West Chester running back Jarel Elder is listed at 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds. He's probably not that tall. But he's never been big enough, from the time he started playing football at age 5. And it's never seemed to get in the way.
"When I was in like Pee Wee football, my dad always told me, 'The bigger they are, the harder they fall,' " Elder said. "I tried to play real scrappy. I was a quarterback back then, a Michael Vick-ish type. I'd get the snap from center and just run. And as I kind of put on weight and stuff, I was able to use my size and power to my advantage.
"I think it's even more like that now."
The third of four brothers, the fifth-year senior is one of the biggest reasons that the Golden Rams (7-2, 5-1 Pennsylvania State Athletic Confernce) are a win at Millersville (4-5, 3-3) away from clinching the East Division title for the third time in five seasons and a spot in the title game against unbeaten Indiana, the third-ranked team in the Division II coaches' poll. He has rushed for 927 yards on 175 carries and scored 15 touchdowns, which includes one receiving.
Described as a weight-room junkie by coach Bill Zwaan, Elder is speedy, too. Yet his lack of size was the primary reason he wasn't recruited more coming out of Allentown's Parkland High School, which has always been one of the better programs around. He generated some interest from the Ivy League, but his grades weren't quite good enough for that level. Zwaan thinks he could have been a defensive back for an FCS team. But he ended up at West Chester, over fellow PSAC options Bloomsburg and Shippensburg.
"Thankfully, somebody saw something in me," said Elder, whose brother Jarey (5-11, 170) is a sophomore safety on the team. "All you want is that chance. I wasn't surprised (by the lack of offers). They're all looking for certain things. I wasn't the right fit.
His brother Jamal is eight years older; his brother Jaren, six.
"Jamal was kind of laid back," Elder recalled. "He didn't care about much. Jaren was the stereotypical older brother. He brought the toughness out in us."
Both went to college, but neither stayed there long.
"For them, it was sort of like the area we lived in back then got to them," Elder explained. "We came from Plainfield, N.J. We didn't move to where we are until I was 9. They had abilities and stuff. Our parents took us out of of that environment so we could do better on the field and in the classroom. That really helped. It's allowed me to do more with my career than they could.
"To be able to play and get my degree, I'll be the first in my family to complete that. It's cool."
Not only is he graduating in December, but his major also is cellular molecular biology, something Zwaan admittedly has trouble simply pronouncing. Elder wants to go to medical school.
"I guess people don't expect anybody who plays sports to be in something like that," he said. "Another (teammate) last year is the only one I even know of. I think the chair of the department was surprised to see us there. It is different. But you find common ground between the two worlds. It's never been a challenge. You're all trying to study to get the 'A' to get to a certain point.
"The coaches always joke about me being one of the smartest ones on offense, or the running backs. I don't know about that. I just laugh it off. It is funny. But if you put me on the basketball court, oh my goodness. It's not pretty. I'm only good at what I'm good at."
For an offense that's been hit hard by injuries, his presence has been a rock. He's one of four captains, but Zwaan feels Elder's voice is the one that truly matters in the locker room.
"He just has great work habits, and the other kids follow what he does," Zwaan said. "He never misses anything. He's there every single day. He pushes the rest of the team to be better.
"He's one of the top 10 players I've ever had here. But he's in the top 2 or 3 from the whole-picture standpoint. Whatever he becomes, he's going to be really successful. It could be an emergency room, or a hospital or a research lab. Anything along those lines. He does all the little things that go into being such a well-rounded student-athlete. And that's what's most important."
Elder had an internship last summer at Temple that provided enough money for him to take a class to help him prepare for his MCAT test. "It's like the SATs on steroids," he noted. The experience had an impact on his perspective.
"I worked in the cardiovascular department, through a step-up program that's designed to get underrepresented communities interested in medicine," Elder said. "I was able to watch the emergency room. You sit for hours and hours, then you get like 30 very exciting minutes. Sometimes it's insane. Especially at Temple. They say they've seen it all. It's way cooler than watching on TV.
"One guy told me he's seen people walk in with a knife sticking out of his side. I didn't get to see anything like that. Maybe that's a good thing. Right now, I think I'm going to go into orthopedics, or be a family doctor with an office."
He didn't see anything like that when he was growing up, either. But his brothers did. So he knows what could have been.
"My two older brothers lost friends," Elder said. "They saw violence, and guns, all the time. But we got away from that."
And here he is, with at least two more games left – and maybe more if the Rams make the NCAA playoffs – before he moves on to the rest of his life.
"It's just crazy to know it's coming to an end," he said. "I want to leave it all out there. Just being able to play the game of football is amazing.
"I wasn't always vocal. I was kind of shy a little bit. I've been on teams that didn't have leadership. And the difference on those teams was visible. I was taught that actions and words, they mean a lot. But you have to back up what you say with what you do, implement those things. I think I brought that with me."