This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2017, on newsstands on July 7.
Cowboys running back Zeke Elliott was a hard guy to miss last year. When he wasn't showing off his running skills -- he rushed for a gaudy 1,631 yards and made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season -- he was showing off his abs in one of his famous -- uh, infamous? -- crop tops. So perhaps it's no surprise that he chose to take some time during his offseason to show us even more by posing for the Body Issue. Reporter Morty Ain caught up with the 21-year-old Elliott (not an easy task) to talk about staying in shape, hurdling opponents and, yes, that midriff-baring style.
I don't know if people really understand how much work we put into our craft. We play such a brutal game. Working out by itself is a hard task, but keeping our body together is tough because we play this brutal sport week in and week out. It's hard.
Just dealing with the soreness and still finding the way to get in the weight room to keep up with your strength is the hardest thing. You're going into football games and you're just beating your body up. And the next day or the day after, or two days later, you find yourself back in the weight room, and you feel beat up and sore. And it seems like every step you take is just hell.
If you do something for so long, it just seems like second nature. It's just part of my life. I want to be the best to carry a football, and that's what it's going to take: getting those heavy lifts in when your legs are all beat up and tired out from getting 30 carries.
I don't really believe in specialization in sports, especially at a young age. I believe it's important that young athletes test the waters and play a bunch of different sports so they can develop a bunch of different skills. When I talk to younger athletes, I always explain to them how important it was for me to be well-rounded.
I started out as a baseball player. That was really my dream and my first love. It helped develop my hand-eye coordination, and then I started football when I was 7. And I think that helped my toughness and just being a physical athlete. I was also a basketball player. My parents always made sure I was doing a sport no matter what season it was.
I was riding with my mom to football practice when I was 7, and the next thing I know, I hear a big crash. I was in the back seat, and we got into a car accident; we got T-boned. We were just a couple of blocks down from the park where I had football practice. So I just grabbed my helmet, grabbed my shoulder pads, threw them on and ran those couple of blocks to practice, so I didn't miss a beat [laughs].
Toughness is something I developed in college. I realized quickly that I was an 18-year-old kid out there playing against men. I wasn't going to be as big as them. I wasn't going to be as fast. I wasn't going to be as strong. So I started doing the things that people didn't like to do, especially at the running back position. I wanted to be the best blocking running back in America. I wanted to do the dirty work that no one else wanted to do.
Every time I step onto the field, every play, I try to outphysical my opponent. I want them to tap out by the end of the game. I try to take my opponent's will away.
Man, the only way I'm not going to be able to play in a game is if I can't see, if I can't hear, if I can't run. That's the only way you're going to keep me out. As a sophomore, the year we won the national championship [at Ohio State], I actually broke my wrist maybe three weeks before the season opener. I broke my wrist on the Friday, got surgery on the Saturday, and in three weeks I played in that first game.
I mean, breaking my wrist, it really sucked. It hurt really bad. I just basically was out there with one hand, doing what I could. Blocking was tough, but you just had to suck it up. With running the ball, I didn't really have a stiff arm anymore, so I learned different ways to dip my body and contort my body to break tackles and make guys miss. I developed a couple of techniques.
I would say probably the sorest I've been after competing was that national championship game my sophomore year. It was one of the worst things my body has ever been through. I ended up carrying the ball 36 times. You don't feel it that day because you've got all that adrenaline, you've got a national championship that you're winning. But the next day, when I woke up I couldn't move. I was stuck in bed. Eventually I had to get up because I had to catch that flight back to Ohio, but it was tough.
I'm kind of the runt of the family, height-wise. My mom's dad is 6-8. She has a brother who's 6-7 -- he plays basketball overseas. My sister is 18 and she's 5-10. My mom's 5-10. They look at me like, "Man, where'd the height go on you?" And I'm not short -- I'm 6 feet tall! But compared to everyone else, I'm kind of short at those family gatherings [laughs].
I played so many sports through high school that I never really had an offseason. I never had time to actually do weightlifting. So when I got into college, I was 190 pounds at 18 years old. And in two months, I ended up getting up to, like, 215, 217. I gained, like, 25 pounds in my first two months of college!
What everyone thinks is the big thing [with me] is my abs, because I wear the crop top. When I started in college, it was just the way I wore my jersey, just kind of more comfortable for me. And it drew a lot of attention. When we went to the White House after winning the national championship, even the president took notice.
I was pretty young when I first got the six-pack, maybe 10 or 11 [laughs] -- ever since I can remember. Since I was younger, I've never really liked to wear shirts. And I still don't like to wear shirts, so, I mean, you'll find me with my shirt off a lot.
One of my signature things is to hurdle people. I think it's one of the most impressive physical feats I'm able to do, being a bigger, physical running back. I don't have the highest vertical, but I think it's more of a mental thing. Being a bigger running back, defensive backs will go lower on you -- they tend to cut-tackle you. I just kind of give them the aspect where they have to worry about me jumping over them and right through them; it adds an aspect to my game. I ran hurdles in high school. I was a really good hurdler.
I don't think my mom's the biggest fan of me doing that, despite her track career. I don't think a lot of people are the biggest fans of me going up and hurdling a guy in a football game laughs. But that's part of my game. That's part of my playing. I don't plan on stopping.
I have a lot of tattoos, but I still have plenty of room for, you know, that Super Bowl tattoo. I mean, I've got a lot of body, so I don't think I'm going to run out of room.
In this profession, if you don't want to be the greatest at your position, if you don't want to be the greatest to play the game, then I feel like you're doing yourself a disservice. You're doing your team a disservice. You're doing the game of football a disservice. Winning the Super Bowl, becoming a Hall of Famer, being known as the best running back ever -- that's what would satisfy me.
For more Body interviews: AJ Andrews | Javier Baez | Julian Edelman | Ezekiel Elliott | Kirstie Ennis | Julie and Zach Ertz | Malakai Fekitoa | Gus Kenworthy | Nneka Ogwumike | Isaiah Thomas | Joe Thornton and Brent Burns | US Women's National Hockey Team | Ashley Wagner | Michelle Waterson | Novlene Williams-Mills | Caroline Wozniacki