PHOTO BY STEVE MCLAUGHLIN / ALBANY ATHLETICS

Elijah Gash a Diamond in the Rough at Albany


Elijah Gash collected the ground ball and saw an open lane of turf in front of him. He didn’t hesitate, sprinting from Albany’s restraining line and into the offensive end. He face dodged one Hartford defenseman, then ran over another to score his first Division I goal and give Albany a 13-5 lead midway through the fourth quarter. 

The Great Danes went nuts after the long pole goal. The Hawks called a timeout to regroup. 

“I grew up wanting to play at the highest level, and I’m here now,” Gash said earlier this week after the 16-6 win. “Just being able to celebrate with the guys after [the goal] was unreal. I can’t really explain it, you know?” 

Gash’s route to Albany seems equally inexplicable at first glance. How many players go from the NAIA to starting for a Top 20 Division I team? In a year when small school transfers have made big impacts on the D-I stage, Gash’s starting point was perhaps the most far-fetched of them all: St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. 

Before Gash started against Colgate on Feb. 27, his last collegiate game was in 2019. 

“It was a huge moment because he’s been through so much,” Alicia Gash, Elijah’s mom, said while holding back tears. 

Now, after what Elijah Gash called the hardest year of his life, he’s a key contributor for a defense that more than complements No. 16 Albany’s historically potent offense. Through its 2-0 start, the Great Danes have only surrendered 7.5 goals per game and are the eighth-best scoring defense in the country. Their next test comes Saturday when Vermont visits John Fallon Field. 

“He's got quick feet, he's got strength, he's got size,” Albany head coach Scott Marr said of Gash, who’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds. “He has good stick skills. He's just an all-around solid player. The more he plays at this level and really figures it out, he's going to be a tough matchup for most attackmen across the country.”

When asked about potential comparisons to the junior transfer’s style, Marr cited the way Fred Opie carried the ball. He mentioned Dave LaChapelle’s smoothness. “He glides,” Marr said of Gash. Still, neither reference fully fit. 

“Elijah looks like a combination of a linebacker and wide receiver for a [Division] I-A football team,” Marr said. “That's what he really looks like.” 


“Elijah looks like a combination of a linebacker and wide receiver for a [Division] I-A football team.” — Scott Marr


That assessment isn’t that surprising given Gash’s lineage. Both of his parents played Division I sports. His mom still ranks in the top three all-time in both assists and service aces for the University of New Mexico’s volleyball program. His dad was selected in the eighth round of the 1992 NFL draft out of Penn State. Sam Gash carved out a 12-year playing career as a bludgeoning fullback. He made the Pro Bowl twice and won Super Bowl XXXV with the Baltimore Ravens. 

“I blocked as long and as hard as I could,” a description on his LinkedIn profile under the job title “Fullback” reads. 

“Every day was different,” Sam Gash said last week. “Every play was never the same, so you just had to go at it hard.”

The oldest of five boys, Elijah was only 1 year old in 2001 when his dad hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. He formed more lasting memories in and around the NFL after Sam entered the coaching profession. There were stops with the New York Jets, Detroit Lions and most recently the Green Bay Packers from 2014-16.  

Beyond the chance to shake Aaron Rodgers’ hand, the environment instilled the importance of hard work. 

“Athleticism is great, but if you don't have that drive, then you're not going to get anywhere,” Elijah Gash said. 

Ever since Gash picked up a stick for the first time in the fourth grade when his family lived in Northville, Michigan, the sport became his favorite. 

“Elijah knew he didn’t like football,” Alicia Gash said. “He really loved lacrosse.”  

It had the physicality of football but also a tight-knit culture among the entire team and the ability to hone your skills outside of formal practice. He played wall ball at Bay View middle school even on Saturday nights. When the Gashes went shopping for Elijah’s first car, a 2009 Chevy Malibu, he had one prerequisite. It needed to fit his D-pole. 

Like most players, he soon harbored ambitions of going D-I. Those offers never came, even after he rehabbed fully from dislocating his kneecap for a second time and earned US Lacrosse All-American honors his senior year at Bay Port High School in the Green Bay suburb of Suamico. 

Even if they had, Gash doesn’t think he would have academically qualified. He considered enlisting in the Army and took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test. 

“Don’t sign any papers,” his mom told him. “What if something comes along your way?”

“He was definitely at the bottom of the barrel looking up because he had a couple of big mountains to climb,” Sam Gash said. “He's getting up there, but still in his mind, he has a long way to go.”








***

Quint Kessenich does not remember the exact date he received the email containing Elijah Gash’s senior year lacrosse highlight tape. But the name Sam Gash did ring a bell. Kessenich’s long-time agent, Tony Agnone, also represented Gash. 

“Am I seeing things?” Kessenich, an ESPN analyst and four-time All American goalie at Johns Hopkins, thought after he hit play. “This kid is unbelievable.” 

Gash was “super tall” and created 5 yards of separation within 10 yards after picking up a ground ball. He delivered hits and ran through would-be riding attackmen like he was on the gridiron. The competition wasn’t great, but Gash’s athletic prowess reminded Kessenich of the Under Armour All-Americans he covered every June.

He sought a second opinion. 

“No, you’re not crazy,” then Johns Hopkins assistant Bill Dwan told him. “This kid looks like a real athlete.” Kessenich then sent the video to about five D-I coaches. That included another former Blue Jays teammate.  

“He’s always shown an affinity for fishing a different lake, so to speak, and recruiting outside the standard hotbeds to find hidden gems,” Kessenich said of Marr. In this case, it was Lake Michigan. 

Albany’s 2021 roster features 38 players from New York, but also farther afield destinations like Ohio, Oregon, Colorado and Minnesota. Fifth-year senior attackman Jakob Patterson, the 2019 America East offensive player of the year, hails from Chandler, Arizona. 

Gash was playing in a summer tournament with Team Wisconsin after his freshman season at St. Ambrose when he first learned of Albany’s interest. 

“It scared me to death,” Gash said of his initial reaction. 

The “super shy” kid who declined a spot on the varsity lacrosse team at Bay Port his freshman year again thought he wasn’t ready. But this time he didn’t let his fear dissuade him. Instead, he went all in. 

“That’s when the light just all of a sudden came on,” Sam Gash said. 




PHOTO VIA INSTAGRAM (@elijah_gash91)

Elijah Gash with his mother, Alicia, and his father, Sam, who spent 12 years in the NFL as a fullback.


During an initial tour of Albany’s campus in August 2019, Elijah Gash kept asking himself, “Is this real?” By the time he talked to Marr in person, he knew it was the spot for him. 

The dream would have to wait, at least for another year.  

“We knew it could take some time,” Marr said.

In order to academically qualify, Gash took 36 credits last year, including 24 in the spring at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, to complete his associates degree. 

He worked as a barback and delivery driver and realized he didn’t want to do that the rest of his life. He started training with a purpose two times a day, first in Bay Port’s gym, then in the “COVID gym” the Gashes constructed in their basement alongside his younger brother, Isaiah, who’s a preferred walk-on running back at the University of Michigan. Marr and Albany’s academic advisor frequently checked in with him. 

“I knew there was something great on the other side,” Elijah Gash said. 

“We knew he had it in him,” Alicia Gash said. “We knew he had something special.”

Marr expressed a similar feeling when Gash started practicing at Albany in the fall. Although the Great Danes had limited time together because of COVID protocols, Gash did not need a large sample size to impress. 

“It didn't take very long if at all,” Marr said after praising Gash’s work ethic. “He fit in pretty much right away.” 

“He’s one of the hardest working kids on the team,” Tehoka Nanticoke told US Lacrosse Magazine in a written message. “He’ll come up to me and ask questions during practice or after on what he can do to get better, and I respect the hell out of him for doing that. It shows me he wants to be here.”

Gash called guarding Nanticoke for the first time a “pinch-me” moment. Before his first practice, Gash could barely speak. He was too nervous. But once he got on the field and started running around, he felt at home. He praised the entire team, but particularly returning starting defensemen Steven Kunz and Michael Kozar, for easing the transition. 

The program that built its identity on a free-wheeling offense now has an intimidating defense to match. Marr calls it the most athletic unit he’s ever coached. 

After the Colgate game, Marr texted Kessenich, to whom he had provided updates about Gash’s progress along the way.

“It was beyond a good report card,” Kessenich said. “Let’s just leave it at that.”