One of the most heavily recruited high school football players ever to play in south county has made it official. Elijah Qualls signed a letter of intent last week to play college football for the University of Washington.

God gave Qualls a multitude of physical attributes, including a body that stretches 6 feet, 2-inches in length and weights scales down to a reading of between 280 and 300 pounds depending on where he is in his workouts. But Qualls has taken what nature provided and honed it into Pac-12 caliber shape. "It took a lot of hard work and dedication on the part of myself, my coaches and my teammates," he says of his signing. "It was just a dream. I never thought that one day it would be a reality."

For the Casa Grande High School senior, the signing is one step closer to his dream of playing big-time college football and perhaps going beyond. It is also one step farther away from the Sacramento neighbourhood where he grew up in the midst of drugs, prostitution, gang violence and drug activity.

He came to Casa Grande as a junior after a somewhat checkerboard high school beginning at Rancho Cordova High School.

Change hasn't come easy. He has struggled at times in the classroom and his size, strength and talent, not to mention his bushy dreadlocks, have made him the target for taunts and remarks from opposing teams and players. He has also had to deal with all sorts or rumors and innuendos, but the truth is he has worked very hard to keep his grades at an acceptable level, live up to increasingly high expectations and still remain true to himself.

"He is a very genuine and honest person," says Casa Grande head football coach Trent Herzog. "As for the grades. He has done a great job. He is 100 percent NCAA eligible.

Herzog watched Qualls develop as a football player and a person. "It was a culture shock for him at first," Herzog says. "The first half year for him here was pretty tough on him." Tough on him both on and off the field. "He had to survive mentally in a new environment," Herzog explains.

Once he began to realize what was expected and how hard he had to work, Qualls began to become a player who could dominate with more than just his sure physical strength.

"When he set his mind to it, he worked as hard as anyone, Herzog says. "He is proving that in the classroom right now."

Through it all, Qualls has not only survived, but thrived at Casa Grande. He has worked hard to clean up his academic act. His overall GPA is now well above what he needs to qualify for Washington, and he isn't about to let it slip with the next step in his dream just a semester away.

He says being at Casa Grande opened the door for him. What he found at Casa were coaches like Herzog, running backs coach Ron Petroni and teachers and counselors who were willing to work with him and help him adjust.

It is telling of the big man's personality that he was willing to move from halfback to the offensive line when he was needed up front. He still ended leading the team in rushing, but sacrificed some impressive rushing statistics for the good of the team.

It is also telling that Qualls is very much aware of his impact on young athletes, who look up to him not only for his physical size and his reputation as a star Casa Grande football player, but also for his outgoing personality and the positive traits he brings to the game and life. Unlike when he was growing up where drug dealers and the like were the ones who impressed kids, he wants to leave youngsters with a different impression of success.

"I realize that I'm a role model," he says. "I try to hang out with the kids and show them the right way. I want to make as positive an impact as I can."

There is no question in Herzog's mind that Qualls can play at the D1 level. "For a player of his size, to do what he can do on the field is amazing. There is no question he can make it," he says.

Qualls has never wavered from his commitment to Washington, made verbally last June. Although that commitment was non-binding, the Casa Grande student has steadfastly resisted offers from a multitude of other colleges and universities. "I've had no second thoughts," he says. "I'm completely happy with my decision."

Qualls received a full scholarship, but it is only for one year. The implication is plain — he will have to prove himself on the football field and in the classroom.

It has already been a long journey for Elijah Qualls, but the next step in that journey is determined. He made it official on Wednesday, Feb. 6.

Contact johnie.jackson@arguscourier.com.