That’s what Elijah Qualls experienced when he first arrived in the Bay Area town of Petaluma.
Moving from an unstable situation in Sacramento, to a steadier environment in Northern California turned out to be the best decision for Qualls, a four-star defensive tackle at Casa Grande HS.
But it took him a while to realize it.
“It was tough on him when he first got here and he went through some culture shock,” said Casa Grande head coach Trent Herzog. “He probably wasn’t a big fan of me when he got here, but I told him to trust us and we’d get him to where he needed to be. I think after six to eight months, he started to believe.”
Herzog saw a 260-pounder arrive on his campus just after his sophomore year, and thought he struck gold. But despite the athleticism that Qualls had, Herzog had his work cut out for him.
For Qualls, it was a matter of new surroundings and unfamiliar faces but more important, stability that he had to adjust to.
“Moving to Petaluma, it gave me more of a chance to focus on my academics and sports,” said Qualls. “Kind of selfishly, I got to focus on myself a little more. In my last situation, I had to worry about my brothers, if we'd live in the same house, if we would have food on the table. Now I don't have to worry about those things, because I have people in my environment who care about me. The change was good for me.”
Even if Qualls didn’t see it at first.
“It took me a long time to realize that I wouldn’t be able to go somewhere if I didn’t take responsibility,” said Qualls. “I had to trust Coach Herzog. I had an unstable lifestyle in Sacramento. There was no trust. But people here made me trust them. Everybody here that told me they would help me, they absolutely followed through. My academics have completely changed, my lifestyle completely changed. Right now, I have the best GPA I’ve ever had in my life. With the help of my teachers, my principals, Ms. Walker (Casa Grande’s academic advisor) and my coaches, I have everything I need to be successful.”
Herzog made sure Qualls ran a gauntlet of hard work and dedication before he took his foot off the pedal.
“The first thing I noticed was his athletic ability and his size and his toughness,” said Herzog. “He wanted to get better when he came here. From day one, I saw his athletic ability. He’s out running 50-yard fades, looking over his right shoulder and catching over his left shoulder at 260 pounds. I knew we had something special. I let a lot of people know about him, but he had to get his grades up.”
So Herzog rode him in the classroom, as well as on the football field, trying to make Qualls a better person along with a better football player.
“I wanted to see how much we could ride him and see if he was going to break because he definitely needed to change his attitude,” said Herzog. “He was working hard when he wanted to and not working hard when he didn’t want to. He really was writing his own ticket. It was a matter of which way did he want to go. And we didn’t allow him to screw around and we made it clear. We said that if he didn’t figure it out, he wouldn’t play football for us.”
Finally, Qualls figured it out, and by the time he was done with his junior season, Herzog began working on a highlight tape that would open doors that Qualls never thought possible.
“Around the beginning of November, I knew his highlight tape needed to be done,” said Herzog. “Once we made the tape, it just blew up.”
First came offers from Arizona State, then Iowa State and Oregon State soon followed and Nevada, joined the mix.
Before he knew it, Qualls had interest from all over the country. Once Signing Day hit for the 2012 class, and the focus turned to the 2013 class, Qualls now had offers from programs spanning the nation.
“I was just happy I had that first offer,” said Qualls. “I thought I would be lucky to end up at some small state school. It was amazing that I had the chance to be recruited by these schools. Every offer was meaningful to me. I never thought it was possible. I didn’t really think about being overwhelmed by all the attention. Honestly, I was just enjoying the fact I was being recruited. It was overwhelming, but not with stress, with being happy. Having all these options and getting a chance to go to college, I was just happy that I was able to.”
Qualls’ versatility helped make him a crucial target for so many schools, the size, vision and athleticism to be a power-back, the quickness and strength to be a defensive tackle.
He didn’t really care which side of the ball he ended up, he was just thrilled to know he could keep playing.
“Definitely I'm better polished at running back, but defensive line, I can definitely see myself having more potential, so I can see why people feel I’m better,” said Qualls. “Pretty much when my coaches decided I was a defensive linemen in college, that’s when I knew. But it didn't matter, I just wanted to go to college. Even right now, I'm helping my team by playing center. I just love football.”
During the spring, Qualls started to narrow his focus to a small, select group of schools, one that he would eventually commit to play college football.
He had plenty of options, but it was his relationship with Tosh Lupoi, like Qualls, from Northern California and a defensive lineman, that stood out.
Fresh in Seattle after, a lengthy playing and coaching career in Berkeley with Cal, Lupoi targeted Qualls early on, wanting to make in-roads in the Bay Area in his first few months at Washington.
The two built a strong bond, and after a couple of unofficial visits to Washington, Qualls knew that Montlake was where he was supposed to be.
So in late-June, up in Seattle for the Huskies’ Rising Stars Camp, Qualls and six other players committed to Washington, Qualls the center point of the flurry of announcements.
“I was pretty sure that I was going to commit to Washington when I was up there, but I told everyone else ‘if you're going to do it, do it with us and make it meaningful’, and people would be like ‘Washington is coming back’ and I thought it would be much more meaningful if we all did it together,” said Qualls.
Qualls left Seattle a day later, thrilled to be a Husky, excited about a future playing for Lupoi and Steve Sarkisian.
“My connection with Tosh was, he was this regular guy, but a really great guy, and he always looked after his players,” said Qualls. “He wasn’t just about football. He barely even talks with me about football. He wants to know how I’m doing, how are my academics, how I want to be better. Then you look at him, and his history with defensive lineman, you see why you want to play for him,” said Qualls. “Even if I played a different position, I’d get along with him. It wasn’t just Coach Tosh, it's the whole Washington crew. I know I’ll be in good hands and I’m really comfortable with all of them.”
Comfortable enough to suggest they use him on both sides.
“I told them ‘if you guys want me to play running back too, I'm down with playing it,” Qualls said with a laugh. “I'll even play some offensive line too. I just want to do whatever to help my team. My versatility is my best asset.”
Qualls said he would still like to take some official visits elsewhere, Arizona, Oregon State and Miami being some of the places he mentioned.
But nothing can shake his decision to attend Washington.
“I was jealous that guy’s got to be at the Stanford-Washington game, I wanted to be up there,” said Qualls. “I came to school on that Friday wearing all of my Washington stuff.”
Before he returned to the field this fall, he got to be a part of The Opening, and spent some time working with Detroit Lions’ defensive tackle, Ndamukong Suh.
“Every word Suh said, after I got past the star struck phase, the things he told me and asked me, all of that, I soaked it up,” said Qualls. “I basically sat there and listened and he gave me everything that would help me better my game. He listened to me, and told me this is how I can fix things. The Opening was an awesome experience.”
An experience that Herzog is hoping players at Casa Grande will get to enjoy for years to come, thanks to the presence of Qualls.
“About half the teams that offered him, I had a relationship with, but with 39 offers, they’re going to come through here every year, and now they know me, they have a relationship with me, they’re going to come through here looking for players, and Elijah is a big reason for that,” said Herzog.
A new culture that Qualls helped establish.