ALBANY — After two games, Elijah Gash already has more carries than his father had in 1999, when Sam Gash became the first back in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl without taking a single handoff.
Elijah got the ball last week, ran two-thirds of the length of the field and took it to the house for the UAlbany Great Danes.
Not the football team, the men’s lacrosse team. Oh, and Elijah plays long-pole defense.
In a short time since transferring from NAIA St. Ambrose University in Iowa, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Gash has established himself as a force on a defense that the UAlbany coaches have beefed up size-wise through recruiting.
His father played 12 seasons in the NFL with New England, Buffalo and Baltimore, winning a Super Bowl in 2001 with the Ravens, and at fullback he was known for his punishing, battering-ram style, taking on linebackers as the lead blocker, while rarely actually getting the ball himself. It was as straightforward and one-dimensional a role as you can have in football, and Sam Gash was very good at it.
Elijah Gash’s primary responsibility is to keep UAlbany opponents from scoring, but on his goal to give the Great Danes a 13-5 lead in the fourth quarter against Hartford on Saturday, he showed that he has much more to offer than just shutdown defense.
His father was known for high-impact plays; Elijah is finding his own way to do that.
“When he got it, he was off to the races,” head coach Scott Marr said. “As soon as he crossed that midfield line, it turned into a quick 4-on-3, and he’s so fast and athletic, we were like, ‘He’s going to the goal.’ He made a nice move, the kid tried to slide to him and the kid basically just bounced off of him and he slammed it home. It was fun.
“He’s new to the program, sometimes transfers have a hard time fitting in, and when he scored that goal, our bench went absolutely berserk for him. The celebration was so nice to see, because the guys really do appreciate him and what he’s bringing to the table so far for us.”
“To be honest, I kind of blanked out and reverted back to what I did in high school,” Gash said with a chuckle. “Took it, ran through a guy and shot it hard on crease. And it went in, thankfully.”
Of course, football was a big part of Gash’s life from the moment he was born.
There’s a photo of him as a 1-year-old in the arms of his father on the field at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida, right after the Ravens beat the New York Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV.
“Oh, yeah, that’s in his scrapbook,” Sam Gash said by phone on Monday. “My wife, she keeps everything. He was crying for Mom in the picture.”
Elijah and his four younger brothers were around NFL teams when Sam Gash served as an assistant coach with the New York Jets, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers from 2006-15, and Elijah’s brother Isaiah is a sophomore running back at the University of Michigan.
There was a mandate in the Gash home not to take a school season off from sports, so Elijah needed to pick between lacrosse, baseball and track and field at Bay Port High School in Green Bay, Wisconsin, when spring rolled around. Because Sam was coaching, Elijah’s mom, Alicia (nee Bergmann), a two-time all-conference volleyball player at the University of New Mexico, was also a driving force behind keeping the five sons active.
Elijah first picked up a lacrosse stick when he was in fourth grade, and the spring thing was an easy choice, even if his father didn’t know anything about lacrosse.
“Absolutely nothing,” Sam Gash said. “That was one of those things where I grew up in North Carolina, in the mountains, so it was football, basketball and baseball. Even in college — and I know Penn State has a team — but I never even knew about it.”
“He said, ‘I don’t know what this lacrosse thing is, but you’re going to play it,'” Elijah said. “So I picked up a stick for the first time, and fell in love. It was either that or baseball, and I was not playing baseball. It’s too slow. I wanted to hit somebody.”
That sounds familiar.
Elijah was always tall and skinny — “gangly,” his father said — and didn’t generate any interest from college recruiters when he was at Bay Port.
“He had zero D-I offers out of high school,” Sam said. “And, really, academically I don’t know if he could’ve gone, because he literally had no interest in school. He had enough just to get by.
“We knew he was smart. He scored a 22 on the ACT, and that’s not even trying. So we were like, ‘Man, we know you could do it.’ He thought grades didn’t matter. At one point when he was in high school, he was thinking about going into the Army. He wasn’t getting any interest from schools for lacrosse, and he didn’t want to go to school just to go to school.”
St. Ambrose came calling, though, and after one season, Quint Kessenich, the ABC and ESPN sportscaster who was Marr’s teammate at Johns Hopkins, urged his friend to have a look.
“He sent me a video of him and said, ‘Plain and simple, how is this kid not playing Division I lacrosse?'” Marr said.
“I’m just so thankful and blessed, for them both, that I was able to get to Albany,” Elijah said. “I knew they always had very, very fast offense. So we’re going against the best offense in the country every day in practice.
“I was kind of nervous in the fall, how I would fit in with the guys, but we’re all one big family, and they welcomed me with open arms. Especially Steven Kunz. He’s been nothing but a role model to me. He’s helped me on the field, off the field. Without him, I don’t think I’d be where I am.”
Where Gash is, is on the verge of a breakout season on a team that cracked the top 20 in the national rankings early, then moved up to No. 14 on the USILA poll after the win over Hartford.
The Great Danes face a stiff challenge at home against Vermont this weekend, and Gash said he’s hungry for the opportunity to play against what is considered one of the America East contenders.
Despite the uncertainty of being on a new team in new surroundings, he said he had high expectations for himself coming into the season and left nothing to chance, based on the off-field work Marr has observed.
“Extremely high,” Gash said. “I’m the type of person who wants to be perfect 100% of the time. I know that’s not always logical, but I wanted to prove to myself and to my family and friends back home that I could hang with these guys.”
“Two things: He’s a physical presence,” Marr said. “Then, two, is work ethic. You watch the kid work out in the weight room, you can’t help but be impressed by how hard he works.
“He’s the best athlete on the team and is bringing a hard-nosed work ethic to the program. It’s great for the young guys to see, how to grind every day and compete every day in practice. I mean, he doesn’t take a second off.
“Obviously, when you’re father’s an NFL player for 12 years — and his mother played Division I volleyball — he comes from highly competitive parents, and that carries over.”
“He talks about his teammates, and they’re great,” Sam Gash said. “They work with him, they’ve helped him out, helped him to get acclimated, and every goal that’s scored, he feels like it’s his fault, because he should’ve probably got there. ‘Maybe I could’ve got there, I’ve got to react a little quicker.'”
Lacrosse may remain a mystery to Sam Gash to a degree, but it’s clear his son is ready to make an impact on the game for UAlbany.
“I started teaching him a little bit, but you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, so I just try to keep it simple,” Elijah said. “He tries to pick up a stick and play catch every once in awhile.
“It does not go well.”