Ezekiel Elliott’s junior year at John Burroughs was almost perfect. The key word in that sentence is ‘almost.’ As in the Bombers ‘almost’ won the Class 3 state football championship in the fall, but Elliott was stripped as he was headed for the game-winning score in the waning moments.
In the winter, the Burroughs’ basketball team ‘almost’ beat eventual Class 3 semifinalist Lutheran North in the district title game at Whitfield, falling 51-49. Instead of taking their shot at top-dog Cardinal Ritter, the Bombers were handed another runner-up trophy.
Elliott ‘almost’ toppled Grandview’s record-setting sprinter Dapo Akinmoladun this spring. Instead, he watched as the Nebraska-bound powerhouse eked in front of him to bring home state titles in the 110- and 300-meter hurdles, leaving Elliott with two of the fastest times in the state but only runner-up medals to show for it.
There are a lot of athletes that would kill to be the runner-up in anything. For Elliott, a 6-foot, 200-pound lightning bolt of a young man, coming so close to victory time and again was just plain painful. To be on the cusp of something so grand and to come within a whisker not once, not twice but three times in three different seasons can play with your mind. “Junior year was very humbling,” Elliott, 16, says. “There were a lot of little things that could have happened to make it perfect.”
Elliott did what he could to make it perfect. On the gridiron, he scored 42 touchdowns, rushed for 1,802 yards and caught 23 passes for 401 yards. In the winter, he averaged 10 points, four rebounds and two assists per game while hitting more than 56 percent of his shots. In the spring, he bested a loaded field of locals in the 110s at Henle Holmes but then succumbed to Akinmoladun on the last day of the season.
So what do all those runner-up trophies, medals and heartbreaks add up to this summer? “Motivation,” Elliott says.
School has been out for a few weeks, but you’d never know it the way the Burroughs football players have been putting in their work. The soon-to-be seniors have organized offseason workouts around the handful of organized practices the state association allows in the summer. Elliott says the player-organized workouts have been well-attended and spirited. “Everyone is ready. We have a group of guys that are committed,” Elliott says. “We are about to go get it.”
Elliott is trying to push himself to the next level. Having already given a verbal commitment to play football at Ohio State University, he’s focused on righting what he feels is the wrong of last year’s title game. The fumble still haunts him in his heart and soul. “I still dream about that play,” he says.
But he also dreams about what redemption will feel like. He dreams about the Bombers returning to the state title game and finally—finally!—walking off with the biggest trophy and not the biggest broken heart. “It sets up the story,” Elliott says. “To come back our last year and do it.” To get there Elliott says the Bombers will have to take the hurt they felt on the field as the title slipped away and hold on to it. There are going to be moments where their resolve will be tested. And when they think they can’t go another step, make another play, drop another bead of sweat, they have to pull that pain out and use it to push through. Because no one wants to feel that way again. No one wants to hurt. No one wants to be ‘almost’ perfect.