Before any of them could drive, they’d head out there with a pair of four-wheelers and a golf cart — Bargen and Sandstrom often sticking the constantly competitive Eliason with the latter, just to watch him putt along behind and fume. They would hang out on the back roads and camp along the Gold Rush Byway, sharing the land with an outpouring of wildlife.
“There is deer, mountain lions, bobcats, some elk, antelopes all over — and Bigfoot, but we haven’t seen him since Elliott left,” Sandstrom snickers.
Since Eliason left, the town has witnessed other changes. Gophers T-shirts and sweatshirts have cropped up like new fashion. It’s a safe bet that Wild’s, the local bar on Main Street, will have the Gophers on TV anytime they play. The Eliasons get regular calls at their house from the older folks around town, wondering what time and channel the game is on.
“It’s wild,” Eliason says. “It’s just this random town in the western panhandle that is full of big Gopher fans.”
When he comes home now, he’s treated almost as a celebrity. He’ll often hide out at home or in Nobiling’s office to avoid the attention, something he’s never been too keen about, or else escape to the hills with his friends.
Over Christmas, Spencer went to Country Kitchen with his older brother, only to have their booth morph into a rotating greeting table.
“We had five people come over before we even got our breakfast,” Spencer says. “I think [people in town] have a lot of pride that Elliott is from here.”
For a young man who lives and loves the game so much that at times he tears himself up mentally over it, it’s difficult not to hope, not to want more, as he considers his future.
Inside of him is an extra push; he knows it. The ability to reach a little higher, past the ceiling of his 3.8-square-mile town, past the doubt.
“It’s a little bit of a love-hate, but you always love it at the end of the day,” Eliason says. “I wouldn’t do anything else. I don’t want to be playing another sport and I wouldn’t choose another route to go.”
At Al’s, the chime of silverware mixes with blurred voices and the indifferent jazz. It’s not home, but the pancakes are pretty darn good. Eliason shoves his fork into his “Smokey omelet” and lifts one eyebrow slyly.
“They’re better,” he says, nodding toward the flapjacks being fried just beyond arm’s reach. “But don’t tell them that.”
Almost 10 hours away from his old home in the middle of nowhere, he’s still the kid with the chip on his shoulder and something to prove, to the world and to himself.
Outside of the diner, where the smell of pancakes wafts powerfully into the street, there is still a world of unknown. Whether Eliason will work his way through his current rough patch; whether the Gophers will find a path to the NCAA tournament in the next few weeks; whether he will take the next step and make the next level and put, in a new way, his tiny town on the map.
Eliason pushes his plate toward the counter’s edge and stands, his frame overtaking the small entryway. He’s headed for the door.
The gym awaits.