CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- This is a story about an undersized football player who wasn’t offered a college scholarship out of high school, who didn’t play football the next three years, who worked a full-time job while going to two different community colleges to improve his grades
This is a story about a player who finally walked on at a big-time college football program where he’d always dreamed of playing, with nothing promised but an opportunity to be on the scout team.
This is not the story of “Rudy."
This wasn’t a knock on the inspirational story about the 5-foot-5, 165-pound Rudy Ruettiger, whose Cinderella tale of walking on as a defensive lineman at Notre Dame and finally getting on the field for three plays in the last home game of his senior season was made into a movie in 1993.
Elliott earned a scholarship at Florida State in his second season after walking on and then spent three years in the NFL at Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent before signing with the Panthers in the offseason.
“Respect for his story," Elliott said of Rudy. “It’s just different. Different ways, different paths."
Like Rudy, however, the inner drive and heart it took to reach the ultimate goal is much the same. Both stories show you don’t have to be the size of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (6-5, 240) to make an impact in a game played mostly by giants. You don’t have to be a high-profile draft pick – or draft pick at all -- to make a good living in a sport you love.
Carolina first-round pick Brian Burns, who arrived at Florida State in 2016, the year after Elliott left, remembers former Seminoles defensive coordinator George Kelly often used Elliott as an example of what it takes to succeed.
“He’s definitely an inspiration to many, including myself," said Burns, one of those football giants at 6-5, 250. “His story is one of a kind."
Going for it
It was second-and-10 late in the second quarter of a game last season at Tampa Bay. Elliott dropped back into coverage and undercut the receiver for his first career interception, returning it 50 yards before running out of bounds.
The opponent just happened to be Carolina.
Elliott made a similar play on a Newton pass early in training camp this year. That’s when his skills as a nickelback started getting noticed and it became apparent he had a chance to make the roster. His chief competition for the nickel spot is Corn Elder, a 2017 fifth-round pick who played at the University of Miami.
While there are no guarantees Elliott will make the final roster when it’s cut to 53 on Saturday, he feels confident about his chances heading into Thursday night's final preseason game against Pittsburgh.
And he’s made an impression as a nickelback, the only position up for grabs defensively.
“The guy is determined," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s going to do what he needs to do, work hard and take advantage of his opportunity."
The impression is the same as that which Elliott made with the Buccaneers in 2016, when he played with current Carolina Pro Bowl defensive end Gerald McCoy.
“Nobody knew who he was except Jameis," said McCoy, referring to Bucs quarterback and former FSU star Jameis Winston. “We saw this guy flashing and we're, ‘Who is this dude?’ Jameis was like, ‘That’s Javien. He’s been like that.’
“It goes to show, if you have a dream, go for it."
Elliott’s dream of playing for Florida State didn’t seem realistic out of high school. He didn’t know colleges had walk-ons until about a year later when his father, Jay, broached the subject.
His father did what he could to help, calling the FSU athletic department and sending a DVD of his son’s highlights from Rutherford High in Panama City, Florida.
The rest was up to Elliott, who transferred from Gulf Coast Community College in his hometown to Tallahassee Community College to be closer to FSU. After completing his associate degree while working in the mall at a Lids store selling hats, he walked on at Florida State and spent a year on the scout team before getting a scholarship.
He started off on special teams and eventually earned playing time on defense, where he had 37 tackles, an interception, a sack and two forced fumbles. So he did a little more than Rudy.
“He had more than [three] plays in college," said Jason Franzese, Elliott’s position coach in high school. “He says, ‘I’m going to be better than the next guy. The Cinderella story? Well, my Cinderella story is going to be better.’"
The eye test
His high school won only two games in Elliott’s senior season, when he moved from being primarily a defensive tackle and receiver to running back in a Wing-T offense.
“Two-win teams don’t bring in a lot of recruiters," Franzese said.
Neither do undersized football players.
“He was 5-7, 150 ... maybe," Franzese said. “When you looked at him, you didn’t see a Division I football player by the eye test. But when you talked to him, you could tell he had good character, a lot of drive and determination, a good head on his shoulders."
That drive and dream to play for Florida State kept Elliott motivated. Between work and school, he trained at the Rutherford gym, where Franzese also was the strength and conditioning coach.
Franzese liked having him around, if for nothing else than inspiration for current players.
“He had a dream, man," the coach said. “You have to be a special person to do what he did. I don’t know if you’re born with it, but you have to have a special drive and something special inside of you to not play football for three years, to work to up your skill sets to try to walk on at Florida State."
Elliott still returns home and shares his story with Rutherford High players. After his hometown was hit hard by Hurricane Michael last fall, he came back to help with a fundraiser for relief.
“When he pulled in he was driving a Dodge Charger, not a Beamer or Mercedes," Franzese said. “Going to the NFL or his success hasn’t changed him."
Elliott simply is thankful to be in this position.
"I can’t make this story up," he said. "It’s going to be a movie someday."