We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.



Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


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.

“I have to set an example with not only my physical effort but with my mental one,” Qualls said. Choate was asking him to grow as a human being. As he thought about it that way, Qualls found Choate not to be the only one who has reached out to help him.

DeJean Miggins, his stepfather, moved Qualls from Sacramento to Petaluma. Miggins went to Casa. He knew Petaluma offered opportunities, a future, hope. At Casa, “Team Elijah” was formed. Team Elijah saw a bright but scared kid. Team Elijah was dedicated to bring the kid out of his shell. The flower began to open.

“My stepdad, Trent (Herzog, football coach), Danielle Walker (a teacher), they all helped so much,” Qualls said. “And there was James.”

Qualls lowered his voice in respect and that happens a lot when people mention James Forni, Casa’s much-beloved basketball coach who passed away this year from cancer. Qualls was in a physical education class taught by Forni.

“James was a huge part of my transition,” Qualls said. “When I first came to Casa, I spoke with slang. When James heard that, he took me aside and told me he would help me speak better. And he did. I owe him so much.”

Forni, Miggins, Herzog and Walker and others then faced an even more challenging task — helping Qualls to release suspicion and anger and replace it with trust. Qualls was headed firmly in that direction when he committed to Washington. He fell in love with the Huskies staff, including Tosh Lupoi, who recruited him. But just five months after Qualls arrived on the Seattle campus, head coach Steve Sarkisian resigned, replaced by Chris Petersen and a new staff.

For a guy with trust issues, Qualls could have fled. He didn’t. Qualls enjoyed the concept of trust so much he placed it in the new staff. Another teachable moment, you might say, especially when Choate had his sit-down with Qualls about being committed. The flower opened up a little more. Choate found out how much Qualls was committed and in turn Qualls found out how much Choate cared.

A week or two after each game he plays this season, Qualls will send a text message to the opposing center and guards he faced that Saturday. He will ask them to evaluate his performance, specifically, “How can I get better? What is my weakness?” Yes, shock was the first reaction. Competitors, especially at the Division I level, don’t open up themselves to criticism like that.

“I’ve known of players who do but usually it’s with guys they’ve known through summer camps or evaluation camps,” Choate said. “This is a little outside the box but it shows me how much Elijah wants to learn.”

A few members of Cal’s offensive line, USC’s first- and second-string centers and Boise State’s center received text queries from Qualls. They all responded.

“I’m always harping on myself,” Qualls said. “I don’t like to play average, even if it’s only one or two plays.”

Has Qualls played against someone this season who dominated him?

“No,” Qualls said quickly. “Usually if I get beat on a play it’s because I’m overthinking something or not using the right technique or taking a chance. Right now I’m working on beating a double team to the quarterback.”

Qualls did that well against Cal, twice sacking All-America candidate Jared Goff. For the season, Qualls has 20 tackles and three tackles for losses. For the season, double teams are the norm. Postgame videotaped interviews by university staff now have Qualls as the norm. To those of us who first met and heard Qualls nearly five years ago, what he is saying and how he says it, it’s difficult to connect the dots.

“It’s called growing up,” Qualls said.

The Team Elijah folks and the Washington staff would say it’s being aware. Qualls always has been aware of those who have been there for him. One day, if he realizes his dream, Qualls will become aware of a larger group of people. He will walk into that Oak Park neighborhood as an NFL player and tell the pimps and the gang-bangers and the drug dealers there’s a way out of that mess.

Qualls can’t change his past. But he can change their future. At the end of his days that will become his true gift, his ability to inspire — and it won’t be because he was so good at stuffing the run.

To contact Bob Padecky email him at bobpadecky@gmail.com.

Show Comment