MOSCOW, Idaho – Just down the short slope from Moscow High School’s gym, Bear Den, is a sweep of emerald lawn, Bear Field.
It’s a typical high school football stadium, surrounded by a dusty-red-brick-colored track bordered by aluminum bleachers and light towers. In an effort to make it more impressive, an image of a galloping brown bear appears to lope from the gray wall of the press box. That one-story structure atop the home team bleachers also announces in block red letters against a white background “Moscow Bear Field. Pride of the North.”
Playing here in a season that includes playoffs and possibly a state championship is the peak of athletic accomplishment for most Moscow kids. But Jonah Elliss has outgrown the venue. He has also stretched himself beyond the seat of Big Sky Conference competition about a mile away on the other side of town, the Kibbie Dome. That’s where the Bears played two games this season due to wildfire smoke, and where his dad, Luther, serves as the University of Idaho’s defensive line coach and where three of his brothers, Kaden, Christian and Noah played or are playing.
“They told me a lot about Idaho. But I kind of wanted to go somewhere else. I’m more of a city guy,” he says.
So Elliss sorted through an impressive lot of Football Bowl Subdivision scholarship offers that included Louisville, Air Force, Army, Washington State and Boise State and settled on the University of Utah, where his father was an All-America defensive lineman before a 10-year National Football League career that included two Pro Bowl appearances.
He is confident his football path has big things in store for him as either a tight end or linebacker. But before he leaves Moscow behind, Elliss has some unfinished business as a Bear. Moscow heads to Sandpoint Friday for a second-round game in the Class 4A state tournament. The Bulldogs gave the Bears their only defeat, 31-21, in an abbreviated five-game season that almost didn’t happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As they were getting the best of the Bears, “they talked a lot,” Elliss says of the Bulldogs. “This time we’ll be ready.”
Moscow coach Phil Helbling plans to make sure Sandpoint gets a full dose of Elliss on both sides of the ball. As a senior, Elliss is a rangy 6-1, 215, on the way to growing to about 240 before he finishes his career at Utah, Helbling estimates. He also has sprinter’s speed. He can cover sideline to sideline as a linebacker and is stout enough to secure the Bears’ run defense. “We can plug and play him anywhere,” Helbling says.
Even more so on offense.
“We don’t just line him up at tight end,” says Helbling. Elliss also plays as a slot receiver and as the single wideout in a 3-by-1 formation. It impresses Helbling no end that when the Bears are in a 3-by-1, defenses will still shift their strength toward Elliss rather than toward the three receivers on the other side. Moscow also threatens the edge of a defense by running Elliss on jet sweeps.
“Jonah shows some real shiftiness. That allows us to get clever with him, which we do,” Helbling says.
“He’s everything you want out of a player. He’s 100 percent committed. He’s all in. But he’s humble. He just enjoys playing.”
Elliss has dedicated himself to living up to the family legacy. Besides his father, his brother, Kaden, has made the NFL. He is in his second year as a linebacker with the Saints. Christian is a preseason All-America as a Vandals senior linebacker and an All-Big Sky performer, and Noah, a redshirt junior defensive lineman, signed with Mississippi State before transferring to Idaho. He played in five games for the Vandals last year before being lost for the remainder of the season with a foot injury.
“He told me he wants to be the best Elliss,” Helbling says of Jonah. “He works extremely hard. He has not missed a practice in four years and no more than one or two summer workouts. You see so many kids who have great talent, but they don’t use it. They lack drive, commitment, leadership.
“Every year he has gotten better. You get him on the field, and he is just a different caliber athlete.”
With Idaho shifting its season to spring, Luther Elliss has been able to make all of Jonah’s games this year, Not being able to regularly see his son play in college is offset by pride in having him attend Utah, where Luther starred. However, “the last thing I wanted was for him to have to say ‘my dad made me come here.’
“To me, it was always his decision.”
As a college coach, involved in recruiting from that aspect, Luther was able to offer useful insights, though.
“If you don’t know something, ask.”
He also impressed upon Jonah the importance of feeling good about deciding where to go to college. “It could determine a lot of your future, your career, your spouse.
“The biggest thing was for him to understand that. Take advantage of all the academic help available. Take advantage of all the other opportunities he’s going to have as an athlete. Take advantage of the opportunity to meet people.”
He also told Jonah to expect Utes’ coach Kyle Whittingham to value “character and tough kids who give you their best every practice.
“Understand the culture of the team. Understand who you are working for.”
It is all appropriate advice for someone eager to move beyond Moscow and determined to be “the best Elliss.” But on the way to that goal, there was this season. In August, when Moscow briefly decided to abandon its football schedule and instead practice and play an intramural schedule to limit coronavirus exposure this fall, Jonah Elliss opted out. He had already accepted the Utah scholarship, and he saw no point in risking injury playing intramurals. It could have been the end of his story here.
However, “we got the OK to get back up and get rolling,” says Helbling. “He was the first guy to get back and play.”
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