Elisha Shaw is just like any other Alabama football recruit in the Nick Saban era. He’s big, he’s fast, and he’s one of the best players in the nation at his position. He’s committed, he’s excited, and he’s ready to get to work.
He signed a scholarship to come to The University of Alabama on Feb. 5, National Signing Day, and has been told by the Crimson Tide coaching staff over the past few months that he will serve a role with the team right away.
But Elisha Shaw will not play a down for Alabama. He won’t practice, he won’t dress out for games, and he won’t even be included on the roster.
Elisha Shaw will never play football again.
Shaw, a 6-foot 4-inch, 295-pound defensive tackle from Tucker High School in Tucker, Ga., suffered a neck injury in August 2013 during a practice before the start of his senior season that ended his playing career.
Shaw said he was hit when his head was down on a routine hitting drill, causing him to blackout for about five seconds.
“I don’t know what happened,” Shaw said. “I just know when I got hit, it put me in shock. Then, my neck started to really hurt.”
Shaw’s mother Priscilla picked him up from practice that day to get him checked out at Emory Orthopaedics and Spine Center. She said she never imagined the diagnosis would be as bad it was.
Elisha Shaw had three separate issues with his neck: He has strained ligaments at C1, the highest cervical vertebra of the spine, which helps stabilize the head and neck; bulging discs at C3 and C4 and an improper curve in his neck with which he was likely born.
“When I picked him up from the field, I knew he was hurt because I would go over a bump, and he would cringe,” Priscilla Shaw said. “But only after they took X-rays and MRIs and everything and showed what it was, did I realize how serious it was.”
That was the last time Elisha Shaw was able to play football.
“I never saw him so heartbroken when they told him he wasn’t going to play ball anymore, because that’s his passion,” Priscilla Shaw said. “He’s been playing ball ever since he was 6 years old. He has lots of knowledge when it comes to the game. He loves the game. To me, he’s been more interested in football than anything in life that I’ve ever seen him been interested in.”
The injury came at a time when Elisha Shaw was emerging as a star on the field.
After playing with the freshman team as a ninth grader and missing his sophomore season due to academic issues, he had a breakout year with the varsity team his junior year, registering 22 tackles (seven for loss) and two sacks, while helping guide Tucker to the state quarterfinals as the team’s starting nose tackle.
Scholarship offers for Elisha began flying in from schools across the country, including Florida State, Texas, Ohio State, Georgia and, yes, Alabama.
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“He was just a physical specimen in terms of his God-given athletic ability and talents, and he had a desire to be really good,” Tucker coach Bryan Lamar said.
“A lot of times you get big guys in there, and they’ll get lazy and you got to poke and prod at them, because everything is a struggle for them because they’re so big, they’re tired, and they don’t want to run, they don’t want to do all those things. But Elisha was a big guy. He was like a linebacker or a defensive end inside of a defensive tackle’s body.”
When playing was no longer an option, Shaw turned to what he said he believes is the next best thing – coaching.
Elisha still attended every practice after his injury and enjoyed helping improve his teammates as both individuals and as a unit, Lamar said.
“You got a kid, who loves to play the game, who dreamed of playing it at the highest level and has to deal with this reality,” Lamar said. “But he’s a kid that has responded about as well as a kid could respond to the situation.”
But even though his football-playing dreams were over, he still needed to make a decision on his future. Though he had received numerous offers,there were really only two schools on his radar – Alabama and Georgia.
When Lamar asked Elisha where he wanted to go to school after he learned of the severity of his injury, though, there was a clear-cut choice. He wanted to go to Alabama.
So Lamar called then-Alabama defensive line coach Chris Rumph, who was the Crimson Tide’s main recruiter in the area, to see what Alabama could do.
Rumph, along with Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, sat down with Saban to discuss Shaw’s status and made the decision to stand by their offer.
Elisha Shaw did not technically “sign” with Alabama, but he did sign the paperwork that will grant him a medical hardship scholarship that will pay for his tuition. As promised by Saban and the coaching staff, Shaw will still be around the program, where he will help assist in his new passion of coaching.
As of now, Elisha Shaw said he will be helping Smart with recruiting — a position Lamar said he thinks Shaw will be more than qualified for.
“With his personality, if you knew the kid, you would know,” Lamar said. “He’s extremely involved, he’s very charismatic, he’s a great leader.
“The kid wants to be successful, and he’s going to try to find a way to be successful. And so if he can’t play, he’s going to try to find a way to be as successful a coach as possible and be a good person.”
Coming to grips with his injury has not been easy for Elisha Shaw, even months later, he said, but he is past the stage of feeling sorry for himself.
Though he said his neck has not been in pain since the three or four weeks after the injury first occurred, he still needs to have surgery at some point to help stabilize it. A time for that has not yet been scheduled, but it likely won’t happen at a time that will interfere with school.
That decision is not yet imperative for Elisha Shaw, Priscilla Shaw said. She said her son is more focused on getting to Alabama — a place he describes as home — beginning probably sometime this summer.
“He feels loved at Alabama. He loves Nick Saban, and he just loves the coaches there,” Priscilla Shaw said. “When I went, I felt that feeling that he feels. It’s like home.”
(See also “Top 10 football moments in 2013“)