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October 5, 2010

The journey continues for Elliott

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Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

Even the best of high school football players face long odds of getting a Division I scholarship.

For Hoover (Ala.) High defensive lineman Max Elliott, they appeared to be stacked as high as the Ural Mountains.

Elliott was born Max Onichtchenko in Kurgan, Russia - a Siberian city nestled in the foothills of the Urals. It was a place where young Max seemingly was destined to play the French horn.

His transformation from Russian school boy musician to American high school football recruit is as interesting and amazing as any high school senior in the country. It reached a high point last weekend when he announced he would be playing football next fall at the United States Air Force Academy.

"I always knew I would go to college," he said. "I never thought it would be to play sports. It is incredible."

Incredible indeed. It's a scenario no one would have imagined just 10 years ago for one simple reason: Max had never even heard of football then.

This is his journey.

Kurgan, founded in 1662, is one of the oldest cities in Siberia, but it has a modern city center and an airport for its population of more than 300,000. It also has a good education system. It was for that reason that Max's mother, Valeria, elected to have him stay there and live with his grandparents when she got the opportunity to work in Moscow (roughly 1,200 miles away) soon after Max had started grade school.

"The education was better with his grandparents than in Moscow," she said.

More than words

Kurgan, Russia is a world away from Hoover, Alabama.

For Max, simple things were a wonderland.

"When we first brought him home, we popped a bag of popcorn to watch a movie," Doug Elliott recalled. "It was the first time he saw a microwave. Or popcorn."

The first time quickly led to a second and third.

"We probably popped seven bags of popcorn that night," Doug continued. "We easily popped a whole box. Max had a chair pulled up to the microwave. He was going crazy over it."

Max admits to the memory.

"Yeah, it's true," he said. "We only had popcorn in the movie theatre at home and it was already made. I was young. It was neat to see."

The magic of the microwave quickly wore off, but the memory was made.

"It was incredible just to see the joy in his face," Doug said. "That is one thing I will always remember."

Mom, however, kept a close eye. Sports were out. "I was afraid he would get hurt," she said.

Instead, Max was being trained in music, learning to play both the French horn and the piano. Not that he liked it.

"I hated piano since I was in Russia," he said. "I always wanted to play sports but my mom wouldn't let me."

He pleaded, but mom always said, 'No.' Around the time Max turned 10, Valeria found herself having to make an even bigger decision regarding young Max's life.

Valeria met Doug Elliott at a social mixer in Moscow. The two hit it off immediately and kept in touch when Elliott went back to the United States. Elliott, however, didn't care for the distance. He was hooked.

"We stayed in communication for a few months and I decided to go back," he said. "From there, we got married and Valeria and Max moved to America with me."

The move was not easy for Valeria and Max to make. She was hesitant to make such a dramatic change in his childhood.

"It was a difficult decision," she said. "He was doing so well we didn't want to disrupt that."

In the end, she felt the opportunity to move out of Russia to the United States was too good to pass up, so she and Max moved to Hoover, Ala., where Max was adopted by Doug Elliott and entered the fifth grade.

Max struggled at first.

"He didn't know English when we first moved here," Valeria said. "He was very smart, but only knew, 'Yes' and 'No'."

He didn't know anything about American culture or American kids either.

"It was hard to make friends," he said. "That was the hardest part for me. The more I learned to communicate, the easier that was and the more fun I started to have."

Max, who now speaks perfect English, eventually discovered football. And everything changed.

When he was in the seventh grade, Doug Elliott took him to see the Birmingham Steeldogs in the Arena Football League. Doug could tell it was love at first sight.

"He really didn't know what football was," he said. "But once he learned, he was hooked. It was immediate."

Max agreed.

"Once I saw football, I knew I wanted to play," he said.

There was just one problem ... Mom. "It took my mom a long time to say OK, but she finally let me," Max said.

And once she did, her son - now 6-4, 257 pounds - blossomed.

"He is very physical and a key part to our defensive line," Hoover head coach Josh Niblett said.

So good, in fact, a number of Division I schools were interested.

"Mississippi State was the first team to contact us," Doug Elliott said. "I really thought that is where Max would go. It was all he talked about."

Other schools soon followed. Air Force, Florida Atlantic, Army, UAB, New Mexico, Samford and Eastern Kentucky all actively recruited him.

"It was really cool getting the letters and invitations to schools," Max said. "I could not have dreamed of this happening."

With a 3.14 GPA and 23 on the ACT, qualifying to play wasn't an issue. It was just finding the right fit.

Last weekend, he decided the Air Force Academy was the place for him.

"He has been focused on Air Force for a while," Doug Elliott said. "We went for a visit earlier and he loved it."

So did Valeria.

"My mom liked the views in Colorado," Max said. "I guess it reminded her a little of home."

The trip from Alabama to Colorado - from the South to the Rocky Mountains - would be a lot for some. But not Max. After all, he's moved farther. For him, it's just another step in the incredible journey that is his life.

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