Before he was the crop-top-wearing, yards-accumulating touchdown machine for Ohio State, Ezekiel Elliott was your everyday running back: a running back with lofty yet attainable goals.
Before he became the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and someone many believe to be a potential first-round pro draft pick, Elliott was a kid in St. Louis with the sole intention of being better than everyone he saw on TV or read about in the paper or online. And those vibes weren't the type to come and go randomly.
He didn't say much, but Elliott's ambition to be the best radiated wherever he went. And ultimately that ambition turned him into a walking highlight reel and college football celebrity.
In short, he became a success story but was never satisfied. Usually, the great ones aren't.
"He's kind of a zealot," Ezekiel's mother, Dawn Elliott, said. "When his mind is set on something, he goes after it."
Shooting for the stars—and beyond—has allowed Elliott to parlay football into a college career that included more than 3,800 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns wearing an Ohio State uniform and playing for coach Urban Meyer. He's worked hard for himself, for Ohio State, Coach Meyer and the rest of the Buckeyes, and his family has been there to cosign.
The culmination of his efforts occurred on Jan. 12 when Elliott rushed for 246 yards and four touchdowns on 36 carries to lead the Buckeyes to a 42-20 win over Oregon and the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship.
"I saw a young man who had come to age," said Stacy Elliott, Ezekiel's father. "He completed his mission. He finally achieved the ultimate in his life: a championship. Coach Meyer said they would win a national championship, and [Ezekiel] told me what he'd do after they won.
"He said he'd kiss the trophy."
Building his own path
Ask Missouri fans, and they'll tell you Elliott's story wasn't supposed to happen the way it did.
Sure, they wanted Elliott to be successful. But Missouri fans wanted the home-state kid to write his legacy as a member of their school.
At John Burroughs High School, he rushed for more than 4,100 yards and 77 touchdowns in three seasons, the majority of those statistics occurring during his junior and senior seasons. Elliott ended his high school career as the nation's No. 5 all-purpose back and No. 70 player overall in the 2013 class.
With his father a former outside linebacker and his mother a former heptathlete for the Tigers in the late 1980s and early '90s, it only made sense for Elliott to follow suit and play at Missouri.
"I went to the spring game every year. I went to regular-season games," Elliott told the Kansas City Star in January. "Mizzou was the team I followed my whole life. It was my dream school."
Only, his dream school took its time in contacting Elliott. Arkansas was the first school to offer Elliott in January 2012. Illinois, Nebraska and Iowa followed shortly after that.
It was Elliott's hope that Missouri would have been the first school to offer. Instead, it offered right around the same time as Ohio State.
And Meyer, one of the best in the business at closing on a wanted commit, managed to sell Elliott and his family on an opportunity to play for the Buckeyes rather than for the school many expected him to attend.
"I had to rise above my emotions of being a Missouri Tiger at first," Stacy Elliott said. "I feel bad when I look back at it because it got me into arguments, respectfully, with Coach Meyer. I was very emotional.
"I studied Coach Meyer's offensive system at Florida, and I listened to what he wanted to do at Ohio State. At that time, he never had a 1,000-yard rushing running back. They were putting out a flyer that one day, Ezekiel could be in the conversation of being a Heisman winner. But my question was how could someone win the Heisman if he doesn't rush for 1,000 yards?"
Still, Meyer remained aggressive in recruiting Elliott—which may have been the reason why Ohio State won the battle over Missouri and a few other schools. The entire family liked the fact that Meyer was one of the primary recruiters, as most of the schools relied on assistant coaches to handle the job.
On April Fools' Day of 2012, the Buckeyes got the news they hoped for. Elliott committed to Ohio State, sending a jolt of disappointment to hopeful Missouri fans looking for him to continue a legacy rather than start one on his own.
"Coach Meyer set the standard for all coaches," Stacy Elliott said. "If you wanted Ezekiel Elliott, the head coach had to show it, and Coach Meyer was after him. He got who he wanted."
A year-and-a-half later, the two stood side by side, celebrating with the Buckeyes as the inaugural College Football Playoff champion. That, and not the what-ifs of attending Missouri, is what Elliott thinks about.
"With the success he's had at Ohio State, he believes he made the best decision for him," Dawn Elliott said. "He's been very successful, and he's focused on being the best Ezekiel he could be. He's always wanted to improve his play so he can help his team win games."
Motivated for greatness
Three years ago, Elliott sat on the stoop of a St. Louis hotel, proudly donning a relatively new Ohio State baseball cap, as he had committed to the Buckeyes weeks before.
Finding motivation has never been an issue for Elliott. Being the best was his objective then, and it's his objective today. Wanting to be a part of something bigger than himself always has played a huge role in his future.
And after rushing for 1,878 yards his sophomore season, flirting with Eddie George's school single-season record of 1,927 and passing Ohio State greats like Beanie Wells, Keith Byars and Archie Griffin—college football's only two-time Heisman Trophy winner—it's easy to see he's made major strides in reaching his goals.
"Has he changed? I don't think so," his mother said. "He's still the same Ezekiel. At least he is with me and the rest of the family."
Elliott has rushed for 1,672 yards and 19 touchdowns this season, his last in an Ohio State uniform as he has declared for the 2016 NFL draft. At 6'0" and 225 pounds, there's something poetic about what he does on the football field.
When he isn't a north-south back looking to bully a linebacker or defensive back, he's outracing them outside the tackles, showing a level of acceleration that's made him intriguing to pro scouts since his sophomore year.
Elliott is an all-around athlete. In high school, he was a champion in several track and field events. In addition to being John Burroughs' top sprinter, he also was a standout hurdler, winning gold medals as a senior in the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes and the 110-meter and 300-meter hurdles.
Winning a state football title, however, was something he couldn't do in high school. Three consecutive years, Elliott led John Burroughs to a Missouri Class 3 state championship appearance. And three consecutive years, John Burroughs fell short.
"No one wants that silver," Elliott told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Which was why Jan. 12 was such a special day for him. Winning a national championship at the college level not only fulfilled a childhood dream but also exorcised the demons of falling short in high school.
And now...Super Bowl aspirations perhaps?
Whatever the goal, Elliott will leave Ohio State as one of the school's most decorated and well-liked running backs. He reached for previous goals, and he achieved them.
There's still work to be done. He'll be the first to admit that. But he'll have a nice resume to build upon.
"He trusted Coach Meyer, and when they won a national championship, it was almost surreal to him, almost like it was scripted out," Stacy Elliott said. "He did it. Now he's going to have other goals, bigger goals. That's just him."
Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Damon on Twitter, @DamonSayles