Ohio State football: Recruiting was trying for player, parents

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Chris Lee | St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Running back Ezekiel Elliott signs his letter of intent with Ohio State on Wednesday with his parents at his side.

On April 1, 2012, Ezekiel Elliott committed to join Ohio State’s 2013 recruiting class.

On Wednesday, at 5 p.m., Elliott made it official at his St. Louis high school. He became the Buckeyes’ 24th and final member to send in his national letter of intent.

That all seems straight-forward enough — but don’t try telling that to Elliott’s father, Stacy.

“There was a whole lot in between there,” Elliott said with a hearty laugh.

For a parent who shepherds his child through the recruiting process — or tries to — signing day provides as much relief as joy. Make no mistake: Stacy Elliott and his wife, Dawn, were happy with Ezekiel’s choice of Ohio State. But there were pitfalls along the way that caused stress and heartache.

At the start of the recruiting process, Stacy Elliott had no idea how coveted his son would be. But Stacy was no naïve parent. In 1988, he signed with Missouri, where he played outside linebacker. There he met Dawn, a multisport high-school star from Iowa who became a track standout.

But recruiting, like the rest of the world, has changed dramatically since the late 1980s. There was no Facebook then, no Twitter, not even cellphones. The ways for coaches, media and fans to interact with prospects have exploded, not always — or even usually — for the better.

Elliott believed that his son was a Division I-caliber player. But it wasn’t until Ohio State coach Urban Meyer expressed enthusiasm for Ezekiel that he thought of his son as an elite player. Stacy arrived home one Thursday from his job as a social worker when he found out that OSU had offered Ezekiel a scholarship.

“I damn near dropped my plate,” he said. “We knew Ezekiel was good, but I didn’t know how good he was.”

As the offers came in — from Notre Dame, Missouri and many others — the Elliotts wanted to take their time. Ezekiel was only 16 when the recruiting process started, and in some ways he was a young 16.

“Ezekiel has never made a decision in his life without his parents,” Stacy said.

When the Ohio State offer came last April, Stacy said the Buckeyes pressed for a quick decision.

“Ohio State told us they had limited scholarships, and they were only taking one running back,” Stacy said. “We were liking Ohio State more than any of the other schools at the time, and Ezekiel decided he didn’t want to miss out on having a chance to play football at Ohio State.”

But Stacy didn’t realize that Ezekiel had told a reporter, who made it public.

“I was pretty emotional that day,” Stacy said, choking up at the memory, “because he was my little boy. I said, ‘Well, you did it.’ ”

Ezekiel called Meyer. Stacy called running backs coach Stan Drayton. Somehow, nobody immediately told Dawn, who received a congratulatory text from Mark Pantoni, the Buckeyes’ director of player personnel.

Her response, according to Stacy: “How could Ezekiel commit without me knowing?”

Considering the date, she wondered if it was an April Fool’s joke. It most certainly was not.

The process, however, was far from over. The Elliotts heard that the Buckeyes were courting another running back.

“Two weeks later, I see that Derrick Green (of Richmond, Va.) is trying to go to Ohio State,” Stacy said. “Dawn tells me Stan Drayton said, ‘We may have to take another big back.’ ”

So Stacy decided he needed to immerse himself in the recruiting process, both strategically and philosophically. He questioned the definition of commitment and began to believe it was one-sided in favor of the school.

“It’s like a man being engaged to a woman,” Elliott said. “She’s not able to court other men, but he can court other women. But that engagement was (supposed to be) based on one woman only.”

Elliott said he called Meyer, who assured him that the Buckeyes wanted only his son for the tailback position. Green ended up signing with Michigan. Yet they continued to hear murmurings about this player or that player. As an adult, Stacy knew that life is full of gray areas. But Ezekiel, he said, had to learn that.

As signing day approached, so did the frenzy of activity. A recruit’s commitment to one school does little to dissuade other schools from trying to pry him free, and Ohio State is no exception.

“A lot of schools in the last three weeks have come out of nowhere,” Stacy said. “I’m like, ‘Whoa, this total recruiting process is crazy.’ ”

One late arrival was national champion Alabama. But the Crimson Tide wanted Ezekiel as a cornerback, and the Elliotts decided not to visit Tuscaloosa. In the final stretch, Stacy tried to impose a media blackout. But he was also finding that his son had started to shut him out, as well. The only information he was getting was “bits and pieces from different people.”

As frustrating as it was, at least Stacy could take comfort that his son was growing up in front of his eyes and developing some independence.

Meanwhile, Missouri made a strong final push. Ezekiel took an official visit to Columbia. At a men’s basketball game, Tigers fans serenaded him with a chant of “M-I-Z! E-Z-E!”

“When we went to Missouri, it was something out of a movie,” Stacy Elliott said. “They went crazy. We walked past the crowd and people started screaming my name. Someone came down the steps with a big poster with me playing at Missouri. I’m (depicted as) running after Ezekiel like I’m starting a legacy.”

Then Dawn’s old track coach, whom she hadn’t seen in a long time, greeted her.

“It was the first time in the process that I saw my wife cry,” he said.

As much as they loved their alma mater, the Elliotts were convinced that Ohio State was the better place for their son. They came to trust and admire Meyer.

“Urban Meyer said he doesn’t like average, ” Stacy said. “He doesn’t want average around. I don’t want average around Ezekiel. Urban Meyer is going to make Ezekiel the greatest he can be.”

But Ezekiel was playing coy. On his Twitter profile, he had pictures of himself in both Ohio State and Missouri uniforms, and with both Meyer and Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel, and said he had to make the toughest decision of his life. At 6 a.m. Wednesday, Ezekiel, his two younger sisters and his parents met as a family to complete the decision. Ezekiel was sure he wanted to go to Ohio State.

His high school, John Burroughs, is an elite private school that was unwilling to bend its schedule for a morning news conference. So the Elliotts had to wait until after school. Ohio State insisted it was confident that Elliott would sign with the Buckeyes, but Stacy said coaches called at least 10 times during the day to make sure. Nothing is certain on signing day.

The announcement was broadcast live on local St. Louis television.

Afterward, the Elliotts went to a celebratory family dinner. At midnight, Stacy Elliott’s day began anew. He had the night shift, so he went to work, secure in the belief that the son he had at the start of his recruitment wasn’t the same one at the end.

“I have watched him grow from a boy to a young man,” Stacy said. “This process has been like a rite of passage.”

For the parents, as well.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch.com

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