PETALUMA - 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.