Jumbo Elliott was on the phone with former Michigan teammate Jamie Morris when the box arrived at his front door earlier this month. He opened it, saw the football with the letter alongside it and figured it was the usual.
“I get some stuff to be signed, and once I saw the football, I thought that was what it was,” Elliott told Newsday on Monday.
That’s not what it was. Once Elliott started reading the letter, he knew it was more than a fan looking to have a football autographed.
The letter was from the National Football Foundation, informing him that he’d been selected to the College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020. The kid from Lake Ronkonkoma who starred at Sachem High School had been given one of college football’s highest honors.
“Holy cow, you made it. You made the Hall of Fame!” exclaimed Morris, the younger brother of former Giants running back and one-time Elliott teammate Joe Morris.
“I’m like, ‘Ah, terrific,’ '' Elliott said. "And then we just went right back to the conversation. We were probably talking about [former Michigan quarterback and current Wolverines coach] Jimmy Harbaugh or something. I hadn’t really thought that much about it.”
To those who know the 6-7, 305-pound former lineman, who enjoyed a 14-year career with the Giants and Jets after graduating from Michigan, the no-big-deal reaction was in keeping with his low-key demeanor. Perhaps it will truly sink in when Elliott is honored at a gala event at the New York Hilton in December.
“It’s nice to be mentioned in the first place, and going in is great for the school,” he said. “There are so many great players at the University of Michigan who passed through before me that should be in this thing, and guys who came after me who will be. I have an ego like everybody, for sure, but I’m a team guy, so it’s really about the guys who played with me.”
Elliott is best known to New York fans for his terrific work as the Giants’ longtime left tackle — including his championship run in the 1990 season that was capped with his brilliant performance against Bills defensive end Bruce Smith in Super Bowl XXV — and his six seasons with the Jets, which featured a memorable fourth-quarter touchdown reception on a tackle-eligible play in the team’s 40-37 Monday night win over Miami in 2000.
But before Elliott got to the NFL in 1988 as the Giants’ second-round pick, he carved out a spectacular career at Michigan, where he was a two-time All-American and first-team All-Big Ten tackle. During his four-year run at Michigan, the Wolverines went 35-13-1 and won the 1986 Big Ten title as well as the 1986 Fiesta Bowl over Nebraska. Elliott helped Jamie Morris go over 1,000 rushing yards three straight seasons and become the school’s all-time leading rusher.
“I was a college football fan as a kid, and I was recruited by a lot of eastern schools — North Carolina, Maryland, Syracuse, Rutgers, Boston College, Penn State,” Elliott said. “Michigan was like the real big-time school that recruited me. I took a chance, because as a kid, I loved the stability of the coaching staff.”
The head coach was the legendary Bo Schembechler, who coached 21 seasons at Michigan from 1969-1989, went 194-48-5 and won or shared 13 Big Ten titles.
“I was a kid from Lake Ronkonkoma who was very lucky to get a scholarship from one of the better schools in the country with a ton of tradition,” said Elliott, 54, who now lives in Nassau County.
His high school coach, the renowned Fred Fusaro of Sachem, had some concerns about Elliott going to Michigan.
“My high school coach was a little nervous about me going to such a big-time school,” Elliott said. “I wasn’t a five-star recruit coming out of high school. I was in a little over my head.”
But the coaching he got from Fusaro helped him in college and, eventually, the NFL.
“I learned to work hard from Coach Fusaro, and my parents were awesome,” Elliott said. “I was taught — and it was reinforced a hundred times with Bo Schembechler and then in the pros, with Bill Parcells — about hard work. I had a good work ethic.”
That work ethic transformed Elliott into one of the most reliable blockers everywhere he played. And one of the most popular teammates, too. Elliott’s warm-and-fuzzy demeanor endeared him to the people around him, but he flipped the switch to tenaciousness once he hit the field.
One of my favorite stories from Elliott’s Giants days was the time Parcells cooked up a plan with Lawrence Taylor to make sure Elliott was ready to take on Smith, who led the NFL with 19 sacks in the 1990 regular season.
“We’re on the bus on the way to practice, and I say, ‘Lawrence, near the end of practice, I’m going to give you a little wink, and I want you to start a fight with Jumbo,’ ” Parcells said.
Taylor initially refused but eventually agreed to the plan.
“So we’re getting to the end of practice … and Taylor starts it up with Jumbo, who’s got this bad temper,” Parcells said.
After the melee, Parcells went over to Elliott and said in front of the team, “Hey, Jumbo, [Taylor] is just worried about Bruce Smith winning the game for them. He’s just worried about you and this [expletive] game.’ ”
Elliott looked at Parcells.
“He’s not getting a sniff,” the tackle told his coach.
Elliott limited Smith to one sack, the Giants controlled the game on the ground with Super Bowl MVP Ottis Anderson, and the defense did a brilliant job in containing Jim Kelly. The Giants held on for a 20-19 win as Scott Norwood’s last-second field-goal attempt sailed wide right.
Elliott signed with the Jets before the 1996 season and was part of the team’s dramatic turnaround under Parcells beginning the following year. The Jets reached the AFC Championship Game after the 1998 season.
But it was a dramatic catch by Elliott in the Jets’ miracle comeback against the Dolphins in a Monday night game during the 2000 season that remains etched in Jets fans’ minds. Trailing Miami 30-7 in the fourth quarter, the Jets rallied for 30 points in the final period. Elliott finished off a trick play by catching a 3-yard touchdown pass from Vinny Testaverde with 42 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, and John Hall's kick tied the score at 37.
“I was like 'wow, I can’t believe they called it in the huddle,'” Elliott recalled. “I’m getting in my stance and I’m like, ‘Holy [expletive], I’m the first option. This thing’s coming to me.’ ”
Making matters worse, Elliott, who was near the end of his career because of chronic back problems, had his hands taped more heavily than usual because of injuries to his thumb and other fingers.
“I’ve got all this tape on my fingers and thumbs, and I’m like option No. 1 and I can’t even move my fingers,” he said. “Vinny tried to loft it in there nice and soft, but I had to bear-hug that thing.”
Hall's 40-yard field goal gave the Jets the overtime victory. Said Elliott, “That was kind of a great capper toward the end of my career.”
Elliott missed the entire 2001 season because of continued back problems and returned for one more year in 2002 before retiring.
What a run.
“I see where a lot of players talk about having a goal of getting a [Super Bowl] ring,” Elliott said. “I haven’t looked at my ring in 15 years. I don’t have a trophy room, a look-at-me shrine. To me, it’s all about the journey. That’s what counts, the work to get there. The practices, the offensive linemen in between camp practices, dog tired, ripping on each other, clowning around. Doing sprints until you’re puking your guts out, and then doing some more. The journey is everything.”