People from Ezekiel Elliott's hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, warned him that it would happen. When the four-star prospect ventured to Ohio State University, they said, he would be quickly forgotten. The school was too big, the competition too strong — he couldn't possibly succeed as a Buckeye.
For a while it seemed his critics were correct. Elliott had been a backup as a freshman and began playing the 2014 season, his second at Ohio State, with his left hand in a cast. (He suffered a broken wrist during August camp.) Heisman hopefuls and other talented teammates consistently eclipsed Elliott's efforts. Leading up to the Big Ten championship game, the running back ranked seventh in the conference in rushing (1,182 yards) and remained largely unnoticed.
Over Ohio State's final three games, however — against Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon — Elliott ran for 696 yards, thriving as the competition intensified. He powered the Buckeyes through the inaugural College Football Playoff. He was named offensive MVP of the Sugar Bowl, and after breaking the FBS record for most rushing yards in a championship game (246), he was named offensive MVP of that game too.
This season Elliott tops the list of Heisman contenders and will lead Ohio State's bid for a second straight championship. If he helps his team win back-to-back titles, as many expect, the onetime overlooked running back will go down as one of the all-time greats at Ohio State.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Before last season Elliott didn't routinely break records in front of thousands of fans or receive sideline congratulations from megastars such as LeBron James (as he did during the closing minutes of the playoff final last January), but he was always a leader.
Both of Elliott's parents played Division I sports at the University of Missouri. His mom, Dawn, competed in track and field, and his dad, Stacy, was an outside linebacker on the football team. As a kid Ezekiel itched to play, wanting to be like his father. At five years old Ezekiel was devastated to learn that he had to wait another two years to play youth football. The Elliotts supported their only son but regularly emphasized the importance of academics, allowing Ezekiel's coaches to handle the rest.
"My parents did a great job of letting me grow a love for the game by myself and not trying to force anything upon me," says Elliott.
At John Burroughs School in St. Louis, coach Gus Frerotte employed a different approach. Ezekiel was the big man on a small campus of 400 high school students. From the beginning of Ezekiel's varsity career, Frerotte, a former Washington Redskins quarterback, made it known that he expected a lot from his star player.
"Zeke has a lot of jokester in him; he laughed with everybody and made friends wherever he went," says Frerotte. "I told him everyone else was going to do what he did. So if he complained about running, everyone else would complain about running. But if he shut up and ran, everyone else would shut up and run too."
Ezekiel remained animated off the field, and when he put his helmet on, he energized the Bombers all the way to three consecutive state title games. Over his last two seasons at Burroughs, the U.S. Army All-American scored 90 touchdowns and rushed for nearly 4,900 yards.
Elliott's striking statistics compelled more than 30 schools to recruit him. He had dreamed of being a Missouri Tiger for as long as he could remember but shocked many when he announced at an emotional press conference that his heart led him away from home.
"I went to the Nebraska game on my visit [to Columbus] and felt like no fan base could rival Ohio State," says Elliott. "It was a night game, it was rowdy — it was perfect. There was an energy that I just didn't feel anywhere else in the country."
Most people in his hometown offered support, but there were some who suggested Elliott stay home and go where he knew he would be taken care of.
Frerotte says Elliott carried that doubt with him. "He was coming from a small school, [but] he was a good athlete," the coach explains. "He could play multiple positions without you having to start from scratch and explain everything to him. But some people thought he hadn't played against any real competition."
The star had also missed out on one thing: a chance to celebrate a title with teammates.
The Bombers lost all three state football finals, and though Elliott would win four state track and field events during the spring of his senior year (he took first in the 100, the 200, and the 110- and 300-meter hurdles, all in 2½ hours), his squad placed second overall.
"That was another chip I had on my shoulder in college," says Elliott. "I had never won a team championship."
Elliott didn't make a grand entrance when he arrived on campus at Ohio State. The 6-foot, 200-pound freshman didn't sign autographs or find himself mobbed by fans. Practically no one knew who he was.
He spent the 2013 season backing up senior Carlos Hyde, and though Elliott appeared in 11 games and ran for 262 yards, the newcomer's most impressive achievements came in the weight room, not on the football field.
Elliott had transformed into a starter by the beginning of last season, but even adding 25 pounds of muscle to his frame didn't result in immediate fame. Especially when Ohio State's season was off to such a nightmarish start.
After the Buckeyes lost their Heisman-worthy quarterback, Braxton Miller, in August camp, Virginia Tech — a team that would finish 7--6 in 2014 — upset them in September. And in November, Ohio State's backup quarterback, J.T. Barrett, suffered a broken ankle. Now the third-string quarterback, sophomore Cardale Jones, was expected to lead the rest of the season.
Elliott understood that his job was to make Jones feel more confident on the field. He can't remember an exact play or run, but Elliott knows that during the Big Ten championship against Wisconsin, the game slowed down, something clicked, and everything became easy.
"When you have a back who runs like that, it's easy to block for him," left tackle Taylor Decker told the New York Post after the national title game. "He was not going to be denied. I think he wanted to come out and prove a point, that he's one of the best backs in the country."
After the confetti fell, Elliott focused on getting healthy during the off-season. He had surgery on his wrist in February, so he couldn't participate in spring drills. He did, however, beat a healed Miller in a 50-yard sprint to determine the fastest student on campus. (Both players smoked the student-body entrants.)
In May, as the Heisman hype continued to build, Elliott tweeted a message to his offensive line, known as the Slobs (#SlobsforHeisman), suggesting they were the true Heisman nominees.
"He kind of has an offensive lineman's mind-set," Decker told Yahoo! Sports back in January. "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."
Says Elliott, "I felt like I was a little underrated last season, but I don't expect anything to change. I'm still going to try to work harder than anyone on the field and try to prove myself."
The junior is most excited to be able to use two hands throughout the season — to block, protect the football, switch hands — and maybe in the end hold all of that shiny new hardware.
Photos: John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated (Elliott), Robert Beck for Sports Illustrated (Elliott scoring), Greg Nelson for Sports Illustrated (celebration)