August 23, 2016, published in the Orange County Register
A Pico Rivera Pop-Warner player was running with the ball, flying down the field as if the only thing stopping him was wind itself. Everybody thought he was gone for good – except for Elijah Gates.
Gates, just 9 years old and playing for the Pasadena Panthers, was the smallest on the field. His helmet flopped around on his head. His shoulder pads looked bigger than he was.
But without hesitation, Gates took off from the opposite end of the field and chased the Pico-Rivera player down, tackling him at the 3-yard line.
“He had the biggest heart on the team,” said Ivan Bell, Gates’ Pop-Warner coach, who insisted that Gates become a defensive back, reasoning he was a natural cornerback despite his pint-sized frame.
Because Gates was too slight at the time to hit kids at their waist, he had to tackle them at their ankles. By the fourth game of the season, he was hitting kids around their thighs, bringing them down with ease.
“This kid, by his junior year in high school,” Bell thought to himself, “you’re going to hear a lot about him.”
Gates, now 18 and a senior at Buena Park High School, has far more college-scholarship offers than he can count with his two hands. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound defensive back said he has 22, including Oregon, Texas Christian University, UCLA, Notre Dame and Michigan.
Ranking in the Rivals Top 250, Gates has proven to be equally lethal on both sides of the ball, playing both corner and receiver after transferring to Buena Park last season (he spent his first two varsity seasons at Bishop Alemany.)
“Last year, the kid burst on the scene in Orange County, and now he’s one of the highest-recruited players in all of America, not just Orange County and in California, but in America,” Buena Park coach Anthony White said. “This is a big year for him.”
Gates is usually the last to leave the field, completing extra agility work or weights, because for most of his life, up until last season, few knew who he was.
Those around him stole most of the shine. He played Pop Warner with Darnay Holmes, now the nation’s No. 1 cornerback. Gates’ cousin is Shaq Thompson, who plays for the Carolina Panthers.
Many of Gates’ Buena Park teammates are elite recruits, including Cal commits Jeremiah Hawkins and Taariq Johnson and uncommitted Devon Cooley.
Gates, a quiet kid who likes to be in the background of things, who answers “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir” to adults, had to grind to earn his spot.
He learned that lesson from his older brother, Greg, who made him do 200 pushups every night.
“He stayed on me about being focused on my work ethic: ‘Don’t get comfortable, because there’s a lot of people better than you in college,’” Gates recalled Greg saying. “He told me to out-work people.”
Though the work was paying off on the field, Gates battled personal loss off the field, dealing with the death of 10 family members at an early age.
Gates took the loss of his grandmother and great-grandmother hard. He isolated himself, working out more than ever.
“He said, ‘Mom, it’s just been a lot. It’s just a lot,’” said his mother, Christy Gates. “It’s challenging, to pick up the pieces, to still try to function to the best of your abilities, but your heart is basically broken.”
Grieving the losses, Gates’ father, Greg, dealt with high blood pressure and began to get sick. Christy Gates has helped keep the family strong, in addition to working as a manager for outpatient services at a hospital.
Gates said his parents, who have been together for 31 years, are his motivation.
“They taught me to stay strong,” Gates said. “They get a lot of curve balls thrown at them and they adapt to them. They teach me a lot about life, and I can use it in football. When we’re down or not doing good in the game, we can adapt.”
Gates used that mentality for Buena Park in 2015, breaking out by the fourth game against Esperanza. He made several key offensive plays, including a long touchdown at the end of the game to help Buena Park win in overtime, 42-35.
“He learned quickly that the team depends on him,” White said. “He just blossomed.”
Gates, who helped Buena Park to a 10-3 record and advance to the CIF Southern Section Southwest Division semifinals, earned second-team All-County honors after totaling 33 catches for 747 yards and 10 touchdowns as well as 19 tackles, seven pass breakups and one forced fumble.
Suddenly, people wanted to know his name.
“Elijah does better when he has eyes on him,” said his teammate, Hawkins. “He’s one of those guys that when the Friday-night lights turn on, he’s just ready. He’s like Kobe in the fourth.”
He’s proven to be a multi-dimensional player, comfortable on both offense and defense.
“He’s not just a receiver, he’s not just a corner, he’s not just a single position,” White said. “He’s a football player. That’s what colleges want. That versatility is extremely marketable.”
Yet, Gates didn’t have any offers for most of the season. Worried he wouldn’t receive a single one, he and his family prayed nightly. “I just kept telling him, ‘Elijah, your gift is going to make room for you,’” Christy Gates said.
Then, once Cincinatti offered, others began to pour in. Gates has scheduled official visits to Texas Christian University and University of Oregon this fall.
He’s still grinding like he doesn’t have any offers.
“When you get to college, there’s a lot of four-stars, five-stars, a lot of people better than you,” Gates said. “So you can’t really look at it like, ‘Oh, I made it because I have all this stuff. You have to stay consistent.’”
That’s something he learned from his parents.
“Being young parents, I think we had to work really hard and I think that’s one value we instilled in them: You never get satisfied,” Christy Gates said. “You never get complacent. Each day, you have to wake up and you still have to give it 110 percent, with everything you’ve got, as if you’ve never obtained anything.”