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During his senior year of high school, Elijah Mitchell could sometimes be found dragging a steel sled across 50 yards of grass in the heart of Cajun country.
His father, Milton, said he had the sled made to help Mitchell train for college football. He'd watch Elijah pull it across a half-acre of land in Erath, Louisiana – his legs churning from one side of the yard to the other. Then, Milton would tell his son to drag it back.
"I can’t tell you how heavy that sled is. But it’s heavy," Milton Mitchell recalled. "He always said, 'Dad, that’s too much.' No it ain’t. No it ain’t."
The elder Mitchell, a welder by trade, eventually relented and cut the sled down a bit. But the workouts served their purpose. Roughly five years later, Elijah has not only made it to the NFL; He's now the apparent next man up for an NFC West contender.
After an injury to starter Raheem Mostert last weekend, the 23-year-old Mitchell became the first running back in San Francisco 49ers history to eclipse 100 rushing yards in his NFL debut. He played 35 offensive snaps, ran the ball 19 times and finished with 104 yards and a touchdown.
"He did a hell of a job," head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters.
Few NFL onlookers expected the sixth-round pick out of Louisiana-Lafayette to play a sizable role in the 49ers offense this season, especially at the expense of fellow rookie and Ohio State product Trey Sermon, whom the 49ers selected 106 picks earlier.
But Mitchell's debut came as no surprise to his father, nor others who watched him shatter high-school records in Erath – a rural town of about 2,000 people that is perhaps best known for its Cajun history museum, and the extravagant Fourth of July celebration it hosts every summer.
They say the question wasn't whether Mitchell would take advantage of his opportunity in the NFL. Just when, or if, he'd get one.
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"The people that love him and know him, we know what he can do," said Marc Turner, who has been the principal at Erath High School since 2013. "We give him the ball and it’s going to happen. But he needed that chance."
Turner believes Mitchell's success is a byproduct of his humble attitude and work ethic. And those two traits, he said, are a byproduct of how the running back was raised.
Mitchell's mother, Penny, is a cosmetologist. His father is a welder but said he's worked a variety of jobs over the years – in a chemical plant, construction, the oil fields along the Gulf Coast. "Whoever was paying the most," said Milton, who is now retired.
The elder Mitchell said his son always had a competitive spirit. And at Erath High – a school of about 500 students that is not traditionally known for its football prowess – that attitude helped him quickly become a star attraction.
Mitchell ran for at least 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons at Erath, including more than 2,500 yards during his senior year. He was a one-man tour de force. In a state playoff game, for example, Mitchell ran for 331 yards, averaged 11 yards per carry and scored six touchdowns to lead Erath to its first playoff victory in 12 years.
"When it was all said and done, Elijah held every record in that parrish, as far as football goes," said his high school coach, David Comeaux.
Yet despite his accolades, Mitchell never fit the stereotype of a big star at a small school. School staffers remember him as remarkably humble and reserved.
"You would think that a stud athlete is your stereotypical person that just runs the school, right? It was the opposite," Turner said. "(Other students) looked up to him as a leader, but he fit in."
Mitchell verbally committed to Louisiana-Lafayette in the summer before his senior year and didn't waver after the breakout season that followed. Comeaux said Mitchell wanted to stay close to home so his parents and girlfriend could watch him play.
After an injury-shortened freshman season, Mitchell went on to become a three-time all-Sun Belt Conference honoree – and, more recently, the first person from Erath to play in the NFL.
"It’s a big deal," said Turner, the principal. "When you say Elijah Mitchell’s in the NFL, it’s a real product of what this whole community does."
Milton Mitchell said he watched last weekend's game from the family's home in Erath. He said he was a bit surprised that his son got so many carries in his first NFL game, but not surprised by what Elijah did with them.
"Kind of reminded me of when he was playing high school ball. That’s the way he was running," Milton Mitchell said. "He’s not going to let no one else stop him. ... If he wants it, he’s willing to put in the time and the work to get it."
Which brings us back to the steel sled.
"(Elijah) came back recently and he said 'Dad, you still got that sled?' " Milton Mitchell recalled. "I say, 'Yeah.' He said, 'I want to pull it.' "
Contact Tom Schad at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rookie Elijah Mitchell from small town, has big opportunity with 49ers