To think, John Elliott's football career may not have panned out the way it did had it not been for a solid playoff performance against West Islip in 1982.
LSU head coach Les Miles and former Chicago Bears linebackers coach Gary Moeller did a lot of recruiting on Elliott for Michigan. Miles started it and Moeller, who was the defensive coordinator and eventually became the head coach after Bo Schembechler retired, finished it when he saw film of Elliott playing against the Lions.
"He saw John with his hands moving and he shut it off," said former Sachem coach Fred Fusaro. "He didn't have it on for five minutes and I asked him what he thought."
They offered him a scholarship.
Before the playoff game against West Islip, Elliott complained of stomach pains and had the intestinal fortitude to show up late. Fusaro laced into him and didn't take it lightly. Elliott turned out the best game of his high school career with 19 tackles and four sacks. Sachem lost 10-0, but that was the game film Moeller watched during the final recruiting visit.
"That was a breakthrough in terms of me using an aggressive style of play and concentration," Elliott told a local publication in 1991. "That game film got me into college. It's a good thing I did come around when I did. That started the chain of events that got me here."
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As a high school athlete, "Jumbo" Elliott was like every other gangly lineman looking to find his place in the game, the hallways, society. He was lost, uncoordinated and moved around the fields of Sachem like a robot.
It wasn't long after he graduated in 1983 where his nickname "Jumbo" would mean something, as he pancaked his way to the top of the nation's lineman crop as a stud at the Michigan under Schembechler.
But like any great NFL player, there's a story with Elliott's development and progression from Flaming Arrow to professional football player.
"He was a guy that Fred [Fusaro] was constantly on," said Dave Falco, the current head coach at Sachem North. "I remember Fred kicking Jumbo in the ass. He would make him run the hills and yell constantly. Fred was always a force to be reckoned with on the field."
When you walk in the gymnasium lobby at North, there's a Black & Gold jersey over the trophy cases with the No. 75 staring down. It's Elliott's, one of the most prominent graduates the district will ever have. Not just because of his astounding size, but because of the level of success he's attained in his field of work.
At Sachem, he wasn't throwing opponents to the ground and bashing skulls like he did in the NFL. Fusaro knew he had a gem on his hands; it was only a matter of him developing. He missed his entire sophomore season because of an appendicitis operation and started as a lineman his junior and senior seasons where he grew about four inches to 6-5 and 260 pounds.
He originally played both offensive and defensive tackle, but was frustrated when he played offense and in time exclusively played just defensive line.
"Still, coordination wise and movement wise, he was kind of robotic," Fusaro said.
Former Sachem player and coach Tony Petillo made a great analogy about Elliott to the coaching staff at the time and used a Gatorade jug as an example in his speech.
"Guys were ripping on John," he recalled. "I took a big Gatorade jug and put it down in front of me. And I'm [pretending to be] John Elliott. How am I supposed to get lower than that guy and block him? It's not happening and on defense those guys are blocking me. His agility had to catch up with him."
Elliott knew he was fortunate to be helped along by the coaching staff at Sachem and his time there set him off on the right path in football.
"Sachem gave me the building blocks to go further," he said. "It gave me the intestinal fortitude and strength of character to move forward in pro football. Freddy Fusaro is Sachem. I was a very rough talent if you would call it that. Fred helped me develop and worked with me before I went onto the next level at Michigan."
Fusaro didn't think Elliot, who graduated in 1983, would go to Michigan and figured George O'Leary would grab him to play for Syracuse. He visited North Carolina, Maryland, West Virginia, Boston College and, of course, Michigan and Syracuse. After the last visit, he went into Fusaro's office—as he did every Monday after a visit—and said he'd be playing for the Wolverines.
"I almost fell out of my chair," Fusaro said. "You're talking about a football program that every single year is bringing in guys that are his size. I told him he's going to have to tell coach O'Leary, which he dreaded more than anything."
Schembechler and Moeller came to Elliott's house in the neighborhood in front of Samoset, to give a synopsis about the school and the football program. Elliott's parents asked some questions and then Fusaro—from one legend to another— leveled with him.
"Coach, I have to be up front with you," he said. "This is what concerns me. Michigan football is extremely competitive. John has done an excellent job for us here, but his temperament at times is a little passive and I'm concerned that he could get lost in the shuffle."
Schembechler looked him dead in the eye and said, "A year from now, you won't even know him. He will be a different kid. Once you get into a competitive environment, you either compete or you don't survive."
Elliott red shirted his freshman year at Michigan, then started the next four, going to five different bowl games during his career, including the Sugar Bowl (9-7 loss to Auburn early in 1984), Holiday Bowl (24-17 loss to Brigham Young late in 1984), the Fiesta Bowl (27-23 win over Nebraska in 1986), the Rose Bowl (22-15 loss to Arizona state in 1987) and the Hall of Fame Bowl (28-24 loss to Alabama in 1988).
He started as an offensive lineman as a sophomore and improved quickly. Schembechler took credit for calling him Jumbo first, as Elliott grew to 6-7 while at Michigan. He was an All-American in 1986 and 1987 (as selected by the AP, UPI and Kodak) and finished as one of the biggest players ever in program history at 6-7 and 306 pounds, according to the school's Website.
From the mechanical type Sachem student who walked to school everyday, he came a long way. He always had a solid work ethic, even when being screamed at by Fusaro during practices. He came from a very tight knit family, his mother a Scottish immigrant, who called him her "Johnny Boy," and his father a man who worked for Con Edison in New York City.
After a successful career at Michigan where he got national exposure, the NFL spotted a giant of a player. Elliott was on every team's draft boards in 1988, including his hometown New York Giants. Bill Parcells, coaching the G-men then, wanted to take Elliott with their first pick, 10th overall, but according to Fusaro, general manager George Young wanted Eric Moore, an offensive guard from Indiana State.
Young got his wish and Elliott luckily fell to the second round where the Giants took him 36th overall. Monetarily, being taken second is never as favorable as being the top dog.
"That pissed off John," Fusaro said. "Here's a kid that was just nominated for the Outland Trophy as one of the nation's best interior linemen and he thought he was going in the first round. [Moore] was not near the lineman that John was."
Tim Brown was taken by the Los Angeles Raiders (6th overall0, Michael Irvin was selected by the Dallas Cowboys (11th overall) and Bill Romanowski (3rd round, 80th overall) were the other prominent athletes selected that year. Ted Gregory, an East Islip native, was selected 26th overall by the Denver Broncos out of Syracuse (O'Leary managed to sign him).
With the Giants, Elliott was given the chance to play for Parcells, who had similar principles to Fusaro and Schembechler. They're old school and rigid.
"It's funny because our approach towards football is pretty much the same," Fusaro said. "We're disciplined guys, who kick you in the ass when you had to be kicked in the ass."
Elliott played in Super Bowl XXV in Tampa Bay against the Buffalo Bills and their famous kicker Scott Norwood. The Giants rushed for 172 yards in the game and Elliott is a big reason for that.
"He controlled the trenches, opening huge holes and going toe-to-toe with the ferocious Bruce Smith," wrote Sachem grad Rich Cimini in a massive feature on Elliott that appeared in Newsday in 1991, the same year Elliott made an appearance at the first Sachem football alumni game. "Late in the game, when the heat and humidity had drained most of the players, Elliott still was churning. Smith was so exhausted he couldn't get into a three-point stance."
Fusaro went to the NFC title game against Chicago that year and came close to attending the Super Bowl, but most of the people he planned on traveling with either cancelled or were indecisive about going, even after he had Elliott get him tickets.
"How many times in a coaches life do you get the opportunity to watch one of your players play on the biggest stage and win?" Fusaro said begrudgingly. "And that's exactly what happened."
For Jumbo, that Super Bowl wasn't just about the playoffs, it was about the entire season and what it took to get there.
"The culmination of the entire season sticks out in my head," he said. "I think about the solid team we had and all the memories. It's kind of intertwined."
In Cimini's article, he noted that Parcells yelled, "Jumbo, you're an ass-kicker!
You're an ass-kicker!" in the locker room after the Giants' 20-19 win. Ironically, that's not his personality. He's soft spoken, kind and to be cliché, a gentle giant off the field. He was with the Giants from 1988-1995, then jumped ship to play for the New York Jets from 1996-2000 and again in 2002.
Elliott played for the Jets during an important transitional period where Gang Green went from 1-15 in 1996 to a contender very quickly, making it to the AFC Championship game in 1998 where they lost, 23-10, to John Elway and his Super Bowl winning Denver Broncos.
Parcells was hired as Jets coach in 1997 and was reunited with Elliott.
"I don't think Jumbo was thrilled about it because he had to work harder," Cimini said. "He liked having played for him though. If you asked Parcells, he would say he was one of his favorite linemen."
Former coach and broadcaster John Madden also really liked Elliott, selecting him to three All-Madden teams.
Perhaps the biggest play of his career came in a Monday Night Football game in 2000 against the Miami Dolphins, now known as the "Monday Night Miracle." Elliott caught his only career touchdown pass to tie the game 37-37. It was a 3-yard toss from Long Island native and Sewanhaka High School graduate Vinny Testaverde. The Jets eventually won, 40-37, when John Hall kicked a field goal in overtime.
"Being able to stay in New York and take part in some of the transformation that went on with the Jets program was great," said Elliott, who owns the Dunkin' Donuts at the intersection of Middle Country Road and Hawkins Avenue and was inducted into the Sachem Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003. . "In 1998, we almost got to the Super Bowl, which would have been perfect. I would have written a book just on that."