CEDAR FALLS — Derek Summy wasn’t sure it was him on the sidelines.
Summy, Des Moines Lincoln’s fifth-year head coach, was so engaged in the Railsplitters’ scrimmage with Johnston last Friday that he wasn’t sure it was Will McElvain standing on Lincoln’s sidelines giving encouragement.
It was, and it surprised Summy because just a few hours earlier McElvain had been named the starting quarterback at Northern Iowa as a redshirt freshman.
“He’s just there talking X’s and O’s with the kids on the sidelines,” said Summy. “It was neat. I didn’t even get a chance to tell him how proud I am of him for winning the job.”
As he reflected further, Summy says McElvain showing up on the sidelines on a night he should’ve been celebrating a huge personal accomplishment is not surprising because that’s McElvain’s nature.
“He lives and breathes football and will help anyone,” Summy said. “He was at a lot of our 7-on-7 games this summer, talking to players and telling them what he sees. He is part of our program and the kids see that.”
McElvain’s generosity isn’t limited to Railsplitter teammates.
His dad, Vaughn, Lincoln’s wide receiver coach, built Will a practice field behind the family’s southside Des Moines home where McElvain invites any and all athletes who want to get better to attend workouts.
“He gets all these quarterbacks from around Des Moines to come over and work out,” Summy said. “He brings kids from all over Des Moines ... they’d have 7-on-7 tournaments. I joked with him that he has to stop making all of our opponents better.
“But, he is always in competitive mode. I’ve never seen a kid work as hard as him to improve his craft.”
Current UNI wide receiver Jaylin James, who played for Summy at Des Moines East before Summy was hired to be Lincoln’s head coach, has been involved in those workouts.
“We actually worked out there a bunch this summer,” James smiled. “If we were not here at the UNI-Dome, we were there working out. He invites anybody who wants to get better. It is like a community field. It’s fun to see all the Des Moines guys and what they are doing with their careers. It is good time, but when we go out there, we get better for sure.”
Waterloo West football coach Lonnie Moore also has experienced the generosity of McElvain, who befriended Moore’s son and South Dakota quarterback Devon Moore when they attended summer camps together.
Last spring, Moore invited McElvain to speak at West High’s eighth-grade signing day.
“He’s a real good guy who is always willing to help out with anything you ask,” Moore said. “He did a good job. I think he relates to the kids at West. West and Lincoln are pretty similar, and he shared his story and what he went through.
“He told them how he wasn’t very serious in academics when he was younger, but then realized he had to get serious and make academics important because he wouldn’t have the chances he has now if he didn’t. Our kids really locked into what he said.”
The evolution of a quarterback
Summy knew Will, the youngest of Vaughn and Alicia McElvain’s two sons, as he grew up. He had been an assistant at Lincoln before serving as the offensive coordinator from 2010-14 at Des Moines East and then landing the Lincoln job in 2015.
Summy took notice of Will McElvain as a freshman, before the now 5-foot-11, 197-pound McElvain won the Railsplitters’ varsity starting quarterback job as a sophomore. A much smaller McElvain lasted four games that season before breaking his collarbone on a play at the goal line and missing the remainder of the season.
Over the next two seasons, however, McElvain evolved into a version of the quarterback Panther fans will see Saturday when UNI plays Iowa State at Jack Trice Stadium at 11 a.m.
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“So, he breaks his collarbone, and as we enter his junior season, I’m like we can’t lose this kid so we tweaked our offense,” Summy said. “We ran a lot of RPOs (run-pass option plays) where he just threw it. So, his junior year, he didn’t run at all.”
McElvain rushed for 18 yards as a junior, but threw for more than 2,100 and 25 touchdowns.
Then, Summy challenged McElvain, telling him in order to reach his full potential he was going to have to dedicate himself to becoming a better athlete.
“Between his junior and senior seasons, he got into the weight room and he was a different athlete as a senior,” Summy said. “There are kids who want to work and there are kids that go above that and he went above. I think he realized the kind of athlete he could be. When he got bigger, his confidence skyrocketed.”
A bigger, stronger and faster McElvain had a special season in 2017 for the Railsplitters, becoming the first Class 4A player to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a single season.
“He wasn’t afraid to pull it down and run anymore,” Summy said.
Making a name for himself
There are a couple of instances that Summy says he thought to himself, “Wow, this kid is going to be special.”
The first was in week eight of 2017. Lincoln was waged in a battle with Ames, and with the game on the line in overtime, Summy says he and McElvain had a meeting on the sideline.
“He comes up and tells me, ‘Let’s do this,’ and he ends up running for a touchdown and it is a huge win for us (47-41),” Summy said. “He wants the ball in his hands in big moments.”
In that game against Ames, McElvain was 25 of 37 for 317 yards and four touchdowns, and he rushed 32 times for 193 yards and three scores.
The second moment that Summy knew McElvain could play at the collegiate level as a quarterback came in the River Battle Bowl/Iowa-Nebraska all-star game.
In a 21-3 Iowa win, McElvain threw for two touchdowns, but it was a first-half throw where he was rolling out left and nailed Iowa City West’s Traevis Buchanan for a 23-yard touchdown pass to give Iowa an early lead.
“Probably one of the best high school throws, honestly, I’ve ever seen,” said Gilbert high school head coach Scott Auderer to the Omaha World Herald. “That was incredible. He threw that in a spot where nobody would catch it but us. Rolling out to his left, being right-handed, and putting it where he did.”
But for as much as McElvain shined as high school quarterback, the college interest he was generating wasn’t as a quarterback. Recruiters wanted him to convert to defensive back. And, McElvain, in September of his senior season, accepted a preferred walk-on offer from Iowa State to play that position.
But the dream to play quarterback never left him.
“He wanted to go somewhere to play quarterback,” Summy said.
With that in mind, McElvain flipped to UNI in February 2018, where Panther head coach Mark Farley has stated many times he is not concerned with McElvain’s 5-foot-11 stature.
That faith appears to be paying off for UNI.
“I told UNI coaches he was going to outwork anybody you have,” Summy said. “I knew it would be a matter of time before he made his impact because he does outwork everybody.
“I’m excited to see him play. Honestly, I’ve been a lifelong Iowa fan, but I recently bought my first UNI shirt. I’ve switched my loyalty.”
The rest of McElvain’s story is yet to be written.