PETALUMA, Calif. -- Students spill out of classrooms across the Petaluma (Calif.) Casa Grande campus. They head toward parking lots, trying to avoid puddles created by the December rain in Northern California.
Faces are filled with looks of relief. The teenagers are one day closer to finishing finals and starting winter break.
For Elijah Qualls, though, it is not quite time to head home. Somewhere, sitting in one of the classrooms, the 6-foot-1, 282-pound defensive lineman is buried in a book. The Washington commit knows academic success is part of the path that will lead him to college and away from his past.
“I lose sleep over this stuff,” he says.
Once the parking lot empties and the campus is quiet, Qualls emerges with a pair of purple headphones wrapped around his neck. He walks into the school’s weight room wearing a black Nike warm-up suit. He jumps, grabs a metal bar and works off some frustration with a quick set of pull-ups.
He is stressed. He is dealing with typical teenage issues. He has his share of family problems.
But, after he takes a minute to let the school day fade, he says, “I’m not going to let that stop me from where I’m trying to get.
“I know that it’s not just my career, the pathway I’m trying to take to get to where I want to be, but it’s also the people I’m representing, all of the people who look up to me. There are a lot of things riding on this.”
Qualls has been through a lot in life. He has seen too much and worked too hard to fall short of his future plans.
Finding a future through football
Qualls was born in Concord, Calif., but grew up in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood. Known for crime, drugs and prostitution, Qualls described the area as a place where kids were destined to fail.
“As far as I was thinking, I wasn’t planning on going anywhere either,” Qualls said.
In an attempt to keep him off the streets, Qualls’ stepfather, Dejuan Miggins, signed him up for football when he was about 5 years old.
“I ended up loving it,” Qualls said.
He had a “terrible temper.” Football gave him an outlet.
“I could put my anger to good use,” he said.
He had some talent and enjoyed the game, so it kept him out of trouble.
“Everyone liked me and knew who I was,” he said. “They knew I was good at ball. They would come to my games. Even though the city in general was pretty much a bad neighborhood, a lot of people showed love to the people they liked. They saw the heart that I have.”
But football couldn’t prevent him from experiencing the dangerous world he lived in. He knew there were drug dealers on his block. He knew there was a crack house on the corner.
One of his friends was murdered. Another sold drugs. He watched a teenager get shot.
There were people a few houses down who asked Qualls to ride around the block and look out for the police.
“I don’t know why, but whatever,” he said. “I ride around the block and they give me some money for when the ice cream man comes around. I didn’t ask questions, I got ice cream.”
When he got older, he realized what they were doing.
“I ended up seeing it all,” he said. “It’s definitely not something many people should see but, at the same time, I try to see the bright side in everything. Now I know the realities of the world and what everything and everyone is capable of.”
When it was time for him to start high school, Qualls moved to Rancho Cordova, Calif. and enrolled at Cordova High School.
“The [Oak Park] community definitely all cared for me and looked out for me the best they could, but my parents still didn’t feel safe enough,” he said.
“A stray bullet can’t be stopped by many people.”
His time at Cordova didn’t go as planned.
“Down there, trouble ended up finding me,” he said. “I had to look after my cousin. He was in a gang. I didn’t want him to get hurt, so I stuck around him and all his friends, just looking after him.
“I was in it for his best interest.”
Qualls didn’t do well in the classroom and his family endured tough times. Miggins, who attended Casa Grande, eventually moved to Petaluma.
It was a decision that corrected the course of Qualls’ life, well, once he got past the culture shock.
“It went from more of a city type, kind of like a ‘Boyz n the Hood’ type thing, to people coming to school in hunting gear,” he said. “It was really trippin’ me out.”
He had an academic hole to dig out of. He needed to adjust to a new school in an unfamiliar community. He needed to focus in the classroom in order to take the field.
“When he came here, he was scared to look in the windows of other people’s cars, thinking something was going to happen,” said Qualls’ cousin, 2014 quarterback JaJuan Lawson, who also plays for the Gauchos. “Where, you’re in Petaluma now. You’re just another person. No one cares what you’ve done, where you’ve been or who you are. You get to just be what you want to be.”
Qualls made the decision to leave his past behind. He worked hard in the classroom and on the field. He molded himself into a prospect rated No. 212 in the ESPN 300.
He has become a person his coach, Trent Herzog, his family and the Casa Grande community is proud of.
“I want people to like me, I do,” he said. “I hope everyone feels that I’m a nice guy, a respectful guy, someone they like to be around. I like making other people happy. That’s one of my goals. I want to make as many people smile as I can.”
The senior is part of a program that visits elementary schools. He was surprised when the kids knew who he was. It provided more motivation to fulfill his goals. He is trying to set an example for himself, his younger brothers and everyone else he meets.
“I’ve definitely got to keep that image for them, hopefully, be a good role model,” he said. “That’s what I plan on doing.
“I definitely try to do it for myself, but I keep other people in mind, too and what it means to them. People back in my old neighborhood don’t have much going for them. To be able to say they know someone like me, it means a lot for them, so I’m trying to uphold that vision.”
A unique athlete
During a camp this summer, 2014 linebacker D.J. Calhoun (El Cerrito, Calif./El Cerrito) heard Qualls could do a backflip.
After sizing up the prospect, the other recruits at the camp bet Qualls he couldn’t do it.
“Being my size no one expects me to be able to do that,” he said.
The athletes in the camp didn’t know Qualls spent two years in gymnastics when he was younger. When he completed the backflip, “everyone went crazy. It was hilarious,” Qualls said.
Calhoun still talks about it.
Growing up, Qualls wanted to play running back. And, despite his size, he rushed for more than 700 yards as a senior. While he has only been playing on the defensive line for two years, he is able to use some of things he picked up along way to his advantage when trying to get past an offensive lineman.
“Just like a running back, you need explosion,” he said. “You need good feet. You need good vision to see what the other linemen are going to do, that way you can react to it and throw your move. It all connects together.”
In order to make up for lost time as a lineman, he seeks advice wherever he can. During The Opening this summer, he pestered Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh throughout the event.
“I was in that guy’s ear all camp, trying to learn every single thing I could,” he said. “I think he got kind of annoyed with me, but I didn’t care.”
There have been times in the last year when Qualls has been surrounded by Division-I prospects. Whether he was at Washington’s Rising Stars Camp, The Opening or this week at the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl, he would look around and wonder how he ended up being grouped among the nation’s best.
“I still don’t think of myself as a top athlete,” he said. “But, as far as the rankings, I am. And, being around all these guys I’ve seen play and do these amazing things, it kind of just trips me out. It’s like being around a bunch of all-stars and I’m still just a high school player.”
As he prepares to play at the next level, he wants to prove to himself what others already believe he is capable of accomplishing.
“I want to see what I have,” he said.
Looking back on his life, there were times he had to eat Top Ramen three times a day. He was often responsible for feeding his younger brothers, Dillon and Isaiah Miggins.
Everything he has experienced has helped him get to this point. It has prepared him for his college career and, eventually, the day he becomes a father.
“I love kids and I can’t wait to have them,” he said. “I’m definitely going to wait, because I’ve got to have the money first, but as soon as I do, I want to make sure I can give my kid everything they deserve, everything he wants and, hopefully, make him appreciate it like I would.”
While Qualls has considered taking several official visits, he will sign with Washington on Feb. 6. In fact, if it were up to him, he would already be enrolled at the university he committed to in June.
“You just see the potential in the coaches, players, the whole program,” he said. “You just see potential in everything and it just makes you want to be a part of it.”
In fact, when someone recently asked him if he needed a jacket to take with him, he turned it down. He plans to wear his Washington gear as often as possible.
“If you saw the way people react whenever they see Washington football players, you would, too,” he said. “You’re like superheroes down there. It’s amazing. Feeling that love is awesome.”