Elijah Qualls has seen drive-bys. He's seen drug deals. He's seen gang violence and prostitution and he's seen SWAT teams visit his block on a monthly basis. So, being one of just four 2013 three-star prospects to take the field in Atlanta for the inaugural Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge doesn't faze him in the least.
"It's all good," he laughs. "I'm not worried about it. It's another chance for me to get better, and to be able to measure myself and see how I do against some of the best. I'm not nervous. I've been to camps and I've gotten nervous before, and I've realized that being nervous doesn't help you out at all. It's when you're loose, it's all about having fun. As long as you're having fun, you'll do fine."
Qualls is quick with a smile, easy with a laugh and about as warm and fluffy as any high-level prospect you could hope to find. Behind that, though, is a dark past. Qualls grew up in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, Calif., an environment his step-father Dejuan Miggins has described as "unimaginable." Over a year ago, Qualls had a 1.6 GPA, and, he says, all he ever hoped for was to maybe be lucky enough to go to a local junior college. He had anger issues, a short temper and plenty of muscle to back it up. That was then.
"I'm completely different," Qualls says. "I was probably going to the local JC's a year ago. It's definitely a blessing that I have all these scholarship offers and everything, but I don't see it as a thing that should change you. I got them because of the person I am, and how I am. How I am got me this far, so why change?"
Ever since Miggins moved Qualls and his two little brothers out to Petaluma, Calif., where he grew up, and to enroll Qualls in his alma mater -- Casa Grande -- all that rage, all that pain, all of those horrors that swarmed like bees in front of Qualls's eyes have dropped away.
"I realized I don't have to be mad anymore," Qualls says. "Where I was at, there were a lot of people against you, against other people succeeding. You always had to watch your back. When I was in Sacramento, I had to look out for my cousins, I had to look out for my brothers, so it was a lot of stress and just anger about everything. It wasn't a really comfortable environment for me. I was always having to look over my shoulder. Now, I don't have to do that anymore. I know that it's OK for me to be myself, how I really am, and that's the happy, smiling kid you see all the time."
No longer a tense ball of anger, Qualls is a big bowl of giggles and smiles.
"Honestly, it was a culture shock," says Qualls. "Sacramento had a lot more diversity, and out here, I'm a lot more of a minority. It was definitely a culture shock. That kind of scared me at first, but I started to get to know people. When football season came around, our football team had team dinners, so every Thursday night before a game, we'd go over to a teammate's house and have dinner. I got close to all my teammates, people around the city and they came out to all the games to support the team, to support me. Now, I can go anywhere in town and walk into anybody's house and be welcomed. It's definitely a place I'm really comfortable at."
As he readies for his trip to Atlanta, Qualls has close to 20 scholarship offers. He's asked several times a week which of the bevy of his BCS suitors is moving closer to earning his pledge. USC recently hosted him for a weekend. California four-star quarterback commit Jared Goff is in his ear almost constantly on the 7-on-7 circuit. All of that for a player who admittedly doesn't even have a true position.
Qualls rushed 166 times for 1,139 yards and 13 touchdowns last season as the Gaucho's primary running back, but just about every back at the Challenge will be half his size.
"I'm pretty sure I'm going to Atlanta as a D-lineman," says Qualls. "I'm pretty sure I'm going to do better as a D-lineman. As for running back, I don't go to combines or anything else as a running back, because I know that I'm not going to be as impressive at combine things, but in a game, I can do some stuff."
Apart from his rushing numbers, the 6-foot-2, 279-pound battering ram also caught 13 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown. At a recent showcase camp in Berkeley, Qualls made two athletic one-handed grabs over defenders. Yeah, he can "do some stuff."
"I'm not going to be impressive at a combine as a running back," says Qualls. "But, going as a D-lineman, that's where I'm going to stand out more, because I'll be able to use my leverage and people will be able to see my explosiveness. I'm not combine-impressive, but I guarantee that I'm just as good as any of the running backs on the field."
On defense last season, Qualls tallied 76 tackles, 4.0 sacks and one forced fumble in his first defensive line snaps.
"I'm kind of raw, talent-wise, on the D-line; I just started playing it last year," Qualls said. "I'm not close to being as experienced as the other D-linemen, but this is going to be a place for me to be able to get better, and compete against some great D-linemen, and see how I stack up against them. After that, I'll know where I'm at. Hopefully, I can catch up to some of these dudes on the D-line."
Qualls comes into Atlanta with something to prove: that he can be just as much of a force as prospects rated far higher, and perhaps, earn that fourth star.
"I have a lot of big schools, big-time schools, that are recruiting me, and I want to show them, as much as possible, why they're recruiting me," says Qualls. "I know I'm a little raw, but I want to show them that I have that work ethic, that I'm willing to do anything and everything I can to get better. I might not win every rep, but I'm going to try my hardest to. I want to win more than the guy across from me. I may not be a fighter anymore, but I'm always a competitor."