A defender greeted Staley senior Zach Elam somewhere near the 30-yard line. He initially tried to tackle Elam near the shoulder pads. A quick stiff arm alerted him that was probably a bad idea. So on a second attempt, he instead went low. Elam stumbled backward this time, but he maintained his balance.
The play dragged on for another few seconds — Elam thwarting attempted tackle after attempted tackle — until he was finally shoved out of bounds. And that’s a particularly important distinction.
“I hate getting tackled,” Elam said. “That’s my main goal — stay on my feet and never go to the ground.”
In the era of spread offenses, Elam resembles a tight end of the past. He’s an in-the-trenches tight end happy to serve as an extra blocker on the end of the line. He’s the middle-of-the-field, go-to receiver who notably wears Rob Gronkowski’s No. 87, unafraid to absorb a crushing hit.
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In his senior season, Elam has 43 catches for 766 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Staley Falcons, who will play Pattonville at 7 p.m. Saturday in Columbia for the Missouri Class 5 state championship.
“He’s like the lone ranger in tight ends in high school football,” Staley coach Phil Lite said. “You don’t see a true tight end much anymore in high school football. Everything is wide open. But he is the old-school tight end.
“He’s one of the best blockers we’ve ever had — at any position — come through our program. And he’s worked his tail off on his hand-eye skills.”
The attributes have compelled Lite into a unique maneuver at Staley, one that has escaped the previous 1,000 kids to put on a Falcons football jersey.
He starts Elam on both sides of the football. Lite, who has been with the program in some capacity since its inception, says Elam is the first player in school history to garner the honor.
It derived from necessity. As Staley prepared for the most significant game on last season’s schedule, the coaches pondered solutions to an ongoing dilemma. The Falcons struggled to pressure the quarterback, a problem that seemed to grow worse as the year progressed.
On a varsity roster that stretches to accommodate more than 100 kids annually, they turned to Elam. He responded with three sacks in his first start. He’s remained on the defensive line ever since and has seven sacks in his senior season.
“We feel like we want to have 22 different starters because you’re able to do a lot more things offensively and defensively when you’re not using any two-way players,” Lite said. “But you can’t keep that talent off the field.”
To think: It’s really not even his best sport. Elam had Division I scholarship offers to continue his football career into college, Air Force and Navy among them.
But he instead chose to wrestle. Elam has won two Missouri state championships and won the USA Wrestling Freestyle national title over the summer. Earlier this month, he signed with the Missouri wrestling program.
During the football season, he takes some time to fine-tune his wrestling technique. It has a way of congesting his schedule.
But this week, the focus is solely on a state championship, likely his last game of organized football, a sport he has played for more than a decade. He will be an important piece of it. Staley’s coaches make no secret about that — they plan to use Elam just as they have all season.
Anywhere. And everywhere.
“Wherever I can make a difference, that’s where I wanna play,” Elam said. “I just love that I get to have an impact on every play — I get to get down and dirty in the trenches, but I can also run down the field, catch a ball and score a touchdown.”