IT IS MID-MARCH when a firm knock pounds Tom Phillips’ door. The Pickerington North football coach, working at the laptop in his office, knows who beckons. This is a routine part of spring break for Pat Elflein.
“He comes out, even when he's been at Ohio State, if he's on spring break he comes out here and lifts. He'll go out there and go (hit) the pads,” Phillips says. “Sometimes, I don't know if he understands the rest piece (of football).”
Elflein, the fifth-year senior and soon-to-be three-year starter on Ohio State’s offensive line isn’t one to allow that word to creep into his brain. Rest has never really be an option for him or anyone in his family.
“He is a warrior,” Phillips said. “That's one thing about Pat when he was here. He understands that grind because he was brought up that way. It comes from how he was brought up. Pat wasn't the kid that would drive to school. He's getting dropped off by mom and dad. He didn't have the luxury stuff.”
Born to Lisa and Ken, Pat is the youngest of four, all of whom began life in what the family calls “The Crete Factory” on Thurman Avenue or “at the south end” of Columbus as his mother calls it. The name comes from Ken’s concrete expertise. Pickerington locals know to call him if they have a project that requires the combination of broken stone or gravel, sand, cement and water.
Pat is determined to find success like his two brothers and sister, which he has done at Ohio State. The most athletic of the Elflein clan, Pat elected to stay in Columbus another year before he tries his hand in the professional football ranks, a decision he made with his family values and the way he parents raised him in mind.
Nine players from Urban Meyer’s 2015 team left early for the NFL and a stunning 12 were selected among the first four rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft. Pat, however, wasn’t one of them. His choice to stay put appears curious to some, but not those who know him best.
Best friends and fellow offensive linemen — “The Slobs”— like Taylor Decker and Jacoby Boren left because their eligibility expired. Cardale Jones, Jalin Marshall, Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas all turned pro early. Integral pieces from Ohio State’s 2015 offense will not don the scarlet and gray on Saturdays this fall.
But Elflein will. He stuck around because there is still work to do. He still has things to accomplish. He wants more of both himself and his team.
That is Pat. That is being an Elflein. The job isn’t complete until they say so.
“He's a finisher,” Phillips says. “Pat, he's very goal-oriented. He's analytical, he thinks things through and he doesn't jump on anything. I think that's a huge asset for him down the road in life.”
Pat Elflein’s story as an Ohio State linchpin is already written in stone, but its final chapter is set up to be the best yet. He stayed in school to finish what he started.
Lisa Elflein didn’t have a choice. She had to start her youngest in school a year early.
“We were very hesitant about starting him a year early,” she says. “The other two boys I started a year late, but Patrick was so big. I don't know where he came from.
“I was like, 'if he stays home and eats Honey Buns and cheeseburgers anymore, I'm going to be in trouble.'”
Honey Buns (the glazed ones, icing didn’t do the job) were a go-to snack for Pat growing up, but his siblings won’t let him forget about the bagels with cream cheese he downed at the pool during the summer or the massive amount of Wendy’s junior bacon cheeseburgers he devoured as he grew up.
“Pat’s go-to was Honey Buns, Reese Puffs, pizza rolls,” Matt said.
“Aunt Debbie took us once (to Wendy’s) after King's Island and they didn't put enough in the bag,” Heather said. “She ordered eight junior bacon cheeseburgers and they didn't put the right number in the bag so we had to go back in.”
Though he ate everything possible in the hope of somehow satisfying a ridiculous metabolism, Pat had his nose in everything when he was young. He stayed busy in sports and any outside activity his sister concocted. Heather, 25, is closest to Pat in age while Matt is 26 and Chris, a firefighter for Jefferson Township and the sibling who most looks like the Ohio State football player, is 30.
“He was really bad at every sport I made him play,” Heather said. “Hockey, basketball, whatever.”
It became Heather’s responsibility to keep Pat entertained, while Ken and Lisa — a lunch lady at Pickerington City Schools — pushed the envelope and stretched their hard-earned dollar as far as possible so as to keep food on the table.
Given the name “Ken Crete” by his family, Pat’s father is responsible for any and all changes to the Elflein house and its 2.5 acres. When Pat went through a skating phase in grade school, he asked his dad to build him a half pipe. It happened, only it had to be larger than the one their neighbor had, both because of Pat’s size and the fact he has a nose for the extreme.
“He does everything five times the size it should be,” Heather said.
There was the SpongeBob SquarePants piñata Ken made him for a birthday party in grade school that Pat and his friends failed to break because it held too much papier-mâché. He repped a fierce skater haircut as a seventh grader as he ramped off that half pipe and went through a phase most teenagers do. There were the paintball battles in the woods behind their house Pat never wanted to end because he needed to do a little more to feel like he earned a victory. There was the SpongeBob T-shirt he stayed up all night obsessing over before going to his school’s mother-son dance with Lisa. Four-wheelers and go-karts ripped through the backyard during the summers as the siblings raced one another.
Pat did it all and did it big. Because, well, he was always big.
“He was wearing a size 12 when he started kindergarten.”
“He was wearing a size 12 (pants) when he started kindergarten,” Lisa said. “Usually a kid's size, you wear the size of your age. So he was 5 and he was wearing 12s.”
Pat remains large, listed at 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds on Ohio State’s official website. His size helped earn him a Division I football scholarship to his beloved hometown school, but an unwavering love for all sports and competition got him there.
Elflein became the first male athlete at Pickerington North High School to earn 12 varsity letters — four in football, four in wrestling and four in track.
“That was good for Pat,” Ken said of the 12 letters. “We (were) proud of that.”
But it almost didn’t happen. Pat watched Matt and Chris play rugby (a club sport at Pickerington North) and wanted to do the same, in addition to football, just like his brothers. Then his younger brother ended up needing a plate in his cheek to replace a broken orbital bone.
“After that, Mom goes ‘no,’” Ken said, waving his hands down as if to signal an incomplete pass. “Because they wanted Pat real bad too.
“It was really the best thing to ever happen for Pat because he got to be one of the first-ever 12-letterwinners at North.”
So Pat turned his focus elsewhere. The sports conversations with his parents changed with the leaves on the tree in his front yard that holds a tire swing: football, basketball, track.
He won a division title in the shot put as an eighth grader, then asked Lisa to hold him back so he could win it again. She didn’t cave, so Pat turned his attention to his goal of winning 12 varsity letters. He first step had to earn a starting spot on the football team.
“Pat had a mission," Phillips said. “He was not starting at Pick North because of an injury. He started right away. He stood out. He said after that football season, 'I'm going to letter in wrestling and I'm going to letter in track.' It became, not only a short-term but he had long-term (goal).”
As the calendar flipped, more letters got stitched to Pat's varsity jacket. Wrestling became a point of pride like football, something Lisa didn’t expect because she remembers the way he looked when he walked on the mat for his first-ever match. With his gut protruded through the tight-fitting uniform, Pat suffered a quick defeat.
“I tell you what, I can't believe he even put that singlet on. Because that bagel showed right through,” she says, referring to how his belly button appeared in a ring-like form around his midsection. “That's how big he was. He went out there and that boy just went, ‘Boom!’ Just flattened him out like a pancake.
“That boy just flattened him out and me and Heather just started bawling saying 'You cannot do this to my little boy.' I'll never forget that day.”
But like anything else, the loss determined Pat to get better.
“You could see the frustration in seventh grade, his first year out,” said Mike Droesch, Elflein’s junior high wrestling coaches and also one of his English teachers. “He was always a good sport, but he was definitely not the kind of kid that ever liked to not succeed."
“Even if he had came out for wrestling in seventh grade and didn't like it, his dad would have insisted that he finished. You finish what you start. That's kind of how he was as an athlete, as a student and as a person. You finish that.”
Pat grew into such a finisher that Phillips received warnings from officials during Pickerington North’s football games because he wouldn’t allow opponents a chance to breathe before the play ended, even if that happened 30 yards away.
The move became known as the “Happy Baby” around the football program because Elflein put his defender on his back and did not allow him back up. The opposing player's arms and legs fluttered about, scratching, searching and reaching for any way to regain their balance and get back on their feet.
“That was our thing: how many 'Happy Babies' can you get in a game?” Phillips said. “Back in the day, (Orlando) Pace was having pancakes and we were having babies. Pat was great at them.
“Come on. Excessive blocking? Isn’t that a good thing?”
“You put a guy down and just turn on him, make him like a little baby thing, you see high school kids pushing him off because he was doing it. I got an official saying, 'the extra stuff coach, I gotta flag it.' I never told Pat. He never got flagged. Got warnings, but never got the flag … I was like, ‘Come on. Excessive blocking? Isn’t that a good thing?’”
Happy Babies litter Elflein’s high school highlight tape. Famous for them on the football field, he honed the skill on the wrestling mat.
His size forced him not only to wrestle in the heavyweight division but also made it difficult to find practice partners. Not many high school kids threaten the upper 200-pound demographic, let alone possess quick feet and strong hands. As a result, Pat battled assistant wrestling coach Herman Moultrie on the mat during practice.
“He would say, 'Hey coach, I'm going to take you there,'” Moultrie said, pointing to a spot on the floor. “And actually tried to push me in order to achieve that goal. My mindset was, 'if he can wrestle with me and hold his own, then he can go out and compete with anybody.'”
Others closest to him knew that too, though it took Ohio State a while to offer Elflein a scholarship. Northwestern, Purdue, Indiana and a few MAC schools reached out, but Ohio State always remained his dream.
Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is close with Phillips as the program’s primary recruiter in Central Ohio but needed to convince Urban Meyer that Elflein was worth an offer. Not exactly an easy sell, considering Meyer didn’t have much time to piece together his first recruiting class and wanted to nab as many high-profile talents from across the country as possible.
But Elflein earned an offer after a one-day camp at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and it didn’t take long for Elflein to pledge to the Buckeyes in July.
With the plan for his future in place, Elflein had the option to play his senior season of high school football then coasted through to graduation so as to avoid injury.
But that’s not the Elflein way.
“He probably could have skipped his senior year of wrestling, but he chose to wrestle,” Droesch says. “A lot of athletes, when they get pulled off they don't really do their other sports their senior year for fear of injury. But he wrestled his senior year and finished it.”
“Some people are great athletes and sometimes they slack,” Moultrie added. “Pat, great athlete, he will run through a wall if you ask him to. I think that was the difference, that was his mental edge. Like, 'hey, I was born with some good gifts,' but he fought to get his craft. He worked hard on the football field. He worked hard in wrestling. He was outstanding at track. A couple times I think the track coach put him in sprint relays, he was willing to do stuff like that. I think that was the great thing about Pat.”
It’s a warm Sunday afternoon in Pickerington, Ohio, and Ken Elflein stands over an oven full of homemade pizza.
Duke, the Elflein family dog scurries about, sniffing around Ken’s shoes in the hope a scrap falls. Ken’s wife Lisa sits next to her second-youngest son, Matt, and his girlfriend Melissa while she rocks her granddaughter Adelyn.
To the right is Ken’s garage, full of tools, 2-by-4s and other concrete necessities all next to Pickerington High School football coach Tom Phillips’ boat, which the Elfleins store.
“This is where it all started,” Ken says.
Quickly, the family gets hurried inside and stationed around the makeshift island centered between the kitchen and dining room. The smell of wood shavings and pizza ingredients like canned banana peppers grown in 2013, sausage, mushrooms, pepperoni and everything in between hit the noses of a hungry family.
“We’re doing renovations now, well for a while, so sorry for the mess,” Lisa says with a smile, before plopping next to her husband.
Pat Elflein’s brothers and sisters aren’t shy about revealing embarrassing stories from his childhood, like how he used to run downstairs early on Christmas morning and bellow out songs on the karaoke machine to wake everyone up (mainly his eldest brother Chris) so they could open presents.
Discussions about Pat’s rise from Pickerington North High School to Ohio State commence. Chris shares about the time a stranger yelled at him from a balcony the day of the spring game to express concern for why he wasn’t at Ohio Stadium preparing to play, confusing him for his younger brother because he wore a No. 65 jersey. His wife Genna recalls mixing her husband up with Pat the morning of their wedding — a brief moment of stress in an otherwise wonderful day.
The Elflein family shares stories from good times on Bourbon Street after the Buckeyes’ victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, but the fondest memory came when Pat took the field in place of an ejected Marcus Hall at the 2013 Michigan game.
“The phones just went nuts,” Lisa says. “Everyone was texting, 'Pat's going in, Pat's going in, Pat's going in.' We couldn’t believe it.”
Ohio State topped Michigan that day, 42-41, for the second of what is now three victories against the Wolverines Pat has a hand in. The family van serves as the main mode of transport to each one of Pat's games, of which his parents have only missed two in three years (2014 Illinois and 2014 Minnesota).
He could have easily left following the 2015 season, especially after he and his teammates paved the way for Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett in a 42-13 win in Ann Arbor and then a 44-28 victory against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
And yet, here is Elflein, ready to return for his fifth year in school and preparing to lead an extremely young offense along with Barrett.
“I love Ohio State. I love the coaches. I want to graduate and there’s still some things personally I want to accomplish here,” he said two days before Ohio State played Notre Dame.
“It’s like signing a five-star recruit with three years of experience,” Ohio State tight ends coach Ed Warinner, who used to coach the offensive line, said. “Just a veteran, an All-American, All-Big Ten player coming back that has a lot of experience and plays a style of football and is a leader, a mature guy. What else can you say having a guy like that back?”
For head coach Urban Meyer, having Elflein and Barrett back to lead his offense at center and quarterback is more than just a luxury.
“If you were trying to break in a new quarterback and a new center, you probably have no shot,” Meyer said this spring. “The fact that these two guys are back, we have a shot. I think we have a decent shot of being good on offense, and it's mostly due to those two guys coming back.”
Elflein’s decision to play out the final year of his college career resonated with Ohio State coaches, players, fans, friends, and family members, but did not come as a surprise to those closest to him. He hasn’t finished what he started at Ohio State, even though he owns three pairs of gold pants and Big Ten and national championship rings.
“He likes to complete things,” Lisa said. “He does not like to leave things undone.”
“He wants to win another national championship, he wants to win the Rimington Award,” added Matt, Pat’s brother whom he shared a room with growing up. “He wants to be a first-team All-American and wants to get a Buckeye tree. And he wants to be a captain, which he's already done. Those were his four goals that led to him coming back.”
Elflein moved to center this season to both fill a team need and better his draft stock. Had he left following the 2015 season, analysts tabbed him as a third or fourth round selection, a potential top-100 player great in run blocking but still with room to improve. A year of tape showing versatility at center will better prepare him for whatever the NFL could possibly throw at him.
“That's his next step,” Matt said. “He's always planning, always looking ahead.”
He has been for a long time.
“Before he makes a decision and before he speaks, he thinks,” Phillips said. “I think he's going to be that kid with that goal of being in the NFL, he's going to be that longevity type because I think he's always going to take care of his body.”
Phillips gladly put Elflein in his Panther ELITE program, which holds college and NFL prospects he coached. The grid lists 40 or so names that played at the next level and is printed on T-shirts, team rosters and its website. Only Elflein’s photo hangs from the windowsill in his office, however.
“I’ve had 300-pound kids say they want to make it big like at Ohio State like Pat, but don’t,” Phillips said. “They don’t have that X-factor, they might be bigger kids, but they don’t have that. Everyone thinks they’re that, but they’re not.”
Elflein left his mark at Pickerington North as the first male athlete to earn 12 varsity letters. He has already a well-known name in Ohio State lore but doesn’t feel like he’s completely left his mark in Columbus despite earning a degree in communications in May.
“Talking with the coaches and my family, we just decided that the pros of coming back are greater than the pros of leaving,” Pat said.
Just like the Elflein clan left their mark on the chimney in the Crete Factory down in the German Village, their youngest’s plan is to leave his own stain on the Buckeye football program with one more rodeo in the sun.
“He tells me, 'Coach I gotta do more. I didn't do enough last year.' If that's his motor? God bless it, because you don't see that anymore,” Phillips said. “It's all about how he was brought up and he has to give thanks to his family. He wasn't blessed with having everything in the world.
“I could see him being like Terry Bradshaw when he was with the Steelers and driving a 1969 truck, beat up and coming in. He's going to be one of those guys that has that older car. You're going to have guys that have that Rolls Royce, but that's not Pat.”
Pat is determined, consistent and a finisher.
“This is my life and my career just like you guys have a life and a career. This is what my life is right now,” Elflein said. “Just tried to make the best decision for me to put myself in the best position when this is all over so yeah it was stressful, but I’m happy with my decision and I’m in 100 percent.”
He has always been in 100 percent, regardless if it is a 5 a.m. workout with his current Ohio State teammates or a spring break weight session back at his high school.
It doesn’t matter where because there isn’t time to linger. There is work to be done.