This was the scenario Ezekiel Elliott dreamt about his entire life.
Trailing 21-14 with 37 seconds left in regulation of the state title game against Logan-Rogersville (Rogersville, Mo.) last November, and Elliott, then a junior running back, was leading his John Burroughs (St. Louis) squad into the end zone to force overtime.
He walked up to the Logan-Rogersville 15-yard line and, when the ball was snapped, took the handoff straight up the middle and darted right, dragging two defenders inside the 10.
But just when his second effort looked as if it was going to pay off with a score, Elliott committed the running back’s ultimate no-no.
“I fumbled,” Elliott said matter-of-factly. “It was the worst moment of my life. I was all alone. It was for the state title and I fumbled. Is there anything more embarrassing? I don’t think so. Whoever says there is, hasn’t fumbled before. It’s by far the most embarrassing thing you can do in football.”
We caught up with a few elite running backs around the country who echoed Elliott’s claim and had them break down their state of mind in the moment they cough up the football. Perhaps more importantly, we had them dish on what the best way is to play off the extreme embarrassment.
Ryan Green, St. Petersburg Catholic (St. Petersburg, Fla.), 2013
Committed to: Florida State
The Initial Reaction: “Well, it’s tough because you let your team down. You feel alone and feel like everybody’s mad at you, when they’re really not. Well … actually they really are. At least for a little while. You feel pretty bad.”
Playing it off: “I think the best way to play it off is to pretend like you just hurt yourself. Not a serious injury, just like someone hit your funny bone or something. You’ve got to sell that. It’s the only way.”
Ezekiel Elliott, John Burroughs (St. Louis), 2013
Committed to: Ohio State
The Initial Reaction: “It’s just such a weird feeling. You really just freeze up, like you’re in shock. You just never expect to fumble, ya’ know. I think I physically go into shock for a few seconds.”
Playing it off: “The only way to play it off is to act like you were already down. You just need to keep pointing at your knee so the people in the stands and the coaches know what you’re talking about. You’ve got to sell that.”
Altee Tenpenny, North Little Rock (North Little Rock, Ark.), 2013
Committed to: Alabama
The Initial Reaction: “My initial thought is that I hope nobody saw it. I know that sounds crazy but you think crazy things when you fumble. Then I look around like I lost my phone or something. It’s like that feeling when you get your test back in class and everyone in the class made an A but you made an F. You’re just like, ‘What in the world just happened?!?’ ”
Playing if off: “You’ve got to jump up and run over to the ref and tell him that you were down. I say the best thing to do is to keep pointing to the ground and pretend like you were down. Then you go do the same thing to your coach. After that I usually whisper to my teammate and tell him, ‘You know I wasn’t down right?’ ”