Two years before he was named an All-Big 12 honorable mention linebacker at Oklahoma State, Alex Elkins was busy training to become a U.S. Navy SEAL.
He had always wanted to play one particular sport professionally, but when that dream died, Elkins looked to the military as his next best option. He never did wear that all-white sailor's uniform -- he wears orange and white football garb instead.
From baseball to Navy SEAL recruitment, Alex Elkins' path to Oklahoma State has been anything but ordinary.
The High Point, North Carolina native is now in his senior year in Stillwater, Okla., and he has another shot at playing a professional sport -- not too shabby considering he had just learned how to play it three years prior. More incredible is that just 12 months ago was the first time Elkins ever laid eyes on a football playbook.
While Elkins’ athletic prowess is fairly obvious and beyond reproach, his gridiron success would never have come to fruition if he hadn't listened to his mother.
Elkins, whose father was never really in his life, says his mother, Laura, made sure he was surrounded by men who could positively influence and mentor him. Laura had Alex playing sports all year long -- gymnastics, basketball, baseball, wrestling, rugby and tennis -- and also served as his first baseball coach.
"She's had a six-pack her whole life," Elkins says of his athletic mother's muscles.
Elkins did play some youth football for several years but he doesn't remember much about it except there was no playbook and the kids played a lot of different positions. He also says that because he was a year younger than most of his classmates, he was at a constant size disadvantage and that made the sport difficult to enjoy.
"I think I was a running back," the 21-year old recollects. "My problem was I'd run backwards because I didn't want to run into the line. I wanted to find the hole.
"I never wanted to really play (football)."
What he did want to play -- the sport he would excel at in high school -- had a lot less physical contact.
"Baseball was my main focus," Elkins admits. "That's where my heart was at."
In 2008 Elkins was enjoying his last year pitching on his varsity baseball team at North Gwinnett High School in Georgia, where he spent most of his youth. His coach told him that he had a shot at some big-name schools, like Florida State. The right-hander threw side-armed but he packed a lot of heat -- he could submarine a pitch at 91 mph. It was setting up for the perfect senior year and the perfect summer. And then ... it wasn't.
It started with a phone call.
Elkins says a friend called him and told him that Alex's girlfriend had gone to a party with him, but the friend could no longer find her. Elkins rounded up some friends and went to the house party but was denied entry. He found his way in through a back door and once inside, he says he could hear his girlfriend mumbling in another room -- the door to that room was locked. Elkins heard a male voice coming from inside the room, broke through the door and took a swing at the man once inside.
"He had (her) locked in this room," he says. "She was completely out of it."
Elkins feared his girlfriend might have been drugged, but soon after the punch he was ordered to leave the house by the party host's grandfather. Alex and his friends left in their cars -- without his girlfriend. They were pulled over by law enforcement officials soon after and eventually Elkins was charged with civil battery.
Elkins' age (17 years old), lack of police record and extenuating circumstances helped sway the judge -- he was put on probation and ordered to do community service.
While Elkins admits he never regretted coming to the aid of his girlfriend, he thinks he went "overboard" when he burst into the room. The cost of his actions had a devastating impact during such a critical time of his life.
"I had broken my hand defending my girlfriend," he says quietly. One broken bone in his pitching hand ended his season and his dream of pitching in the major leagues. It was over.
Elkins earned All-Big 12 honorable mention honors last season.
Alex didn't graduate with his high school class despite being only eight weeks away from commencement. It wasn't an academic issue, nor was it a discipline problem. The combination of some family issues, the break-up with his girlfriend and his dream of playing baseball going up in smoke all led to his depression and a necessary time of reflection.
"I just felt overwhelmed," he says. "I just felt like the world was on my back."
After talking with a U.S. Navy recruiter at his school, Elkins decided to go a very different route and become a Navy SEAL. He went through the entire recruiting process -- including all of the testing -- and the only thing left for him to do was get his high school diploma via online classes.
Alex Elkins was ready to take on the world, but once again the world wasn't having any Alex Elkins.
He was playing a basketball game that summer and, after going up for a lay-up, he inadvertently slammed that same right hand against a wall and re-broke it. Meanwhile, chaos was erupting in his home life. His sister was involved with an older man. His mother and stepfather's marriage was about to end in divorce, he was ready to join the Navy and his mom was moving to Keller, Texas, to take on a new job.
The world was throwing curveballs at him. Again.
Laura wanted her son to join her in Texas and start a new chapter in both of their lives. He thought about how he could get a senior year do-over, maybe play some football and earn his diploma -- moving from Georgia to Texas would be a fresh start. He listened to his mother's logic and finally acquiesced. The Navy would always be there if Texas didn't work out.
In August, a Keller High School football coach spotted Alex jogging near the team's practice field and left the team on the field to chat with him. The coach asked him if he was eligible to play football. Elkins thought he was, but was informed the next day that he couldn't play football -- or any other sport -- at the school because he was a fifth-year senior.
"That devastated me," he said. "I felt like I was tricked."
Life's setbacks, Elkins discovered, knew no boundaries or borders. He graduated with a diploma in hand the following year and went to Panama Beach, Fla., with his best friend in early July -- he needed to blow off some steam for a week.
And then his cell phone rang while he was enjoying the beach scene. It was his mother, wanting to know about his college plans.
"I don’t know ... I haven't really thought about it," he told her, somewhat shocked.
She told him about a possible scholarship opportunity at a local community college, Blinn College. After a second phone call on the subject, Elkins listened to his mother without much argument.
Elkins arrived in Brenham, Texas, "a week before combines" and unknowingly was vying for one of only two open spots on Blinn's football team -- scout team quarterback and linebacker -- with 260 other athletes. A team staffer took his measurements and asked him what position he was trying out for.
"I was thinking quarterback," he confidently replied.
"Not to burst your bubble, but we've got a quarterback," was the staffer's response. The quarterback's name? Future Heisman Trophy-winner Cam Newton.
With his natural speed (4.55 in the 40-yard dash) and size (6-foot-4, 235 pounds), Elkins originally played the gunner position on special teams -- his job was to race downfield and tackle the player who was fielding a kick or a punt. After three games he was switched to starting linebacker and never relinquished his spot.
Blinn College went on to win the 2009 NJCAA National Championship and Elkins got his first taste of the recruiting process. He didn't like it.
South Alabama was the first school to offer him a scholarship. Laura told him to wait.
He listened to her. And waited.
Head coach Mike Gundy calls Alex Elkins the most improved player on the team.
When Oklahoma State offered, he accepted immediately and ended his recruitment. The first time he put on his pads in Stillwater was during 2011's summer workouts. Over the next few months Elkins had climbed up the linebacker depth chart, going from fourth-string reserve to starter. The regular season hadn't even started yet and Elkins was still figuring out this whole playbook thing. When he had played at Blinn, their coaches had drawn plays on a whiteboard with the players' visual memories serving as the team's only "playbook."
Last season, Elkins started at weak side linebacker in every game but one. In the Cowboys' Sept. 8 contest against Arizona, he had eight tackles after two quarters. And then he got hurt. He made two more tackles before eventually being carried off the field -- he could no longer stand under his own power. Elkins had hyper-extended both knees, sprained both ankles and bruised his MCL, but unlike three years ago, this time he wouldn't let an injury change his life.
After being sidelined for only one week, Elkins recovered quickly and returned to action. He ended up being the team's second-leading tackler (90 tackles) behind free safety Daytawion Lowe. He had a career-high 13 tackles against Kansas State with two of those tackles behind the line of scrimmage. In Oklahoma State’s Fiesta Bowl win over Stanford, he recorded 12 tackles.
Laura never missed a game.
Respect all around
Although the Cowboys' hope for a BCS Championship game berth was derailed by their Nov. 18 loss to Iowa State, Elkins makes no excuses.
"My coach told me, 'There are football Gods and sometimes they have different players than our Gods,'" he says. "It was a good eye-opener for us ... we're not untouchable."
But Elkins has been touched. He's had many mentors in his life, but head coach Mike Gundy has impacted him tremendously.
"Coach Gundy is a stand-out coach, not only as a football coach but as a coach of character," he says. "He's a seasoned veteran who's been in our cleats before and as a team, we respect that."
The respect goes both ways.
"Alex has really developed from when he first got here," Gundy says. "He may be the most improved player on our team. He plays fast and with great effort. He's also very gifted physically. We expect him to be one of the leaders of our defense."
While the Cowboys are much more well-known for their high-flying offense than a stingy defense, this year that may change -- the defense returns eight starters while the offense only returns four. Elkins is looking forward to shutting down those Big 12 offenses. The once-undersized kid who avoided getting hit 10 years ago is now doing all of the hitting.
He's an athletic freak. Despite playing a position usually associated with a bad-boy image, Elkins describes himself as "competitive" but is also quick to emphasize his honesty, loyalty and trustworthiness.
"I'm a late bloomer," he adds.
His mother would probably agree with his self-assessment but would likely add one more attribute.
He's a damn good listener.