thing that didn’t change for Zabludoff, whether it was at Bosco or Amherst, was how often his teams won. Amherst went 8–0 in both his freshman and sophomore years of college. It wasn’t till the third game of his junior year that his team lost a game, 27–26 at Middlebury in Vermont.
Zabludoff has remained close to his old teammates from Bosco, often rooting them on if their Pac-12 teams were playing night games he could watch on TV. He is planning on doing a thesis on the Bosco 2013 national title team, which he says came from all walks of life to attend the private high school and dealt with all sorts of adversity.
His summer internship at Fox Sports West felt like going full circle, since his high school games often were televised on the network. He wrote about the Angels, the Rams and local high school football. He also wrote a column about his buddy Josh Rosen’s comments on the balance of academics and major college football. One of his final assignments was covering Pac-12 Media Days, where he faced his alternate reality.
“These kids are just like me; they’re gonna be seniors and I’m watching them getting paraded around like they’re a circus show, walking in circles around Radio Row,” he says.
It also reminded him that he likes asking the questions much more than answering them.