When Gaelin Elmore made a decision on March 23rd to leave the Minnesota football program and find another place to play immediately next fall as a graduate transfer, East Carolina wasn’t on the list of possibilities.
Elmore, a 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive end, had lettered three seasons with the Gophers and logged nine starts in Big Ten Conference play. But despite being recognized as one of the program’s leaders and receiving praise from new Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, Elmore decided to pursue a change of scenery for his final season of college eligibility.
Schools like Arizona, Houston, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas Tech jumped to the forefront in pursuit of Elmore. Then, along came the Pirates.
“When I made the decision to transfer, East Carolina didn’t cross my mind as a possible destination,” Elmore said this week. “But some of the defensive coaches there are good friends with one of the coaches who was on our staff here last year. So he may have reached out to East Carolina about me, and then ECU contacted me. They very quickly showed me about the school itself and what the city has to offer. They did a really nice job of doing that.”
So nice that Elmore eventually announced May 6th he’d be suiting up for the Pirates in 2017 over his other finalist, Arizona. A visit to Greenville on the weekend of April 22nd, during which he viewed ECU’s annual spring game, sealed the deal for Elmore.
The family atmosphere at ECU reminded Elmore of what he experienced at Minnesota, plus Greenville is closer in proximity to family than Arizona.
“Really, what set them apart was the coaching staff and the friendly atmosphere there,” Elmore said. “They’re a really tight knit group of people, and that’s something I’ve always been fond of and drawn to. That really moved them up in the conversation to start with.
“Then, the fact that most everyone on their defensive staff has an NFL background, some NFL history or has coached multiple players in the league, including the head coach, that was super appealing to me with one year to play.
“But what really put it over the top is some of my biological family is in Tennessee right now,” he said “That’s only about five-and-a-half to six hours from Greenville. They’ll be able to see all my home games and spend this final year of college football with me. Up here [at Minnesota] they were not able to do that. That put East Carolina ahead of Arizona.”
Family has become even more important to Elmore as an adult because of the struggles he endured growing up.
Elmore was born in Peoria, Illinois, where he and two sisters often fended for themselves as youngsters while their parents fell victims to drug addiction. Those issues eventually led to Elmore and his siblings winding up in foster care. Their parents eventually divorced as the children bounced from foster home to foster home before Elmore’s father was granted custody of him around his seventh-grade year.
Hoping to save Gaelin from the pitfalls of drugs and gangs that had negatively affected his life, George Elmore sent his son to live for the summer with a half-brother in Somerset, Wisconsin, a town of about 3,000. George Elmore would eventually join his sons in Somerset, but at one point the trio found themselves homeless.
Even during those tough times, sports proved to be an outlet for Gaelin.
“Football and basketball have always been my loves,” Elmore said. “In my mind for a lot of my life I thought I’d be a basketball player until I was about 15 or 16. I wasn’t the tall guy on the AAU circuit anymore, but I was big by football standards.”
It was an AAU basketball coach in Somerset, Jay Emmert, who organized local efforts to find a home for Gaelin and his father. Gaelin immediately began to assert himself as a ninth grader on the Somerset High basketball squad and on the football team as a tight end.
But Elmore’s life took another tragic turn as a sophomore when he was called to the school’s guidance office. George Elmore had been arrested and it was up to Somerset’s football coach, Bruce Larson, to give Gaelin the bad news. His father would be heading to jail for some time, leaving Gaelin homeless yet again.
Larson, however, refused to let that happened and brought Elmore into his home. For the next two-and-a-half years of what would become a star-studded high school career, Elmore lived with the Larsons and essentially became part of their family.
Settled in a true home environment for the first time, Elmore thrived on the athletic field and in the classroom. He was a 1,000-point career scorer in basketball and was a tight end and all-state defensive end in football, where he helped Somerset claim the state title in 2012. It was after his sophomore year that had begun in such an unsettling way that Elmore began to catch the eye of college football recruiters.
“I attended a camp at a small school here in the Midwest,” Elmore said. “I had coaches there tell me that football was a real opportunity for me, but that I was going to be too big of a recruit for them to pursue me. That opened my eyes to my potential. After that I just started working hard to be the best I could be.”
Off the field, Elmore would also become a star student. He was named one of the 16 scholar athlete award winners as a senior by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association.
The combination of athletic skill and academic success made Elmore a hot commodity in recruiting. Major schools like Indiana, Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin would offer scholarships, but in the end Elmore chose Minnesota, which was just a 40-minute drive from Somerset.
In three seasons with the Gophers, Elmore appeared in 38 games and started nine. He recorded 39 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks during that time, while also twice earning All-Academic Big Ten Conference honors.
The 2016 season saw Elmore produce 16 tackles, four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks for a 9-4 squad that defeated Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. But controversy preceded that triumph when 10 members of the team were suspended due to their involvement in a sexual assault investigation by the university.
Elmore was one of the vocal leaders during the controversy for the Gophers, who actually conducted a two-day boycott in support of their teammates that they believed had not received fair treatment from the university. The team eventually played its bowl game, prevailing 17-12 over the heavily favored Cougars.
But in the aftermath of the controversy Minnesota decided to fire head coach Tracy Claeys and brought in Fleck from Western Michigan to lead the program. Elmore wasn’t sure he would fit well in the plans of the new staff, so he made the difficult decision to find a new place to play.
“It was tough leaving my guys,” Elmore said. “We are a really close group because of the things we’ve been through and experienced. But that also helped me make the decision to leave without a bad conscious because I know our relationship is bigger than football. They care more for me as a person than as a football player. I know I made the right decision and I haven’t regretted it one bit.”
Fleck was complimentary of Elmore and wished him success at East Carolina.
“I know he loves the University of Minnesota, and the Golden Gophers, and I know he’s been through a lot since he’s been here,” Fleck said. “The greatest thing about him, he [is going to graduate], and I couldn’t be more proud of him. And he made a very, very tough decision that I know was [a] decision that I know was hard on him, but I support him 100 percent. However that young man feels his life should go, I’m behind Gaelin 100 percent, and I wish him all the best.”
Elmore will remain at Minnesota through the spring semester and into the summer to complete the undergrad requirements for a degree in communication studies. He expects to report to East Carolina sometime in July.
What are the Pirates gaining in adding Elmore to their defensive line roster?
“I really pride myself on physicality and how hard I play,” Elmore said. “I love hitting people. I bring a lot of experience and versatility. I can do a lot of things for a defense.
“That’s on the field. Off the field I’m a different type of leader. That’s something I’ve always prided myself on. I’ve played three years with guys who competed on a high level. I’m going to bring that attitude down there and push everyone forward to get to where they want to go.”
Elmore hopes that direction leads to major improvement for an East Carolina defense that ranked among the nation’s worst last season. The Pirates were dead last among Football Bowl Subdivision teams with a mere eight quarterback sacks, were 100th in scoring defense (36.1), 100th in total defense (452.8) and 111th against the rush (228.5).
“I’ve always been part of defensive oriented teams where we had to keep people from scoring 20 points to win,” Elmore said. “So this is going to be a complete flip for me. But I think I can bring a different mentality to the defensive room. If we can change the mindset a little bit, I think we can have a pretty good defensive year.”