How Ezekiel Elliott’s father became the ultimate Buckeye backer

COLUMBUS, Ohio – After Ezekiel Elliott broke the line of scrimmage and suddenly was in the clear – suddenly was running away from Alabama, running 85 yards to the end zone, running Ohio State into the national championship game – the sophomore’s eyes darted up to the Superdome big screen.

He was checking the whereabouts of the Crimson Tide defenders, seeing whether anyone was closing on him. None was. His touchdown route was safe, the video board told him, and the Buckeyes were on their way to a Sugar Bowl shocker that ranks as the blueblood program’s biggest win of the past 12 years.

As Ezekiel was looking up, Stacy Elliott was looking back.

In the Superdome stands, Ezekiel’s dad blinked back tears and found himself transported 25 years into the past. He’d been a linebacker at Missouri in the late 1980s and early ’90s – dark days for that program, when losing in painful fashion was a way of life. Elliott was on the team that lost to Colorado on the infamous fifth-down play in 1990: “It don’t get worse than that. I was on the tackle. He didn’t get it.”

That was just one of the ways Missouri managed to lose during Stacy’s time there, when the program was a dismal 12-31-1. To go from that football life to this one – watching his son trample Wisconsin and Alabama and propel Ohio State to the brink of a national title – was momentarily overwhelming.

“I had a flashback of my career at Missouri,” Stacy Elliott said. “So many times in my era at Mizzou, we’d be winning and get behind and never come back.

“I started crying. It was almost surreal. It was like, ‘Is this really happening? Against Alabama?’ Words can’t even explain the feeling watching him out there.”

It’s a feeling Stacy Elliott never experienced as a player. And he’s damn sure not going to miss out on it as a parent.

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Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa is Ezekiel Elliott’s sophomore classmate and roommate. Bosa says “Zeke” is his best friend.

Ohio State's Joey Bosa is a big Stacy Elliott fan. (USAT)
Ohio State's Joey Bosa is a big Stacy Elliott fan. (USAT)

And as an added bonus, he gets Stacy Elliott’s companionship as well.

“He’s awesome,” Bosa said at the Buckeyes’ on-campus media day Tuesday leading into Monday’s championship game. “I need to go find him. He’s taking my car into the shop.”

Bosa left his car at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center – aka “The Woody” – while he was in Orlando in December for the college football awards show. The car never started when he got back, and he didn’t have time to get it into the shop.

Enter Stacy Elliott to assist. After burning up Interstate 70 from the family home in St. Louis to Columbus for more than a year – “the guy at Enterprise knows my first name when I show up there” – he said he’s recently moved to Columbus part-time.

“We have a place in Columbus,” Stacy said. “I ended up finding a better job here. I’m going back and forth between the two right now.”

Stacy said he’s doing behavior modification work with at-risk youth, serving as a specialist in gang behavior. That occasionally involves crisis intervention at the site of a shooting and talking to those affected. He knows what the streets can be like from his days growing up in Hackensack, N.J.

Being in town also allows Stacy to attend practice twice a week, and to continue his work as an unofficial Ohio State recruiter.

In July, when four-star linebacker Justin Hilliard of Cincinnati St. Xavier High School was announcing his verbal commitment to Ohio State, a voice could be heard shouting out, “Go Bucks!” That was Stacy, who was in attendance for the announcement.

Stacy said he’s become “like blood brothers” with Justin Hilliard’s father, Carl. Stacy was in Columbus last June when Justin Hilliard made his final campus visit, and he speaks with Carl regularly.

“I tell him, ‘Don’t keep those questions to yourself, call [Urban Meyer],’” Stacy said. “He gives you his phone number for a reason.”

Meyer asked Stacy to deliver a locker-room speech to the parents of recruits who were on campus for the 2014 spring game. Stacy also has published a number of pro-Buckeyes videos on YouTube that he says helps show what it’s like to play football at Ohio State.

“You’re going to come to be a part of a family,” Stacy said. “We have a lot of families involved. Any parent can go to practice; you’re welcome to check on your child.

“It’s not easy being a Buckeye, but the goal is to make your son great. I still walk around The Woody on my tiptoes.”

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Ezekiel Elliott’s gene pool gave him a good head start on being great. In addition to a father who played college football, his mother, Dawn, was a standout heptathlete at Missouri. The family has three children – Ezekiel is the oldest – and all of them are athletically gifted.

But Ezekiel also came with a motor that never turned off. His first youth-league football coach nicknamed him “One Speed” because he did everything all-out.

“Ezekiel always had this edge about him,” Stacy recalled. “He just went hard.”

He still goes hard, if you ask the Buckeyes.

“He kind of has an offensive lineman mindset,” said offensive lineman Taylor Decker. “He likes to go cut [block] people, he’ll take people on. He doesn’t back down from a defensive lineman. He’s 180 miles per hour all the time.”

Ezekiel Elliott celebrates after the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. (AP)
Ezekiel Elliott celebrates after the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. (AP)

The combination of motor and natural athleticism helped make him a multi-sport star, and Dawn Elliott was happy to shuttle him between sporting commitments – as long as he got his school work done.

“She’s the guiding force, for real,” Stacy said. “My wife kept him busy. He spent so much time in the back seat of the car doing homework so he could continue to excel in school.”

The Elliotts bypassed the St. Louis public schools and enrolled Ezekiel in private John Burroughs High School, where he eventually became a four-star recruit with a wide array of college suitors. Among them was Ohio State, and Meyer made an instant impact.

When they first met, Meyer asked Ezekiel to stand beside him and visualize with him.

“This is what we’re going to do when we win the national championship,” Meyer said. “I’ve got the crystal football in my hands.”

Meyer proceeded to kiss the imaginary crystal, then handed it to Ezekiel.

“Now,” he said. “What are you going to do?”

Ezekiel gave it a smooch, too. You could call it love at first kiss.

But this is college football, and a player’s commitment on April 1 of his junior year is like a coach signing a lifetime contract. It means very little.

And Stacy Elliott, who seemed to like the attention that came with a high-profile recruitment, had some questions about whether Meyer’s offense was a good fit for his son. For instance, Stacy pointed out that Meyer had never recruited a back who went on to have a 1,000-yard season – a streak that Ezekiel ended rather emphatically this year, with more than 1,600 yards with a game to go.

Missouri was still pushing hard to land Ezekiel, and he took a couple of unofficial visits to campus. Stacy was hoping those unofficial visits would get more attention than they did, although he disputed reports that said he blamed the media that covered Missouri for failing to adequately chronicle Ezekiel’s recruitment.

To the son, this was not a vanity play. It was a homesickness check.

“I wasn’t exactly sure I was ready to leave home,” Ezekiel said. “I wanted to make sure I was making the right decision.”

On the eve of the 2013 signing day, Stacy published something of a cliffhanger video about Ezekiel’s recruitment, showing him on visits to Missouri and Ohio State. But in the end, Ezekiel stuck with his original commitment and signed with Ohio State, thus making his father, the Tiger, an instant Buckeye backer.

“It just shows that my dad has been there for me,” Ezekiel said. “He supports me in everything I do.”

Stacy Elliott will be wearing his scarlet and gray in JerryWorld on Monday, hoping his surging son can produce one more amazing game and put tears in his father’s eyes one more time.

“It’s everything I anticipated it to be,” Stacy Elliott said of the Ohio State experience. “Everything I was told would happen is happening.”

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