Ten years ago, Elijah McGuire was ready to give up on football.
Now, the 22-year-old running back is about to embark on his NFL journey after being selected by the New York Jets in the sixth round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
The road to Florham Park, New Jersey, was far from easy for McGuire, a Houma, Louisiana, native. As a youth, he faced overwhelming pressure to fall deep into the abyss of drugs and gun violence. But nothing hit him harder than the passing of his father, Elijah McGuire Sr. His death left a crippling effect on the dual-sport athlete.
“When I was 12, my dad passed away and I wanted to shut everything down, whatever I was doing — sports, basketball, football,” McGuire told Jet Fuel. “I just wanted to stop doing everything. I wanted to stop going to school.”
McGuire used football as a reprieve, turning his unforgiving circumstances into a chip on his shoulder. He earned a First Team All-State selection during his senior year at Vanderbilt Catholic High School in Houma.
“Football was my escape from the environment I was living,” McGuire said. “I grew up in drug activity and gun violence—that type of neighborhood—and I had to separate myself… I did that and football was my getaway.”
McGuire was the No. 16 prospect in the state of Louisiana in the 2013 class, according to 247Sports. He was overlooked in a recruiting class that featured fellow 2017 draftees and Louisiana natives Tre’Davious White, Kendell Beckwith and Tim Williams. Each of those prospects landed SEC scholarships while McGuire’s lone Division I offer came from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. The three-star recruit took the only opportunity he needed and ran with it, literally.
At UL-Lafayette, McGuire became the school’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards, touchdowns and points scored. He was named Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year in 2012 and the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year in 2014.
Marquase Lovings, the running backs coach at UL-Lafayette, said McGuire played an important role as a change-of-pace back during his first two seasons in Lafayette. However, it wasn’t until his junior year when he shouldered the brunt of the workload.
That increased workload led to plenty of production, but it also came with plenty of attention from opposing defenses. Every opponent tried to contain McGuire. Most of them failed. The Ragin’ Cajuns went to three bowl games during McGuire’s four-year career and his 4,301 career rushing yards played an immense role in his team’s success.
“Junior, senior year, when you’re ‘the guy’ on the team, people are going to give you loaded boxes,” Lovings told Jet Fuel. “He’s been the man around here for a long time.”
McGuire quickly became ‘the guy’ on the gridiron, but he always had an itch to play basketball. A two-sport athlete since he was younger, the 5-foot-11 tailback stepped foot on the hardwood and joined the Ragin’ Cajuns basketball team for a season. He logged 59 total minutes in 16 games.
“I just wanted to get back on the floor one more time and compete in another sport before my college career was up,” McGuire said. “The opportunity was presented to me… that’s what I wanted to do and I wouldn’t take it back.”
McGuire can boast a stint with a Division I basketball team on his athletic resume. But one of his most important basketball games occurred in high school. McGuire put up one of the best performances of his basketball career when Lovings happened to be in town. That showing helped McGuire capture Lovings’ attention.
“When I went to go evaluate him, I didn’t even go to a football game,” Lovings said. “He had a triple-double that night. He was a point guard and the kid can really flat-out play. The thing you like about having a point guard is that he was directing traffic and he has great leadership skills.”
His efforts on the court not only put him on UL- Lafayette’s radar, but also helped him with the little things he did exceptionally well on the football field once he got there.
“It’s just movement—reaction to certain situations—like coming off of screens,” McGuire said. “Trying to find holes, when the hole closes up, you can react by trying to find a better hole, make a guy miss, bounce to the outside, whatever you have to do to get extra yards.”
McGuire will lean on these experiences to make it in the NFL. If the past is any indication, it shouldn’t be too hard for him to fit into an NFL locker room. Lovings believes his path to the pros gives him an unprecedented advantage as he takes on the next level.
“I think he’s seen a lot, I think he’s dealt with a lot in his life,” Lovings said. “I think he’s had to overcome some obstacles and I think that makes him who he is and that’s part of his DNA.”
Adversity hasn’t become a hurdle for McGuire; it’s something that defines him. He’s reminded of it every time he logs onto his Twitter account, which features the handle @Mr_Adversityy.
“The part of Louisiana he’s from, I don’t know how many kids are going to school and going to college and all of that good stuff — whether it be through sports or just going to college,” Lovings said. “He’s been to several funerals back and forth his four years for people his age—his peers—who have not made it out of the place he made it from.”
More than a decade after he wanted to give up on football, McGuire heard his name called during the NFL Draft. It was a moment that represented the culmination of a life defined by hardship and was one he will never forget.
“I was speechless because I didn’t know if it was real or not,” McGuire said. “Everybody that was at my draft party watch [was] looking with tears in their eyes. It was just a time, man, that I’ll never get back. You only get drafted once.”