Imagine if the reporter knew, would he have asked the question? What if he knew Elijah Qualls’ life had been such a struggle growing up that for stretches of time he had Top Ramen for breakfast, lunch and dinner? What if that reporter knew — for reasons Qualls now can’t remember — that he didn’t go out that night in Sacramento? That his three friends did, and they were murdered?
But that reporter on Super Bowl Media Night on Monday didn’t know that. He couldn’t have. We want to give him that kindness. The guy was looking at No. 98 for the Philadelphia Eagles. That’s all he felt he needed to know, which became quite obvious.
“If the Patriots had a cologne,” the former Casa Grande star was asked, “what would it smell like?”
Huh? Qualls’ eyes crossed. It’s not customary for this defensive tackle to go about sniffing the necks of offensive linemen. Ah, but this is the Super Bowl, which meant he just stepped into a Salvador Dali painting. Questions don’t have to make sense — and with 2,000 media members desperately searching for something different at Super Bowl LII, it’s surprising Qualls wasn’t asked, since his last name rhymed with “squalls,” did he wish he was a hurricane?
Instead, he settled for a blank stare and a blank thought.
“I didn’t know how to answer that,” he said Wednesday night by phone from Minneapolis.
Rather than twist his mind into a pretzel trying to intelligently answer the ridiculous, Qualls had settled on a thought much more compelling, pertinent and knowable. It began last April 29 when he was drafted in the sixth round by the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Considering where you came from,” I asked, “do you ever pinch yourself on how far you have traveled?”
“I do that every day since I was drafted,” said Qualls, a defensive tackle.
It wouldn’t be unexpected if Qualls would treat his growing up in Sacramento as a bad flu he was glad to shake. As he told the Eagles website, trying to characterize the danger there, “especially when you are out(side) and the bullets are flying.” Yes, there is a lot to forget, diminish or just plain shrug off. To wish it never happened.
Qualls won’t. Can’t. Would never push Sacramento to a distant footnote. Instead, he embraces his time there. Sacramento was his fire test. Qualls didn’t run from the fire. He ran to it, walked through it. That neighborhood, those drugs, those drug mules, those shootings, all of that was the prep work for when he came to Casa at age 15.
“Sacramento made me the man I am today,” said Qualls, who will turn 23 on Feb. 11. “Petaluma opened the doors for me. If I could go back and change my life, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The doors, for him, are still open. Wide open. His past is a branding iron on his soul, imprinting itself so deeply, so permanently, that it leads him to only one conclusion.
“Being average scares the living hell out of me,” he said.
Being average to him means still being in Sacramento, feeling sorry for himself, seeing dead ends everywhere and giving up. A life shelved. Being average to him also means lack of effort, lack of vision. Being average is accepting others’ assessments as truth. Qualls will have none of that. And he does not sound like a sixth-round draft choice when he says how above average he wants to be.
“I’m not even close to where I want to be,” he said. “I think I can be one, of if not the greatest, to ever play my position. The coaches told me I have so much potential.”
These are strong words indeed from a rookie who played in only six of the Eagles’ 16 regular games this season, who was inactive for the two Philly playoff games and won’t find out until Saturday if he’ll be activated for Sunday’s Super Bowl.
No worries. Qualls didn’t get this far by being scared of his own shadow or his past. Qualls is embracing the moment. From personal experience he knows how unpredictable life can be. So he will live in the moment and enjoy it with people who matter. Qualls will have nine people at Sunday’s Super Bowl, including former Casa coach Trent Herzog, his stepfather DeJuan Miggins and his two brothers, Isiah and Dillon. As for souvenirs, he’ll be happy with just this one: His Eagles jersey with the Super Bowl LII patch on it.
So Qualls works within an interesting dichotomy. Happy to be here. But he wants to be thrilled, excited, screaming inside, proud of his journey — so proud that one day he wants to look back at Super Bowl LII and say this was the beginning, not the end.
Qualls believes in making his own luck, guiding his own life. He only has to look in his rearview mirror for motivation and see Sacramento back there in the distance. It’s been more than seven years since he’s lived there, yet he’s never left. It’s with him. He knows where to find it. He never has to look for it.
“It’s the chip on my shoulder,” said the man who is scared of being average.
To comment on Bob Padecky’s column write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.