By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
They were there at Casa Grande High School Wednesday morning, or at least most of them. They were Team Elijah. The head coach, the assistant coach, the academic counselor, the physical education teacher, the mother, the father, the stepfather, his future college coach, the neighbors who would take him to a Friday night movie or to Salmon Creek Beach on a weekend. There’s a life out there, Elijah Qualls, that will give you a reason to get up in the morning and out of bed, and not stay in it, with you under the covers.
“Like my grandma said, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’” said DeJuan Miggins, Qualls’ stepfather.
That village, Team Elijah, numbering about 30, watched the object of their affection and dedication sign a letter of intent to play football next fall for the University of Washington. His signature on the dotted line brought the buzz to a momentary pause in the room, only to be followed by a verbal exclamation point.
“Let’s close this thing out!” Tosh Lupoi said on speaker. Lupoi is Washington’s defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator.
“I can’t wait to come!” Qualls said.
Lupoi gave his best bark-like-a-dog sound.
“Woof!” Qualls barked back into the speaker.
Washington’s mascot is a husky. In football, they call this male bonding. In Qualls’ life, he calls this one step farther from Oak Park, a Sacramento suburb where Qualls would hear a SWAT team land in his neighborhood at least once a month when he was growing up. Drugs, prostitution, gang violence all shaped the culture. At age 8, Qualls was given an electric motorcycle and told to drive around the neighborhood, alerting the drug dealers to the cops.
Wednesday morning one of those members of Team Elijah, his mother Elizabeth Fitzmorris, was tearing up. She had trouble picking up her son at 18 months — he weighed 45 pounds. He started to walk when he was 8 months. He slept with a football under his pillow at 2. Told his mom at 5 he was going to play professional football. And she cried, for Oak Park is not the birthplace for an NFL dream. The neighborhood, he has said, made him flinch, had him always looking over his shoulder.
“We never had a lot,” Fitzmorris said. “But we had love.”
And that kid, well, he had something and it wasn’t what they saw on the football field. It was something they saw away from the field, the thing Danielle Walker saw when Qualls would come to her house to study.
Walker is Casa’s academic counselor as well as community outreach coordinator. Qualls would come to her house to use her computer when one wasn’t available to him. From time to time, Qualls would take a break.
“Elijah would be in my backyard,” Walker said, “blowing bubbles for my daughter Kaia (age 4).”
That’s what Walker saw, and coach Trent Herzog, and physical education teacher Ron Petroni as well. They all saw the same thing. Under the armor Qualls had developed in Sacramento was a good, decent human being. Yes, Qualls lost his temper once and was kicked out of Rancho Cordova High School as a freshman. But environment to an adolescent, all too often, has as much if not more influence than any parent.
So when Miggins moved Qualls and his two brothers to Petaluma after Qualls’ sophomore year at Rancho Cordova, Miggins’ goal was to stabilize Qualls’ life, not turn him into a D-I football candidate. That 1.6 GPA, that just didn’t have much of a future behind it.
“I thought maybe I would qualify for Idaho State,” Qualls said. “That would be my lucky offer.”
Qualls is now at 2.28 overall GPA, 3.1 this spring. But as happens sometimes in the closely knit and always-interested Sonoma County, Qualls heard the rumors: “Washington is going to pull the scholarship,” … “Qualls isn’t making grades,” … “Poor Elijah.”
Qualls’ reaction? “It happens,” he said. “Some people will try to bring you down.” Mostly he just shrugged. He’s heard worse. Seen worse. Compared with where he’s been, this is like playing with Legos. Would whispers would dent his tenacity? Not now. Not ever.
“I have never met anyone who has more drive and more determination to accomplish his goals than Elijah,” Walker said.
“He competes academically. With himself. I really admire him for his resolve. In no way does he lack the ability to learn. He has had the deck stacked against him since birth. Now he is learning how to learn, how to study.”
Every morning at 9 a.m. Walker sends out the weekly email to Herzog, Washington head football coach Steve Sarkisian and Qualls. The email consists of the academic commitments Qualls is to make that week. Some may last until 8:30 p.m. The very earliest in which Qualls can complete his academics is 5:30 p.m. Sarkisian or Lupoi usually will follow up the email with a call during the week.
“I weigh 300 pounds right now,” said Qualls, a defensive lineman, who prefers 280. He’s gained weight, he says, “because I have been living inside books for the four months.”
A month ago, Lupoi was at Casa for the day. Before he left, Lupoi wrote in purple marker on the glass door leading into Walker’s office these words: “Results. No Excuses. How Bad Do You Want It?” Walker said Qualls reads those words every day as he enters her office.
“I wrote that to remind Elijah not to allow distractions to come into his life,” Lupoi said. “Elijah realizes how special this opportunity is. He is an intriguing guy for us. He has a great take-off off the ball. He changes direction very well. He has great instincts. Elijah is on a mission to excel.”
Qualls committed to Washington on June 28, but because it was a nonbinding verbal commitment, other schools made a run at him. He had 33 BCS school offers, Herzog said. Qualls visited USC three times, Cal three times, Washington five times and made single visits to Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA and Nevada-Reno.
“I feel like this is just a start toward my (NFL) goal,” Qualls said. “The process has taught me a lot. It showed me how some people (recruiters) are just suits. I’ve seen how some people get big-headed.”
He knows Washington can yank that scholarship at any time if he doesn’t maintain his grades. He knows the scholarship is a year-to-year renewable.
This is not a guaranteed four-year ride. He has to continue to prove himself. He knows he didn’t hit the lottery, as some would imagine. He has to earn his way, every day, otherwise he’ll just be another guy with talent who blew it.
“We impress on Elijah all the time,” Lupoi said, “that we just don’t want him to be one of the guys when he comes here. We want him to be special.”
Qualls, who will be 18 in four days, is ready to back up that bark with some bite.
“I wish,” he said, “I could leave (for Washington) right now.”
You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.