It was pretty simple: John Merritt wanted his two best players — current Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and Atlanta Falcons linebacker Foyesade Oluokun — on the field as much as possible.
Merritt, who in 2012 was the special teams coordinator at the John Burroughs School in Ladue, Missouri, knew it was an unusual idea to have Elliott and Olukun play on all phases of special teams. But somehow Merritt convinced the head coach — former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte — to go forward with the plan.
It worked to perfection.
“Every kickoff or punt return we ran was a reverse either from Ezekiel to Foye or from Foye to Ezekiel,” Merritt recalled with a laugh. “I think we scored 15 special teams touchdowns that year. Our other guys were so excited to block for them because if you could get either a yard of space, that’s it. The two of them on special teams was ridiculous. It was like a video game, and I had the cheat code.’’
Elliott and Oluokun will be on opposite sidelines Sunday when the Cowboys and Falcons clash in Week 2 (1 p.m. ET, Fox). But back then, they led the John Burroughs Bombers to a 13-1 and a state runner-up finish. Elliott rushed for 2,155 yards and 40 touchdowns — yes, 40 — while scoring 50 total touchdowns, including six off returns; Oluokun caught five touchdown passes at receiver and had four scores off returns. He even recovered an onside kick, something he has developed a knack for with the Falcons. And both players played cornerback on defense, too.
Oluokun actually was Elliott’s blocking fullback freshman year.
“By [varsity], I was a wide receiver, but for key plays — we had an offensive coordinator/head coach Gus Frerotte, he was just a mastermind back there — key plays, he’d end up motioning me down,’’ Oluokun explained. “I’d be like blocking ends, lead blocking, all that stuff. I would definitely lead block — we’d call them touchdown blocks. I’d always get motivated to block for [Elliott].’’
Now, Oluokun has to pump himself up to take Elliott to the ground.
The grade-school basketball competitors who became fast friends during seventh grade orientation and were high school teammates in football and basketball reunite Sunday for the second time at the NFL level. Elliott and the Cowboys took the last meeting, 22-19, in 2018. He and Oluokun traded jerseys afterward, a symbol of their strong bond.
“It’s crazy,’’ Elliott said. “It’s just really crazy, because where we went to high school, like – there weren’t really like Division I athletes. It was an academic school; it wasn’t a sports school. So for us to be in the same class, a class of 90 people — we had 90 people in our class. So for us to be in the same class, be really good friends, be teammates and then both end up going to get drafted from the school we came from — I mean we were the first two people drafted from that school, period.
“It’s weird that we both made it to the NFL. It’s exciting. I’m so happy for Foye. His journey was a little bit different than mine, but he’s definitely contributing and playing a lot for those guys and playing good ball.”
Elliott is the celebrated superstar who stood out at Ohio State before declaring early and becoming the fourth-overall draft pick in 2016. Oluokun, who played in near obscurity at Yale as a hybrid linebacker/safety, never got a combine invite before impressing scouts at a pro day hosted by Fordham University en route to becoming a sixth-round draft pick (2018).
Asked if he took any credit for paving Elliott’s path to Ohio State, Oluokun snickered.
“I didn’t take credit. He’s an amazing athlete, obviously,’’ Oluokun said. “I would joke with him and say I was the reason. But, nah, I would never take credit for that. He’s the reason I’m here. … I always love watching him. I’m hoping he likes watching me.”
Their old special teams coach loves watching them both. Merritt, now the head coach at John Burroughs as Frerotte moved into the business world, told the story of how former defensive coordinator David Hill approached him one day when Elliott and Oluokun were eighth graders and said, “I think these guys are going to be in the NFL.’’
“And I said, ‘You’re crazy,’” Merritt said. “Those guys were 13 years old. Well, shows you what I know.’’
Oluokun talked several times about how Elliott’s success fueled him to reach this level, even when there were doubts about his draft status.
“Definitely an inspiration to me in getting here to the league just because he kind of went through it first,’’ Oluokun said of Elliott. “I was like, “Oh, if he did it, I can do it.’ It’s always a matchup I’m going to be looking forward to going against in these years coming up.’’
ESPN Dallas Cowboys reporter Todd Archer contributed.