By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
He stood behind a pickup truck, his friends shouting, a video camera running, and for a moment, it occurred to Keith Eloi that this stunt of jumping from the ground into the back of the truck for the purposes of posting the feat on YouTube might not be the smartest thing he had ever attempted. What if he couldn't clear the upright tailgate? What if he fell? The camera would still be recording and what would everyone say?
"I was definitely not trying to look like a fool," the Redskins wide receiver said yesterday afternoon, with a mournful shake of his head. "Instead of, 'Oh, wow, that's the guy who jumped in the truck' it would be 'Oh . . . he beat up his face right before his pro day.' "
But desperation can make a young athlete do a lot of mindless things in the name of getting noticed and after a San Jose State defensive tackle named Jarron Gilbert gained instant fame before this spring's draft by posting a video of himself leaping from a swimming pool, the players working out with Eloi suggested he do something to show off his vertical leap, which has been measured at 44 inches. Given that the football world knew almost nothing about Eloi, who toiled at Division II Nebraska-Omaha, it seemed perfectly logical to be standing in a parking lot in Katy, Tex., about to jump into the back of a pickup truck while a friend shouted: "Dude that jumped out of the pool got nothing on my dog! That's fake; this is real!"
So when Eloi successfully made the leap, floating high in the air like a martial arts movie hero as his friends shouted and danced in front of the camera, Eloi became something of an Internet sensation himself. Which seems odd because as he sat on a bench after practice at Redskins Park, he seemed nothing like a player drawn to the flash of celebrity.
Football came easy to Eloi growing up, but the opportunity to shine did not. He lost years of high school football because of injury, a move between Texas and New Jersey to live with his father and a dispute with a coach that essentially left him with only his senior year of football -- a season he was determined not to lose. Unnoticed by college coaches, he went to William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Ill., where he played with his uncle, Steve Octavien, who would later appear on the Redskins' practice squad. When Octavien went to Nebraska to play, Eloi planned to follow him and walk on as a wide receiver.
Right before his first season, however, he was told he needed school credits to be able to play. He sat out the season, then moved on to Nebraska-Omaha, figuring that if he couldn't play with Octavien they could at least be in the same state. After waiting another season following his transfer and desperate to play, he eventually got onto the field at Nebraska-Omaha, where he caught 57 passes for 749 yards and starred as a kick returner.
Still, he received little attention. There was a tryout with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League, but even when about 20 teams came to Nebraska-Omaha's pro day, they were there to see quarterback Zach Miller, who would become Jacksonville's sixth-round pick. When draft weekend passed and he was still unselected, Eloi was unsure what opportunity would come along until his agent mentioned that he knew Morocco Brown, the Redskins' director of pro personnel. A call to Washington led to an invitation to the rookie minicamp in early May. It occurred to Eloi that this might be his best chance at a football career.
It was a long shot at best. Between veterans, draft picks, rookie free agents and players on a tryout, there were more than 100 players at Redskins Park. But what Eloi remembers most were the words of Coach Jim Zorn, who told the players who were trying out that every moment of every practice would be filmed. And all of those minutes would be watched by coaches.
"I said to myself, 'I'm not going to let myself get caught on those cameras not going 100 percent,' " Eloi said. "I wanted to separate myself. I wanted to showcase my speed. That's all I heard growing up. When I would tell everyone I wanted to be a football player, they said, 'You have to be fast.' "
Apparently he was. He has been told that Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and Executive Vice President of Football Operations Vinny Cerrato had seen the YouTube video, though he has no idea if it made an impression on them. All he knows is that on the morning of the final minicamp practice, as he walked between fields, Cerrato pulled him aside and said, "We really like what we've seen of you, and we're going to sign you this week."
It should have been the greatest moment of his football life. Only he never really heard the words. He was so locked into that final practice, so determined to make an impression that what Cerrato said didn't register until his agent called and said he was sending along a contract. Somebody had finally noticed.
"I just love playing football," Eloi said yesterday. "I love it too much to let go."
He says things like this a lot to his new teammates, who undoubtedly look at him in the locker room at Redskins Park and smile. The other day, he was telling a family member how much he adored his job when the relative said, "You're lucky; not everybody gets to say that."
"They're right; you can't ask for a better job," he said. "We get to sit in a meeting room that's air-conditioned learning about football while someone else might be doing construction or laying tile. I love to lift weights. I love this weather. This is football weather here. Just a slight breeze is all you need."
He was smiling on another day of the job he loved, the one he hopes to keep.
The one that was worth jumping into a truck to have.