Thursday, May 10, 2012

Star player in high demand Elijah Qualls

Sun. February 19, 2012 at 2:00 p.m. | By staff

Casa Grande High School junior Elijah Qualls talks on the phone with Iowa State head football coach Paul Rhoads while playing with his brother Isaiah Miggins, 8, after school, Feb. 16, 2012. Qualls was offered a full ride scholarship to the school. (Photo by CRISTA JEREMIASON / PD)

It's been less than a year, that's the stunner.

Less than a year since Elijah Qualls enrolled at Casa Grande High School. Less than a year since he saw night turn into day, anger into peace, suspicion into trust, with a future that extends beyond the knuckles of a clenched fist. It is a life rich with possibilities, dotted with hope, not drive-by dangers.

A year ago, Qualls, with a 1.6 grade-point average, just wanted to finish high school.

“And maybe play football at a JC somewhere,” said the Casa Grande junior. “I couldn't have dreamt of what's happening.”

And that would include: “I got to meet Tim Tebow last weekend in Los Angeles.”

OK, that's the short, flippant version.

Here's the longer, more pertinent one: Qualls may be the most recruited football player to come out of the North Coast since Cardinal Newman's Jerry Robinson in 1975.

As of midweek, Qualls had been offered athletic scholarships at UCLA and Oregon State, Washington, Arizona, Arizona State and Iowa State universities. Last weekend, Qualls made an unofficial visit to UCLA and USC, where he met Tebow. Qualls also is experiencing heavy interest from Brigham Young University, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Nevada, Boise State, UC Berkeley and Oregon. By the end of this month, Qualls hopes to reduce the list to six schools.

Qualls, 6-foot-2, 265 pounds, is being recruited for his athleticism by some schools, as a defensive linemen by others and as a fullback by still others. He was on the phone this week with Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who told him the Huskies will design some plays for him on offense if he comes there.

“He has size, speed, strength — that's what the recruiters look for,” said his high school football coach, Trent Herzog.

“He's also a quality kid, on and off the field,” Herzog said. “If he keeps up the hard work in class, he's gonna make it big time.”

Yes, Qualls, who turned 17 last Saturday, is traveling in some rarified air, but it's not making him light-headed. He has seen too much already in his young life to get all fluffy in the head because someone paid him a compliment. He is grounded, very grounded, to the point his chief criteria for picking a school reflects a healthy restraint.

“I don't want to go somewhere and be treated like a piece of meat,” he said. “I want relationships, a support system, people who care, people who have my back.”

He wants what he has in Petaluma.

He never wants what he once had in the less-than-tony Oak Park section of Sacramento.

“I was tense all the time,” he said. “I was always paranoid.”

That would be from the gang drive-bys, the nasty stuff that accompanies drug deals. People were killed and Qualls saw someone die on his street corner. A SWAT team would visit his block at least once a month.

“I should have got to know them,” Qualls said, “I saw them so much.”

His father, Dejuan Miggins, described the environment as something “unimaginable.”

“He grew up in a very, very bad neighorhood,” Miggins said. “Prostitution. Drug deals. Gang violence. You name it. It had everything.”

When he was 8, Qualls was given an electric motorcycle. Drive around the neighborhood and look out for the cops, he was told. If you see one, let us know. It was THAT kind of neighborhood.

“I started playing football when I was 6,” he said, “because it was way to keep busy and help me with my temper.”

But football, either a practice or a game, was at most a couple of hours a day. Qualls still had to go back to the neighborhood where he had to keep his head on a swivel and be ready for any challenge. Some of his own making.

“When I was younger,” Qualls said, ”I had an extremely bad temper. Sometimes it wouldn't even take words for me to blow up.”

Qualls was suspended for a time when someone called him the n-word. Near the end of his freshman year at Cordova High School, he was kicked out of school. Things weren't going well.

Then everything changed.

Qualls' biological dad had left when he was 9 months old and Miggins is the only father he knows. Miggins is a 1987 graduate of Casa Grande, born and raised in Petaluma, and he decided to move Qualls and his two brothers to his hometown.

“Elijah was not applying himself in school, due to the environment,” Miggins said. “I realized that was not the place for him. I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn't it be great if he could grow up in the same place I grew up?' I had to get him out of all that.“

In spring 2011, Miggins moved into his mother's house in Petaluma with Qualls and his two brothers. Miggins told the three boys Petaluma was going to be much different than the Sacramento neighborhood.

“In the beginning they didn't like Petaluma at all,” he said. “They were kicking and screaming. They were against it at first. But I told them, ‘Give it some time.'”

Last April 5, Qualls enrolled at Casa Grande and gave it some time. What he found was indeed something quite different. He found was not a place to hide but a home.

“I knew this was going to be a better place,” said Qualls, whose mother in Sacramento remains an active presence in his life. “I found out it was OK to loosen up. I didn't have to look behind me all the time.”

The awareness was immediate, but the transformation took longer. One can't hit the delete key and make 16 years go away. Neither could Qualls play football for Casa just like that with that 1.6 GPA. He worked like a fiend to improve his grade-point average, now at 2.7. A 3.0 is his next goal.

Especially after what happened last summer in Los Angeles.

Qualls went to a juniors-only “Rising Stars” national football camp at USC.

“When I got there, I saw players bigger than me and faster,” Qualls said. “In the beginning, I was nervous. And then, after awhile I said, ‘I'm here, I might as well see what I can do.' ”

No pads and no helmets were worn. It was mostly one-on-one drills. The nervousness left him. His confidence grew. He was doing much better than he had expected, to the point he mentioned casually to another player, “I feel so good, I want to do a back flip.”

No way, said the player.

Oh, really? Qualls said.

The 265-pound kid did the back flip. Jaws dropped. By the end of the camp, Qualls had USC coaches hovering.

“I ended up doing better than most,” Qualls said humbly. “That's when USC started to recruit me.”

That's when Qualls got on the recruiting radar. That's when Qualls connected all the dots. Good grades, good environment, good behavior, good teammate all lead to an opportunity afforded to the very few — a free college education at a high-profile university just for playing a sport well. It is an opportunity that is like a golden egg for Qualls; he doesn't want to drop it.

“I was on the plane last weekend coming back from Los Angeles,” he said. “I was looking out of the window, at the clouds, and I said to myself, ‘I feel sky-high.' ”

Qualls could feel as if he just hit the lottery. But he doesn't. What happened, however, was that his environment changed.

“I am relaxed for the first time in my life,” he said. “Before I came to Petaluma, I didn't have any friends. I had my family, sure, but I didn't have any friends. I had associates.”

Associates who would use him as a lookout, as security, as a piece of meat, someone to be manipulated. Never simply to be a friend, to be someone they cared about.

If he didn't have friends then, how many does Qualls have now?

“About a hundred,” he said.

Casa Grande teammates, coaches and teachers, Qualls said, now form the fabric of his life, a fabric of strong, dependable, resilient people who see him as more than a football player. He has scraped away the barnacles and what they see is a good kid who now gets a chance to be a good kid, who doesn't have to defend himself anymore, who doesn't have to apologize anymore for walking away from a fight.

“His coaches and his teachers provided the the right framework for him,” said Herzog, his coach. “Then he made all the right choices and now it's all coming together for him.”

Harzog said he excited about Quall's senior year, “when he will be “even bigger, faster and stronger.”

Miggins, 42, said, “Elijah is a completely different person.”

“He found it was OK to trust people. Now he opens up to everyone. He has found people who want to be his friend, that want to help him.”

He also learned he doesn't have to live his life as a deer in the headlights and has a new set of expectations.

“I want to have the same thing in college that I have here,” he said.

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