Jumbo Elliott and Jamie Morris were on the phone last week chatting away as they typically do four, five times a week, their conversation, as usual, drifting from topic to topic.
Elliott, the former Michigan offensive lineman, and Morris, the former Wolverines running back, have a deep bond. They’re both East Coast guys, Morris from Massachusetts and Elliott from Long Island, and they’re forever connected from their playing days in Ann Arbor.
Last week's call took an unexpected turn.
“I’m just sitting here, I’m on the phone with Jamie Morris — he’s pestering me all the time,” Elliott said, laughing, “and we’re talking about all sorts of stuff, going on and on. We usually ramble for an hour and a half or so, and this box comes, and my girlfriend puts it in front of me on the table. She said it’s some Football Foundation stuff.
“So Jamie goes, ‘Oh my God, you know what that is?’
"That’s the Hall of Fame!"
“I go, ‘No,’ whatever. I just blew it off and went back to talking for the next hour or so.”
Morris insisted it was confirmation of Elliott’s induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
“I was going crazy,” Morris said.
Elliott, ever the selfless offensive lineman, ignored the obvious signs, like the football that was in the box, and wanted to keep talking to his old friend.
“Finally, when we’re done, Jamie says, ‘Dude, what’s wrong with you? That’s probably the Hall of Fame,’ ” Elliott said, laughing again. “I was like, ‘Ah, I’ll get to it later.' ”
“I was more excited than him,” Morris said in disbelief.
John Elliott will, indeed, be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame this year, it was announced last Wednesday. The two-time All-American and All-Big Ten first-team member in 1986 and 1987, is the 32nd Michigan player selected. He was a four-year letterman for the Wolverines and helped them win a Big Ten title in 1986.
The 6-foot-7, 306-pound tackle started 44 of his final 46 games at Michigan. He played 14 seasons in the NFL after being drafted in the second round by the New York Giants in 1988. He played eight seasons and started 98 games for the Giants (1988-1995) and won a Super Bowl. He then played for the Jets for six seasons, starting 58 games.
“It was very unexpected,” Elliott said. “I’ve been up for (the Hall) for several years. The first year I heard about it, I was excited and blown away. I thought it was very nice just to be mentioned. Somebody out there thinks I had a decent career, great, that’s terrific, but there are so many good players who come and go at Michigan. I played with a club that was loaded with talent.
“Just think of the guys before me and the guys who would come after. So I was kinda like, it was nice I was mentioned and that’s terrific, and I’ll always root for a Michigan guy when he gets in there. I wasn’t paying that much attention in recent years, so it snuck up. It’s really nice.”
Elliott is a native of Lake Ronkonkoma in Long Island and played for Fred Fusaro at Sachem High.
“I’m a kid who really was a fan of college football,” he said. “I wasn’t near a five-star recruit. My high school coach was very nervous about me going to such a big-time school, but the tradition and the feel when I took my official visit to Michigan, it was just so different. And that’s no slam on the other programs I was visiting, Maryland and North Carolina, and Syracuse — I was being recruited by a lot of those eastern schools.
“The sense of tradition at Michigan and growing up a college football fan, of course I was aware of Ohio State and Michigan, and the sense of permanence of the coaching staff, everything about it. The air felt different at Michigan. I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to go here. If I get on special teams, hey, to me, that’s going to be a great success.’”
He described himself as a “baby giraffe” when he arrived at Michigan. Elliott was 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds before strength coach Mike Gittleson started to work with him. Elliott grew an inch and by his fifth year weighed 315.
“Gittleson worked his magic on me,” Elliott said. “Next thing you know, I’m a four-year starter. I would never have imagined that.”
But long before that growth spurt, a nickname for the Long Island kid was born.
“My first practice at Michigan, I was almost like, ‘Did I make a mistake?’ ” Elliott said laughing heartily. “(Coach) Bo (Schembechler) would blow a whistle and get everyone up into the middle of the field. He had 30 seconds of whatever he was going to say for the day, and then he’d blow his whistle and point to one of the corners of the field to start the warm-up laps.
“So everybody sprints. Bam, everybody takes off. I’ll tell ya, it was like a herd of gazelles. Everybody was gone. I was like 20 yards behind, trying to catch up, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, these kids are like Olympic athletes. Maybe I should have gone to Rutgers.’ Bo yelled out, ‘Come on, Jum-Bo, pick it up!’ ”
Gittleson would later tell Elliott that while watching film of him, the coaches started rattling off a few nicknames.
“The older guys on the team loved it, Doug James, Mike Mallory,” Elliott said. “They got a kick of out of it and they kept using it. I’m Jumbo.”
To this day, the nickname has stuck.
“Everybody calls me Jumbo,” he said, laughing. “Some people think my name is Jim, Jack, Jordan, Jamar. It’s just Jumbo Elliott. That’s it.”
Morris knows how much Elliott meant to the offensive line during their careers that lasted from 1984 to 1987 and included players like John Vitale, Mike Husar, Doug James, Clay Miller and Mark Hammerstein.
“He’s an unsung hero,” Morris said of Elliott. “I had an up-close and personal look at what he did. He’d be blocking two, then go down the field hitting more people. About 78% of the time we ran behind him. He was the strong-side tackle. That was the strength of the team on that side. We had to run to the other side just to let everyone know we don’t just run to his side.
“Let me tell you something, you could almost know where we were running the ball, and you may have outnumbered us, it’s the running back’s job to make somebody miss, but Jumbo, you count him as getting two players. He’s going to get his guy and come off and get the next guy.”
Morris finished his career as Michigan’s leading rusher with 4,393 yards. He now sits fourth on the all-time list. He credits Elliott and the line for much of his success.
“He had a mean streak,” Morris said. “As the game moved forward, he got angrier and angrier. It was just the way he was.”
And the baby giraffe carried that into the NFL.
“The work ethic that was taught at Michigan served me well to survive in the pros,” Elliott said. “I ended up playing 14 years in the pros. A lot of that had to do with the toughness I learned at Michigan, 100%, for sure.”
The Hall of Fame induction is set for December in New York. From now until then, Elliott and Morris will have countless conversations, but perhaps none as memorable as last week’s.
“Everybody loved him,” Morris said. “Nobody deserves this more than him. Nobody.”