SKIATOOK — Prentiss Elliott’s legs belong in the NFL. Wherever his legs are, a defender is usually far behind or below them, cursing at the prospect of giving up another reception. His hands, strong and reliable, extend from below his forearms, bulging biceps and broad shoulders that should belong to a man who made a fortune playing wide receiver. His brain wakes each morning from long nights dreaming about Sundays spent playing football in front of thousands, beneath a pirate ship in Tampa Bay or a hole in the ceiling in Dallas, or on fields frozen solid once the calendar flips to December. It tells him another trip to the gym is the only way his dream will ever come about. But it hasn’t. And those legs, those hands, those arms, those shoulders, and most importantly, that brain, are the reasons why. As a receiver at Oklahoma State in Stillwater, he played in a town with one team. Now, he plays in a town with one McDonald’s. Every Friday and Saturday night, Elliott makes his way 15 miles north on Highway 75 from his home in north Tulsa to Skiatook, a town of less than 6,000. The town’s main drag is only a few hundred yards of family owned shops and stores, none more than a few stories high. Allred Hardware and Kendall’s drug store are insulated from the Sonic and Wal-Mart, now small-town staples, which block the view of Oklahoma’s signature dusty plains on the outskirts of the town center. Inside Exchange Bank Stadium, the home of Skiatook’s Bulldogs, Elliott catches touchdown passes in FieldTurf end zones painted black and red, a stark contrast to the blue uniform stretched over his pads. Instead of thrilling more than 45,000 orange-clad Cowboy fanatics on perfect fall Saturdays, he draws modest cheers for his still-spectacular play from a few hundred bored Skiatook natives trying to survive a Saturday night flirting with triple-digit temperatures. His performances in the sleepy town have attracted attention from a handful of NFL teams, giving hope to his dream. He’s halfway through a summer spent doing the only thing he ever wanted to do, and it’s been more than a year since his name could be found in the police blotter. Success is a blip of light far in the distance, perhaps never to be found. Elliott believes he’ll reach it. His history says he won’t.
Just out of reachFans left Boone Pickens Stadium almost five years ago thinking they’d gotten a glimpse of the future. In Stillwater, as in much of his career, Elliott is best known for what he didn’t reach, rather than what he did. In 2004’s Bedlam game against No. 2 Oklahoma, the Cowboys trailed by three points with less than 90 seconds remaining. On third down, Elliott dived for a Donovan Woods deep ball near the OSU end zone. A freshman playing in what would be his only season, he couldn’t reach the pass that could have given Oklahoma State the lead and cemented Elliott’s place in Cowboy lore as more than a recruiting hiccup. Instead, the Cowboys had to settle for a missed field goal and a painful home loss. Three months later, Elliott was off the team. Elliott still spends his Saturdays catching touchdowns. Lots of them. Before Friday night’s 39-29 win over Tecca Del Monterey, 14 of his 19 receptions had been for touchdowns in seven games with the Oklahoma Thunder, a semi-pro team playing in the World Football League. Some dismiss the league as illegitimate. Open tryouts are commonplace. The Thunder wouldn’t have made much of the player performing shuttle runs for an assistant coach, in hopes of playing receiver for the Thunder. That is, if the new prospect wasn’t the starting quarterback for the Oklahoma City Gunners, who the Thunder suited up against less than 24 hours later. Regardless of the league’s credentials, Elliott has used his far superior speed, strength and athleticism to become one of its stars in his rookie season. Like at Oklahoma State, he’s still fond of the fly route. Two of his 12 touchdowns went for longer than 95 yards. Including punt and kick returns, he gains more than 35 yards every time he touches the ball. In its two-year history, the Thunder is unbeaten in 21 games, capturing the WFL title last season and routinely defeating opponent by more than 70 points. But no numbers will drown out the critics who say his legal troubles will prevent his name from ever appearing on an NFL roster. Three years probation for a drive-by shooting of his girlfriend’s home in 2008. Fifteen days in jail for a felony weapons charge in 2007. A misdemeanor assault and battery conviction in 2006 for an altercation with an off-duty police officer at a basketball game in 2003. That arrest led to no jail time but put Elliott on the pages of USA Today for the wrong reason. When asked to provide his side of the story for any of the arrests, Elliott’s eyes darted in the opposite direction as he stammered over his refusal to answer. He says rehashing those events is pointless, and his only focus is on what’s in front of him. "Unfortunate things happen, you can’t change them. All I can do is move forward,” Elliott said. "Everybody makes mistakes. I know everybody says, ‘I’m tired of hearing that,’ but everybody makes mistakes. Nobody can judge me but God.” He refuses to put any of the blame for his decisions on friends he made as a child who later joined gangs, or the environment he grew up around in north Tulsa, which is known for its gang and drug activities. Elliott was kicked off the Oklahoma State team by coach Mike Gundy for an unspecified violation of team policies in February 2005, but says he understood the decision and has no resentment for the coach or program. His last arrest, for the drive-by and threats that preceded it, was more than 14 months ago, giving a handful of NFL teams reason to believe they wouldn’t regret bringing the problematic receiver into training camp later this month. Since he joined the Thunder, several NFL teams have contacted Elliott. The St. Louis Rams even conducted a private workout with Elliott last month. The Rams told Elliott they would decide on an invitation by July 15, according to Thunder coach Bruce Madden. That decision may have already been made. "We don’t have plans to bring him in at this point,” said Mike Williams, Rams director of pro personnel. "We’re going to have to have a rash of injuries to turn to him.” Williams suggested that if Elliott were to play in the Canadian Football League for a season and continue to produce, he would have a better chance at making an NFL roster next season. "I know that with my heart, and my desire and my love for football, that if I get into a camp, I’ll make the team,” Elliott said.
Reaching outElliott first claimed his space inside the Oklahoma State locker room five years ago. He talks about it like it was five minutes ago. A running back from the Tulsa High School for Science and Technology, Elliott idolized Cowboys legend and Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders. Elliott’s first time in the Cowboys’ locker room, Sanders was milling around, speaking with some of the new recruits. Sanders introduced himself and before Elliott could reciprocate, Sanders explained that it wasn’t necessary, adding that he was excited to see what Elliott could do on the field once the season began. "He knew my name,” Elliott said. "That was one of the greatest things I’ll ever remember.” Today, Elliott plays with his name misspelled as "Elliot” across the back of his jersey, above his No. 4. Each Friday practice and Saturday game is a lesson in realizing where his mistakes have landed his career. Only a few players in the league collect paychecks, and no Thunder player is paid for their efforts. Once playing alongside future NFLers like Adrian Peterson and Vernand Morency, his competition now makes a modest living working as salesmen, construction workers or at various temporary jobs. Elliott spends his days working out and training to keep his career from fizzling. "I’m doing good. I’m helping kids. I’m going to schools, talking to kids,” he says. He lives with his stepfather, Larry Cato, and makes time for his 7-year old daughter, Ciara. Elliott also says he volunteers at the Tulsa Boys and Girls Club and at his stepfather’s church, Zion Fellowship Ministries. "If you were ever to spend any quality time with him, he’d blow you away,” Cato said. "I’ve seen the changes in him. I’ve seen the way he talks to little kids and gets them to turn their ways around.” What hasn’t changed about Elliott is his ability to make the dazzling catch. In last Saturday’s 94-0 win over the Gunners, Thunder quarterback Rico Watkins lofted a ball down the right sideline to a streaking Elliott. Elliott quickly reversed direction back to where the cornerback stood, waiting on the badly underthrown pass. As the ball arrived, Elliott climbed over the back of the defender, snatching it from the defender’s chest from above his shoulders. Elliott shoved the cornerback to the ground as he landed, and streaked to the end zone for the 97-yard touchdown, high-stepping the final 5 yards. "Wow! They don’t call him Spiderman for nothing!” yelled the Thunder’s announcer over the public address system. Elliott’s talent wasn’t enough to outweigh his criminal record at Oklahoma State, but he says that record will remain static now that his dream is closer than it’s been in a long time. In today’s NFL, teams that take a chance on a player with Elliott’s history must be sure they agree with Elliott on how his future will play out off the field. Commissioner Roger Goodell took command of the league in September of 2006, and has handed out stiff punishments for legal troubles away from the game to players like Tank Johnson, Chris Henry, Adam Jones and Michael Vick. While Elliott refuses to dwell on his past, he acknowledges that others will. Anytime his name comes up on fan message boards, the criticisms for his links to Tulsa gang members surface with it. He says he has learned to separate himself from the group, but admits he still has contact with friends he’s known since he was a toddler that may still be involved with gang activity. "There’s a certain point when you realize you need to grow up and be a man,” Elliott said. Elliott is still far from reaching the NFL. He can’t control what NFL teams or fans think about him, and he doesn’t care to. He can’t control who needs a receiver or who might be convinced to take a chance on him. All he can control is where those legs, hands, arms and shoulders are every morning. And maybe one day, his ears will hear the news they’ve been waiting for his entire life.