This story originally published June 5, 2016.
ST. LOUIS — At Ezekiel Elliott’s table at the NFL draft just more than a week ago, in the final minutes before the Cowboys made the running back their presumed next superstar, eyes were darting around the Chicago auditorium.
The duration between opening picks is really just a game of visual Whac-A-Mole: Which of the top prospects’ phones is lighting up, and when?
Elliott’s rang right after the Rams picked former California quarterback Jared Goff with the No. 1 pick.
“Did you see the area code?” Elliott’s agent, Rocky Arceneaux, asked Dawn Elliott, the player’s mother. It was Cowboys running backs coach Gary Brown wondering if “Zeke” had been talking to any teams. The answer was no. “OK, good,” Brown replied.
Philadelphia took former North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz with the second pick.
With San Diego up next, focus zoomed to former Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but it was defensive end Joey Bosa, Elliott’s teammate and former roommate at Ohio State, who got the call
The Cowboys were on the clock at No. 4.
“We were ecstatic for Joey and his parents,” Dawn said. “Then we’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Ezekiel really wanted to go to Dallas. …We’re nervous.”
If it wasn’t going to be Dallas, Elliott wanted to play for Chicago and running backs coach Stan Drayton, his former position coach at Ohio State.
Cameras rushed toward offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil of Ole Miss. Some at Elliott’s table were unaware of a video that was leaked just before the draft of Tunsil appearing to smoke marijuana. Elliott’s supporters wondered if Dallas had made a trade involving Tunsil.
Then, finally, Elliott’s phone rang again.
“He just put his head in his hands,” Dawn said, “and I knew he was crying, and that’s when I knew.”
Elliott embraced his dad, Stacy, the former linebacker who was happily crying. Dawn let out a whoop. Elliott pulled on the blue cap with the signature star.
The Cowboys chose to use their highest draft pick since 1991 on the bulldozer of a running back with athletically blessed genes, the product of a tight-knit family, St. Louis and Buckeye Nation.
The weighty expectation is that behind an elite offensive line, he’ll team with quarterback Tony Romo and receiver Dez Bryant to become a modern-day “triplet,” a la Troy Aikman-Michael Irvin-Emmitt Smith, and that his path to the Cowboys has prepared him for it.
His home field is now Arlington’s AT&T Stadium, the same place where he completed a merciless burst into the national consciousness at the end of the 2014 season. It’s where Elliott and Ohio State won the first-ever College Football Playoff national championship game, as Elliott ran for 246 yards and four touchdowns, then let the celebratory confetti trickle onto his tongue.
“I’m pretty excited to get back to JerryLand and put on a show,” Elliott said shortly after being drafted, putting his own twist on the stadium locally known as JerryWorld.
Dawn Elliott has already figured out AT&T Stadium. The family had great seats for the national title game in January 2015, behind the Ohio State bench. But she kept catching herself watching on the massive, center-hung video board.
The setting is far different where Elliott grew up playing football, not to mention baseball and basketball, at the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ and Girls’ Club, which attracted families of diverse backgrounds off Interstate 70 and Kingshighway Boulevard in St. Louis.
It wasn’t so long ago that Elliott, 20, starred on this field — part of a stadium complex named for James “Cool Papa” Bell, the Negro leagues baseball player. Fans will line the fences and park their cars along the street among industrial businesses to take in the games.
The club has produced several notable players, including Sheldon Richardson, the Jets defensive lineman who was the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year in 2013.
Raeffel Merriweather, Elliott’s coach here from ages 7 to 13, remembers Dawn’s sharp whistle directed at her son when he needed to regain focus during games.
Merriweather praised Elliott’s parents for staying out of the way, beyond making sure Elliott was always there.
“He probably missed one practice — to get his little teeth fixed,” Merriweather said of Elliott, who so often flashes his trademark wide smile. “He used to have little crooked teeth. I’d tell him, ‘I’m going to straighten them out if you don’t pay attention.'”
Merriweather and other football coaches at the club, gathered last week for a meeting, laughed about their favorite memory of Elliott.
During a scrimmage, the always physical running back kept laying out the same player, play after play, even though he didn’t have the ball. Bam, bam, bam. Someone finally said, “Zeke, why you hitting that kid so hard?”
Merriweather recounted Elliott’s answer: “Coach says you don’t block, you don’t get the ball.”
Elliott is still known as a strong blocker and well-rounded back. But Merriweather’s signature story about Elliott is of a different sort. During a national tournament in Florida, the opposing team’s star player was kicked out of the game for wearing illegal cleats. He didn’t have another pair of shoes.
Merriweather felt a little hand tapping him on the shoulder. “Coach, I’ve got my other shoes. I want to see if he can wear my other shoes,” Elliott told him.
Merriweather would’ve been fine with the opponent’s star player out, but he acquiesced.
The kid, predictably, promptly ran for a touchdown.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry, Coach, I’ve got the good shoes on,'” Merriweather said of Elliott.
And the Mathews-Dickey Bulldogs went on to victory.
Merriweather’s son, Little Rae, was the quarterback who handed off to Elliott for all those years and is also still close to Elliott.
“Coach Rae” attended the draft as Elliott’s guest.
“He makes us proud,” Coach Rae said. “He knows that.”
Eyes on the stars
Elliott, along with Stacy, who is also working as his son’s manager, flew to Dallas on the Cowboys’ private jet the day after the April 28 draft to be officially introduced as the newest Cowboy at Valley Ranch. The plane had to circle for some time because of poor weather in Dallas. The traveling party, which included Arceneaux, mostly slept after the whirlwind of the night before. Elliott, Arceneaux said, noted the pictures of Cowboys greats featured on the plane.
“I’m going to have my picture on there one day,” he told his agent.
But for Dawn and Ezekiel’s two little sisters — Lailah, 17, and Aaliyah, 10 — life returned to normal in St. Louis almost immediately after they caught the first flight out of Chicago. Dawn went to work, worried about saving vacation time.
Dawn’s co-workers at Travelers Insurance decorated her cubicle in blue and white streamers and silver stars.
How do the girls feel about their big brother going to the Cowboys?
“I don’t think they really care,” Dawn laughed. “They get so sick of hearing about him.”
The Elliotts are from Alton, Ill., across the Mississippi River, but Elliott attended John Burroughs School, which is located in wealthy Ladue — a kind of St. Louis version of Dallas’ Highland Park. The school is also the alma mater of actors Jon Hamm and Ellie Kemper.
Elliott fared well at the academically elite Burroughs and also starred in track. Playing for former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte, he led the Bombers to three straight football state championships games, painfully losing all three.
The roots of Elliott’s fondness for showing off his abdominal muscles can be traced back to Burroughs.
The self-proclaimed “hero in a halfshirt” become known for tucking his jersey up to expose his stomach at Ohio State before the NCAA banned the practice. When the Buckeyes were honored at the White House for winning the title, even President Obama made a crack about Elliott’s crop tops. Elliott pinned up his dress shirt on the red carpet at the NFL draft — perhaps his last go-round since he says he doesn’t want to be fined for doing so in the NFL.
“I did not know he was doing that until we got in the car and he showed me,” Dawn said. “I was like, ‘You’re going to unpin that aren’t you?'”
He later said: “I started thinking. ‘What if I actually did it?’ I stepped on a limb and I did it. Thought it was pretty funny.”
Burroughs coach John Merritt, who was an assistant at the time, recalls Elliott coming into his history class wearing a blazer but no shirt underneath. Next, the senior tried to take off the blazer.
“I had to tell him, ‘Ezekiel, you have to wear a shirt to class,'” Merritt said. “He’s always been an individual and his personality will always shine through. He’s a magnet. People love him.”
College recruiters took notice of Elliott, who became a mini-celebrity in St. Louis. Arkansas, led by then-coach Bobby Petrino, offered a scholarship. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, too. When Missouri got involved, Elliott felt torn about attending his parents’ alma mater.
Stacy, who went on to work with at-risk youth, played linebacker for the Tigers and was on the field for the infamous “fifth down” play in 1990, when an officiating blunder helped Colorado snag a last-gasp win en route to a share of the national title. Dawn, who is a member of her Iowa high school’s hall of fame, starred on the Tigers track team in the heptathlon.
Elliott grew up attending events at Mizzou and as a Tigers fan.
But Elliott’s high-profile tug-of-war recruitment finally ended with him sticking with his early oral commitment to powerhouse Ohio State.
It wasn’t until his sophomore year in 2014 that Elliott really burst onto the scene.
With OSU down to its third-string quarterback, Elliott rushed for 220 yards in the Big Ten championship game. He rushed for 230 yards and two touchdowns — including an 85-yard breakaway — against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl semifinal. Then came the championship game.
The Elliotts knew nothing would be the same.
Any remaining privacy disappeared. Elliott would be swarmed for autographs and photos at restaurants and the mall. They’d hear the traditional OSU chant — “O- H … I-O!” even if they were out of town.
Elliott came under fire for criticizing the play-calling after he received only 12 carries in a November loss to Michigan State — a lesson he has said he was glad to learn early in his career.
And the Elliotts know the scrutiny will all be at an even higher level with the Cowboys.
“I always think, ‘Gosh, he just can’t mess up,'” Dawn said. “He just can’t. It’s going to be on a different level. It’s not like a normal 20-year-old. It’s a big deal.”
Remaining close to his son is one of the primary reasons that Stacy moved part-time to Columbus, making the six-hour haul between St. Louis and the Ohio capital over and over.
“Stacy and I talk deep,” Merriweather said. “Hey, you have to watch yours. The game will use your kid — don’t let the game use you.”
Stacy became so well-known as a supporter of Ohio State in Columbus that he uses his nickname “Ambassador Elliott” on his Twitter bio.
He will also spend some time in Dallas near his son, who doesn’t turn 21 until July, though Elliott said of his father, “I think he’s going to let me take this next step by myself. … He’ll be traveling and handling my off-the-field things.”
Arceneaux called the relationship helpful, noting that Elliott is too young to even legally sign his Standard Representation Agreement for the NFL.
New proving ground
Elliott has said the right things since being drafted and has been taking part in rookie minicamp this weekend.
Arceneaux said he has had preliminary discussions about reaching terms with the Cowboys but that the collective bargaining agreement has largely simplified deals for rookies. Receiver Amari Cooper, last year’s No. 4 pick, signed a four-year deal worth a reported $22.7 million, fully guaranteed.
Based in St. Louis, Arceneaux is also the agent of Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, whom Elliott grew up emulating and seeks out as a mentor in how to become a complete running back, Arceneaux says.
Elliott’s No. 21 Cowboys’ jersey — he said it would be wrong to consider Emmitt Smith’s No. 22 — has been the top seller among NFL draft picks, according to sports apparel company Fanatics.com. He signed a deal with Nike the week of the draft. He is using co-agents Arceneaux and Frank Salzano.
They’ve waited to make some endorsement deals until they saw which team he landed with.
“Some people would say we hit the jackpot from that perspective,” Arceneaux said.
The Cowboys are hoping they can say the same about what Elliott brings to Dallas.
“All I’ve done in college really doesn’t matter anymore,” Elliott said Friday from the Cowboys’ locker room. “I understand what’s expected of me. I understand the lineage for the running back position of the Dallas Cowboys. I’m ready to attack this playbook, attack the field and hold up to expectations.”
Position: Running back
Pick: No. 4 overall
College: Ohio State
Ht., wt: 6-0, 225
Notable: Elliott rushed for 1,821 yards (140.1 per game) and 23 touchdowns in 13 games as a junior in 2015. Was named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year. Also had 27 catches for 206 yards. … Rushed for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2014. Played against Matt Linehan, son of Dallas offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, in high school. … Dallas running backs coach Gary Brown on Elliott: “He’s such a complete back. He can run the ball. He can catch it. He can block. He can do all the things necessary to be a three-down guy.”
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