“Go!” shouted a quarterback in a sparsely populated indoor practice field – his voice so loud that it left an echo.
That quarterback was New York Jets signal caller Bryce Petty. On his command, Bryce took a snap, then started running backward. A quarter-second later, Bryce was where he needed to be – about a yard and a half away from his center where Houma native Elijah McGuire was waiting.
Bryce handed Elijah the football and suddenly, the Vandebilt Catholic High School graduate was in his element – doing what he’s done his whole life. Elijah stuttered to the left, then pondered whether to bounce the run outside or hit a small hole in the middle. He chose to bounce outside, but he made his decision a little too late. Instead of gaining 10-15 yards like he might have done in college, Elijah was bottled up almost immediately and gained only 2 yards.
“Eli!” shouted a man from the coach’s huddle as the young back picked himself off the turf. “Over here.”
The voice summoning Elijah was Lake Charles native and legendary NFL running back Matt Forte – the man who Elijah is leaning on heavily these days because of his vast knowledge and the two’s common background as Louisiana natives. Matt calmly gave Elijah a few pointers and the next time the team ran the play, he nailed it, getting a first down.
Elijah is preparing for his first NFL season with the Jets – an honor he earned after a legendary collegiate career with the UL-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns, which resulted in his being selected in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Elijah concedes that NFL life is tough, but added that he’s having a blast, learning from Forte and veteran Bilal Powell. “They’re taking me under their wings and telling me the do’s and the don’ts and the rights and the wrongs,” he says of his new mentors. “The things I don’t know, I ask questions about and they get me in the right direction.”
Elijah is an unbelievable talent – one of the greatest to play the game in the history of Terrebonne Parish. At Vandebilt, he was an unstoppable force at quarterback, helping lead the Terriers to the Class 4A State Quarterfinals.
Out of high school, Elijah signed with UL-Lafayette. He hoped for bigger scholarship offers, but was relatively unknown on recruiting boards because he reclassified in his prep career. Because of that, a lot of colleges thought McGuire was a junior when he was actually a senior. It was everyone else’s loss and the Cajuns’ gain.
Elijah did everything there is to do at the college level, re-writing the record books for the Ragin’ Cajuns, while also helping get the program to a new level of prominence. With UL-Lafayette, McGuire won Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, Sun Belt Player of the Year and was a multi-time All-Conference player. Statistically, he was as good as anyone the school has ever seen, setting the university record for all-purpose yards.
“He’s an unbelievable talent,” UL-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth said last season. “He affects the games so many ways. But for all the impact he has on the field, Elijah is an even better person off it. He’s a truly great Ragin’ Cajun.”
Elijah has been on the NFL radar long before being drafted. He thought about entering the NFL draft after his junior season, but opted to return to school to improve his draft stock. As a senior, he battled injuries, but still made an impact, helping lead the Ragin’ Cajuns to the New Orleans Bowl.
In a recorded phone conversation posted on the Jets website, McGuire was calm and poised as he spoke to Jets owner Woody Johnson.
“You’re in the Big Apple now,” the owner said. “We can’t wait to see you. I look forward to meeting you, and I think you’re going to like the Big Apple. There’s a lot going on here. It’s a lot more than just football.”
But make no mistake about it – football is Elijah’s No. 1 focus as the season nears.
With the Jets, Elijah is in a role he’s not used to as he sits behind his mentors Matt Forte and Bilal Powell on the depth chart. However, the veterans have been slowed by injury in training camp, giving Elijah the chance to work with the first team in camp.
Elijah wishes he had time to savor the moment– how this is something he’s dreamed of since he was a kid, but adds that he just doesn’t have the time. The NFL is a grind and any step that’s not forward is a step backward. Enough backward steps and the ride is over – as fast as it ever started.
“For the coaches to believe in me and have me go out there with our ones as a rookie, that’s telling me that they believe in me and have trust in me and that’s awesome,” he says.
Whatever his role turns out to be, Elijah says his focus is the same as the season approaches – become the best player possible and make a good impression on someone every day.
“You’ve got to be ready when your number is called,” Elijah explains. “That’s the process I’m in right now – being ready. Backups need to prepare like they’re about to be a starter if something happens. And that’s what I’m doing. This is a dream and I’m so grateful, but my focus is just on working hard, getting better and being ready for when my team needs me.”