The flower is blossoming, which might read a tad ridiculous since this flower weighs 311 pounds. But Elijah Qualls is the flower nonetheless, the flower who has found the sunlight, who has found the brightness not blinding but illuminating, bringing forth that very thing every kid who grew up with violence wants. Peace.
“I don’t have any enemies,” said Qualls, the Casa Grande grad who starts as nose tackle for the University of Washington. Qualls paused after that sentence, considering the magnitude contained in those simple words. Before he moved to Petaluma in the spring of 2011, Qualls lived in a Sacramento neighborhood in which there was a crack house on the corner of his street, where he made sure not to look into the window of any car for fear it would be interpreted as a hostile gesture ending in a gunshot.
“I don’t have anyone standing outside my door yelling random stuff,” said the redshirt sophomore. “No one is screaming. There are no drive-bys (shootings). I don’t have any struggles. … Except for maybe homework. I bought a dog. His name is Storm. He’s a Husky.”
Qualls sounded so … normal, content, happy. He would consider that last sentence to be the ultimate compliment, how he has risen above it all. And it would be — if it wasn’t for this next sentence — Qualls is now considered a top NFL prospect.
“Elijah has that potential,” said Jeff Choate, Qualls’ position coach at Washington. “He’s played well against some very good offensive linemen. He’ll get a real good test (Saturday) against Stanford when he’ll go against maybe the best offensive line this season.”
Odds are Qualls will receive the same kind of compliment after the game Saturday that he received after Washington played Oregon last Saturday.
“I saw you way too much in our backfield,” said Royce Freeman, Oregon’s All-American-caliber running back.
There has even been discussion in some quarters of Qualls declaring himself eligible for the NFL draft after this season. Qualls is quick to respond that he will stay another year in Seattle. The reasoning is simple. This flower is still blossoming. What happened a few months ago is evidence of that.
Of all things, it had to do with being late for a team meeting.
“I wasn’t causing any harm, at the time that’s what I felt,” Qualls said.
From where he grew up, being late for an appointment was hardly a crime. Qualls saw real crime. He saw a friend shot and killed. Another friend sold drugs. So being late for something? In the Oak Park section of Sacramento that’s not even in the discussion. In Seattle, however, a higher standard exists. The Huskies coaches saw Qualls as a team leader, as he is bright, articulate, personable and highly skilled. Nonetheless, Qualls found himself quizzed by Choate about his commitment.
“We see college football as a training ground,” Choate said. “We were very serious about making Elijah a better person.”
Initially Qualls was shocked when asked if he was committed. Of course, didn’t they know how much he loved the game, how it gave him an outlet for his aggression, how much he wanted to play in the NFL? Of course the coaches knew that. They also wanted him to know this: With great gifts come great responsibility. Qualls owes himself that. He owes his teammates that as well. For a kid who once thought he was on an island, just happy to be alive and not shot or in jail, it was a teachable moment.