The most NFL-ready center the Vikings have had since Mick Tingelhoff in 1962 was fully bully-proof by the fall of 1999.
“Because of his [July] birthdate, I had the option of holding Pat back a year in school,” said Lisa Elflein, mother to Vikings rookie Pat Elflein. “My two older boys [Chris and Matt], I held them back because I didn’t want any bullying.”
“Oh, I didn’t have to worry about Pat,” Lisa said. “When he was 5, he was wearing size 12 clothes. He was so much bigger than everybody else.”
Eighteen years later, Pat remains ahead of the curve at a physical position that also requires the mental maturity to understand NFL defenses and communicate blocking calls before every snap.
“I don’t think, I know he played great the other night,” former Vikings six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk said of Monday night’s 29-19 win over the Saints. “A rookie, ‘Monday Night Football,’ the first time those five guys were together up front? Shoot, you know my history. It took me to my third year before I started. It was like, ‘Ah, we’ll give you a shot at center. If this doesn’t work, pack up and leave.’ ”
No one will be asking Elflein to leave any time soon. The third-round pick from Ohio State became only the second rookie to start at center for the Vikings in a season opener. The other guy was Tingelhoff, whose Hall of Fame career began with the first of 240 consecutive starts back in 1962, the second year of the franchise’s existence.
So now all Pat has to do to match Mick’s NFL exit is play every game from now until he retires after the 2033 season.
“Wow,” Elflein said, trying to imagine that kind of longevity.
“What an honor to even be mentioned in the same sentence as Mick. I’ve heard about him since I got here. What stands out to me is the 240 starts in a row. That shows me what kind of guy he is. Tough and just loves the game. It makes me want to go out right now and compete.”
Built tough enough
The people in Pickerington, Ohio, near Columbus, will tell you that toughness and a strong work ethic are two of the top traits of Ken and Lisa Elflein, as well as their kids, Chris, Matt, Heather and, of course, the 6-foot-3, 303-pound, uh, “baby” of the family.
“Ken has a concrete business,” said former Pickerington North football coach Tom Phillips. “When I first got the coaching job there, he put in my patio. Ken didn’t want to drive on my lawn, so I asked him how he was going to get all that concrete to the back yard. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I got a guy.’ ”
A few moments later, Pat came around the corner lugging concrete. He was in seventh grade, which is probably why he got the nickname “Patcrete” at such a young age.
Elflein started playing football at age 5 or 6, Lisa remembers.
“They had the Mini League and Pee Wee,” Lisa said. “Pat was too big to be a Mini, so they moved him up to Pee Wee.”
Today, Elflein looks like he was assembled in a factory that makes prototypical NFL centers.
“He’s got a low center of gravity, strong in the lower body, loves the weight room, and he’s got a background in wrestling,” Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano said. “The things he can do with his hips shows that he’s a wrestler.”
Speaking of wrestling, Elflein tied the Pickerington North record for pins with 30 his senior year. When he fractured an eye socket, he just put on a protective mask, kept wrestling and won the prestigious Medina (Ohio) Invitational.
“I’ve been around the sport for 35 years, won state at North, set the pins record that Pat tied, went D-I and was nationally ranked,” said Brad Harris, Elflein’s former wrestling coach. “And I don’t recall there being a time when the heavyweight was the hardest-working guy in the room. That was to my detriment, because I’m 200 pounds and I had to wrestle him because he was so much bigger than anybody else we had.”
Elflein was the first male athlete in his high school to graduate with 12 letters in sports.
“He demanded that he be coached hard,” said Phillips, the football coach. “… He played three sports. He’d be in wrestling season and show up for the football team’s 5 a.m. workouts. I’d say, ‘Pat, are you even allowed to be here? Won’t the wrestling coach get mad?’ But the wrestling coach just said, ‘Let him do it. He’ll be harder to deal with if we try and stop him.’ Pat’s a different bird.”
Elflein played guard and defensive line in high school. At Ohio State, he was an All-Big Ten guard until moving to center last season. In his first season at the position, he won the Rimington Award as the country’s top center.
“He could have played anywhere we wanted him to play,” Phillips said. “Pat was our all-time ‘Happy Baby’ king.”
“I told him early on that he should do a ‘Happy Baby’ when he puts a defender on his back,” Phillips said. “He said, ‘Do a what?’ I said, ‘When you put a defender on his back, turn over on your back and kick your hands and feet like you’re a happy baby.’ I’m waiting for him to do one in the NFL. I’m sure Mike Zimmer would go, ‘What the heck is that?’ ”
The hunch is Zim would frown upon the “Happy Baby” celebration. But the head coach sure likes how squeaky clean the pocket was on Monday night.
A handle on the job
Sam Bradford threw for 346 yards with a career-high 143.0 passer rating.
“He was on top of everything,” Sparano said. “He made all the right adjustments. I call him a football head. He’s intrigued by learning and understanding the game.”
Elflein’s highlight moment came with about six minutes left in the game when running back Jerick McKinnon took a screen pass wide right and went 25 yards. Elflein set the protection in a way that allowed him to slide cleanly to his right. He avoided the inside traffic, raced to his spot in front of McKinnon and shoved safety Kenny Vaccaro out of the way. The block helped McKinnon gain another 17 yards.
“Not only was it very good in terms of setting the front, but it also showed where he is athletically and from a fundamental standpoint,” Sparano said. “You know, we kind of teased him about the Tingelhoff stuff. And I don’t look too far down the road in this game. All I know is he has all the qualities and the want-to to keep getting better. He doesn’t settle. Those are qualities that keep you in this league a long time.”