Zeke Elliott’s NFL career has been like a dream, chasing it could be a nightmare

Michael Dwyer / /AP

He’s only 15, a sophomore in high school, can’t yet quite drive, and already Raycine Guillory is hearing about it.

“All the time,” the Aledo sophomore said.

He’s a running back.

“My family asks me all the time, ‘Why don’t you play receiver?’ They want me to play cornerback,” he said. “I just tell them, ‘I’ll think about it.’ Or, ‘I’m good.’”

Again, he’s 15. He’s a sophomore in high school.

This is where America is with running backs.

On Sunday, the leading example of football’s “running back crisis” returns to AT&T Stadium, when Ezekiel Elliott and his New England Patriots play the Dallas Cowboys.

When the Cowboys dumped him in the offseason, Zeke was just another “old” running back relegated to the clearance rack. He’s 28.

When Emmitt Smith was 28, he had five straight 1,000-yard seasons ahead of him, and eight more years left in the NFL. When Thurman Thomas was 28, he had three straight 1,000-yard seasons ahead of him, and seven more years left in the NFL.

Different guys in a different time.

In that era, 30 felt like the cliff for running backs. Now, the cliff starts at 27.

Over the last several years the once worshiped position has been devalued to the point where current NFL running backs are meeting in the offseason in an effort to find a way to be paid the same levels as receivers, tight ends and the rest.

Indianapolis Colts Pro Bowl running back Jonathan Taylor is effectively in a contract dispute and has not played this season. His replacement, Zack Moss, currently averages 105 yards rushing per game for the 2-1 Colts.

In the Colts’ upset overtime win at Baltimore last Sunday, Moss ran for 122 yards.

Over the last several years, however good a running back is, there is another one on the Running Back Conveyor Belt who appears just as apt to run for 100 yards the next week. So, why pay any running back big, long-term money?

As much as this reality could deter a young person away from the position, the trickle down effect really hasn’t happened at the high school level.

“I haven’t met a kid who does not want to carry the football,” Keller coach Carl Stralow said in a phone interview. “Every spring there are plenty of kids who want to play running back and we have to tell them no.”

In this day and age, it’s plausible that a parent would lobby a head coach to play their son at any spot other than running back because of future potential pro chances.

Doesn’t sound like we’re there.

“It could happen, eventually,” Carroll coach Riley Dodge said. “On the high school level, the running back is one of the most important positions on the team because he does everything. Kids want to play it for that reason.

“I have never had a player come to me and ask to play something other than running back. The more likely scenario is it’s the backup quarterback who isn’t playing, and he’s the one who wants to switch positions so we might move him to running back.”

That’s the path that Guillory followed. As a freshman, he was a quarterback.

“We had a really good quarterback at my old school (Mansfield Lake Ridge), and I really wanted to be on the field to play,” Guillory said. “The best way for that to happen was to play running back, and it’s been great. It’s an opportunity to play.”

Guillory is currently listed as one of the top sophomores running backs in the state and is already on the radar of college programs.

Who knows if all of this would have happened had he remained at quarterback?

“I am happy where I am. Sometimes I want to be that guy who does make a catch, or a tackle a guy, but a running back is a good spot for me,” he said. “This opened up a lot of different opportunities in my life. Maybe playing at another level. Maybe going to college.”

One of those conversations he had was with Zeke Elliott’s dad, who told him a little bit what the NFL is really like.

What the NFL is really like is not like high school. Or real life.

“The average NFL running back plays something like 3.2 years,” Stralow said. “If you play that long in the NFL, that’s generational wealth.”

Actually, the average career for an NFL running back is about 2 1/2 years, the shortest of any position, which still translates into a lot of money. Not as much as the rest.

The reality is for high school running backs, only the best play in college, and only the absurdly exceptionally-exceptional make the NFL.

As much as a high school sophomore may aspire to one day make it to the NFL, switching positions at 15 for that scenario is still a bit of a reach.