Beaver Falls High School’s Ryan Matsook has coached many football players who dealt with challenging upbringings. Many used their personal circumstances as an excuse. A select few used football as a vehicle to make their life better.
Chris Elkins never was one to make an excuse, and, four years after graduating from Beaver Falls, he signed a contract with the Steelers.
A 6-foot-4, 300-pound offensive lineman who played at Youngstown State, Elkins was signed last week as an undrafted free agent after the NFL draft and will compete this summer for a roster or practice-squad spot in the fall.
“A lot of kids make excuses because of their home life,” Matsook said. “Chris said ‘You know what? I’m going to make this football program my home.’ He trusted us. When I look at him and see him in the NFL, it’s very gratifying. This is a kid who could have made any excuse in the world. He has come a long way.”
Nothing was easy for Elkins, including his college recruitment. Beaver Falls was highly successful during his time there, twice playing for the WPIAL Class AA championship at Heinz Field.
Two of his teammates signed with Division I teams. Todd Thomas signed with Pitt and B.J. McBryde signed with Connecticut.
Elkins was passed over. The college coaches that came to Beaver Falls always wanted to know more about McBryde, a bigger and more athletic lineman who had what major college coaches covet most: upside.
Elkins was so overlooked that, when he visited Division I-AA Youngstown State shortly before signing day in 2010, he accepted a scholarship offer immediately, not knowing if another school would come calling.
“All of the coaches who came through had their eyes were on B.J.,” Matsook. “They looked at Chris and they thought, ‘Has he maxed out his potential? How much better can he get?’
“I remember having a full-blown disagreement with coach [Greg] Gattuso at Pitt. I kept telling them they had to take him. He said we can’t take everybody. But Chris ended up in the best place possible. The coaches at Youngstown State did a great job with him.”
At Youngstown State, Elkins was an immediate contributor. He started four games as a freshman and became a full-time starter as a sophomore. In his four seasons with the Penguins, he started 38 games, including the 2012 opener at Heinz Field when the Penguins stunned Pitt.
Elkins earned all-conference honors as a junior, but it was a decision his coaches made before his senior season that ultimately helped him reach the NFL. Elkins played right guard in high school and his first three years at Youngstown State, but he was switched to center the spring before his senior season.
That versatility, something all NFL teams covet because of roster flexibility, is the reason he will go to training camp with the Steelers.
“There are only a certain amount of spots,” Elkins said. “Being able to play multiple positions definitely helps.”
Elkins was named second-team Division I-AA All-American after his senior season, and many teams had him on their draft boards. He heard from several teams before the draft, but the Steelers were not one of them.
When the draft ended, the Steelers were the first team to call. He accepted their contract offer right away, just as he did four years earlier when Youngstown State offered.
“The Steelers came to my pro day, but it was really unexpected because I hadn’t heard from them since,” Elkins said. “With them being a local team, it was pretty awesome.”
Elkins took part in Steelers rookie minicamp over the weekend. Next up are offseason training activities, minicamp and then training camp in Latrobe.
“I’m just going to work as hard as I can and try to stick around,” Elkins said.
Matsook said not to bet against him.
“Chris has always had this fight in him,” Matsook said. “He’s a pretty determined kid. I wouldn’t be surprised if he earned a spot in their organization.”
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.