The Toughest Road
Gaelin Elmore faced challenges that would crush most people. Instead, with an entire community behind him, he's flourished.
STORY BY JAKE RICKER
About 450 miles of interstate separate Peoria, Ill. from Somerset, Wis., a drive that takes a little under seven hours. The distance between the two towns can be easily quantified but, through the eyes of Gaelin Elmore, the separation between the two is impossibly large. The difference those 450 miles made in his life is immeasurable.
Elmore, a junior defensive lineman at the University of Minnesota, was born in Peoria, home to nearly 375,000 people and a violent crime rate nearly double the U.S. average. Elmore, still in diapers, and his two sisters spent nights locked in a bedroom while their parents indulged drug addictions. Strangers came and left at all hours, facelessly yelling and partying beyond the locked door. The older of Elmore’s two sisters, an 11-year-old, prepared meals and got her younger siblings ready for school in the morning. The house wasn’t a home. It was chaos.
From the dirt and disrepair that filled the house, Elmore’s dad eventually emerged, committed to overcoming his drug problem. Before he did, Child and Family Services discovered the conditions in which Elmore and his sisters lived. All three were going to live in foster care and they were going immediately. They were not, however; going together.
“The first night they took me, I got separated from my sisters right away. It was instant,” said Elmore. “[Child Services] were in a hurry to figure out where we were all going to go and they couldn’t find a place for all three of us.
“I was four and there was this strange dude driving me to this place… he tried to comfort me with toys.”
The place Elmore ended up was a group home for toddlers and babies. “I guess you would call it an orphanage,” he said. He was brought to a bunk in a shared room filled with strangers in the middle of the night.
“My caseworker later told me that I was moved because they couldn’t get me to stop crying.”
Elmore lasted just one week before he was moved. The same thing happened the following week at a different home. By the end of that first year in foster care, Elmore estimates he lived in at least 19 different places. On average, that means moving your entire life once every three weeks.
In an attempt to provide Elmore some sense of stability, his caseworker orchestrated a plan to place him with one of his sisters. Crammed into a three-bedroom apartment as two of six foster children, the Elmore siblings slept on small beds without sheets, next to a kitchen filled with padlocked cupboards. The locks had been added to keep the kids from taking food when they woke up hungry on their bare mattresses.
“As bad as our living situation was [with our parents], we never were starving. That was something new once we got into foster care,” said Elmore.
Inspired by hunger, Elmore and his sister taught themselves to pick the locks. The disappearing food aroused suspicions and, within a week, Elmore and his sister were on the move again.
“We were viewed as problem children. Not a lot of people wanted to take us. We’d get to a home, stay there for a little bit, and be shipped off to the next one.”
Elmore and his two sisters visited their birth parents together on a semimonthly basis. These visits provided the children some hope their family would one day reunite. When their parents divorced, the visits ended.
In a twist of timing, Elmore and his sisters were placed together in a foster home shortly after and it felt like their family may yet come back together in some form.
Their address would be consistent for the first time as well. Given the pace at which he had shuffled from house to house, Elmore was hopeful about staying in one place, this new house with many children, for a while.
“As soon as our social worker left, that place completely changed. The mood changed. The language changed. Everything changed,” said Elmore.
In the next five years, Elmore says he was slapped, kicked, punched, slammed, thrown, and beaten with cable, extension cords, chains, and tree branches.
“That type of discipline became the norm for everyone in the house, not just me,” he said.
That discipline eventually drove his oldest sister to flee. One night, Elmore found his teenage sister in a fist fight with their caretakers’ daughter, a heavy-set woman in her late 30s. The caretaker had ordered the fight as punishment for a skipped class. Elmore helplessly watched his sister pummeled and humiliated. The same sister that took care of Elmore in that locked bedroom years earlier.
Later that night “she kissed us and said she was leaving and she’d be in touch soon. She left. She got out. Not a lot of people successfully did that,” said Elmore with a tinge of admiration.
Elmore and his middle sister tried to run away several times. Their final attempt, their successful attempt, turned them into nomads for more than a month. They stayed with friends, acquaintances, even strangers. They found their birth mother, who told them to contact the police because she would be arrested if they were found at her house. No matter where they ran from it, the prospect of being sent back to that awful house seemed unavoidable.
But it wasn’t. The police listened to the kids’ story. They investigated the caretakers of the foster home, revoking their licenses and removing the rest of the kids from the house.
While sharing their story did a great thing for those other kids, it led to Elmore and his sister being separated one more time. They would never live together again.
Elmore’s father learned that his son had bounced around dozens of foster homes in the years since they were separated. The two began having overnight visits back in Peoria. One weekend, Elmore’s caseworker called and told him she wouldn’t be picking him up. His father had been granted full custody. In an essay, Elmore wrote how this moment changed his life – “I had my father!”
Back in Peoria, Elmore’s father – a recovering addict with a criminal history – struggled to find work. They lived below the poverty line. That winter, the gas and electricity bills went unpaid and the utilities were shut down. Elmore spent a week sleeping in his coat and snow pants to stay warm.
Gigantic for a seventh-grader, gangs targeted him to join. For someone who had often felt no one was looking out for him, the idea of a brotherhood who would defend him began to tantalize Elmore.
His father saw this, too. He had an older son – a half-brother to Elmore – who lived in western Wisconsin. Elmore had never met this older brother, but now he’d be spending an entire summer living with him. His father sent him away from Peoria’s street to the open fields of America’s Dairyland.
“I loved it,” Elmore said of that summer. “It was a completely different environment. Open fields, just freedom. I felt like a kid for the first time.”
Elmore loved it so much, he didn’t want to leave.
“I called my dad toward the end of the summer and told him ‘I want to live here.’”
At first, Elmore’s dad said no. He called back the next day and said, almost to remind himself, that he had told Elmore he’d do what was in his best interest when he regained custody. He packed up what they owned and headed north. With Elmore and his dad living at his Wisconsin house, his brother broke off his engagement with his fiancé. She kicked out all three of them. They were homeless, two grown men and a teenager sleeping in a black Ford Explorer. Another setback for Elmore.
“I would brush my teeth and wash myself in the sink of the bathroom of the nearest gas station,” Elmore recalled.
The adults weren’t making much money. Elmore’s dad resorted to selling drugs to support his youngest son, scraping together enough cash to pay for a motel room. The two discussed moving back to Peoria. Instead, they moved to a town outside of Somerset.
Comparing Peoria to Somerset is a simple exercise in identifying opposites. Somerset is essentially everything Peoria is not, a small hamlet of fewer than 3,000 with little crime and good schools.
Jay Emmert coached AAU basketball in Somerset. After Elmore moved to the area, Emmert reached out his previous AAU coach, who gave Elmore a resounding endorsement. He also alluded to potential family issues, mentioning Elmore would need a ride to every team event.
Emmert didn’t mind. He and his son, Jack, picked up and dropped off Elmore every Friday and Saturday. After repeating this for several weekends, Emmert asked Elmore if he’d like to spend the weekends at his house. Elmore and Jack were becoming friends and it would save on travel time.
“One time, I went to drop him off back at where he had been living and he said ‘Oh no, we’re not staying there now. We’re at this other house,’” Emmert remembered. “He’s walking up [to the house], and his shoulders slump. He’s getting sadder as he heads toward the house.”
Emmert called his wife on his drive home. He told her how difficult it was to drop off Elmore that day.
“We should bring him home,” Emmert told his wife. “Until they get it figured out.”
“I immediately said, ‘Well, then go get him,’” replied Roxanne Kendle, Emmert’s wife.
Elmore moved in with the Emmerts for a few weeks to start that summer before his freshman year of high school. With help from the Emmerts and others in the Somerset community, Elmore’s father moved into town that July.
“We kind of rallied the troops – friends and community members – to furnish an apartment for Gaelin and his father,” said Kendle. “It was really a community effort, between furnishing and the apartment.”
“A kid should be with his dad if he can,” added Emmert.
Living in a two-bedroom apartment above a dance studio in town, Elmore still spent a good amount of time with the Emmerts. He and Jack were best friends and spent much of their time together. Elmore excelled at both basketball and football, lettering in each sport as a ninth-grader.
The Emmerts stable lifestyle helped Elmore as he and his father continued to move endlessly. Elmore’s brother moved out of the cramped apartment and his dad couldn’t afford the rent on his own. The two settled into an apartment in a bar. When the bar shut down, they began renting a single room.
Despite all this, Elmore was generally happy. He was with his father, he was succeeding academically and athletically at his new school, he was meeting new friends and the future looked to be shining brightly as he approached the end of a seemingly endless tunnel.
Roxanne Kendle first learned that Elmore’s dad had been arrested when a friend called her at work. She reached out to a guidance counselor at the high school and asked her to get Elmore out of class and be sure someone he loved could break the news to him. One of these people was Somerset’s football coach, Bruce Larson.
“In what I do, you get to know all the kids,” said Larson, who also teaches at the high school. “They become like family to you … you really build a pretty solid relationship.”
Larson was in the counselor’s office waiting when Elmore arrived. Everyone in the room, including Elmore, understood his future teetered between promising and uncertain in those moments. As the meeting ended, Elmore left the office silently.
“I didn’t know how to react to that one,” recalled Elmore. “After I got back with my dad, I never thought I’d be taken away from him again.”
He quickly considered his options, including a plan where he would quit sports, work weekends and pay the rent until his dad returned. Larson saw things differently.
“I kept thinking to myself, ‘This can’t happen. He’s a good kid. He’s an honest kid. He’s a hard-working kid. He’s a kid that needs something good to happen,” said Larson. “I went out in the hallway and he was standing there. I just told him ‘We’ll figure this out.’”
Like Kendle before her, Kelly Larson didn’t ask questions when her husband called and said Elmore would be coming to live with them. She worked at the local elementary school and had heard rumors earlier that day that Elmore’s dad had been arrested.
“It was my lunch hour and my husband was on the phone. He typically doesn’t call me during the day,” Kelly said. “He says, ‘You know he’s coming home, right?’ and I said, ‘Yep, I do.’ And that was the discussion.”
In a life story riddled with lowest points and rock bottoms, that morning appeared to be the most devastating setback Elmore had ever experienced. That halted in the span of nine words gruffly spat by Larson.
“I think it’s best if you come with me.”
With that simple phrase, Elmore was welcomed into the last home he’d know between the spring of his sophomore year and graduation day.
“I’d lost trust in a lot of people and people I’d relied on a lot more than him. He showed me a different side to people,” said Elmore. “He stepped up to the plate like very few people in my life have and kind of opened up a new world to me.”
Kelly’s only anxiety over the “spur of the moment” decision to take in Elmore was how he would fit in with the Larson children. While the oldest had moved to college, her son, Elmore’s teammate Reggie, and daughter, team manager Mckell, were going to have a new sibling.
“Bringing someone into your house, in your family, made me nervous,” said Kelly, looking back at those first days. Now, years removed from that moment, her kids “call him their brother … [they] look at him as their sibling. We love him.”
Elmore flourished living with the Larsons. The basic structure gave him things other kids take for granted. He had lived in more than 60 different places during in his life but, for the first time, he had a home.
It’s impossible to overlook the impact living with his head coach had on Elmore as an athlete. He began training more seriously, committing to a weight-lifting regiment for the first time and immersing himself in sports. A natural athlete gifted with size and speed, Elmore stood out on the football field. By his junior season, college coaches began inundating Elmore with recruiting pitches.
“He got a lot of mail,” said Kelly. “His whole bedroom was full of letters.”
One of the first teams to show interest in Elmore was Minnesota. After studying Elmore’s game film, assistant coach Rob Reeves appeared at Somerset High. Reeves invited Elmore to the Gophers’ junior day camp. During that camp, Reeves pulled aside Elmore and Larson and led them to head coach Jerry Kill.
After a few minutes of conversation, Kill said, “We’d like to take this opportunity to offer you a full scholarship to Minnesota.” He continued, “Understand, there are a lot of schools that are going to offer you. We wanted to be first. … Before anybody ever heard of you, you were here, we recognized you and we value you.”
The scholarship offer was unexpected. The attention that followed that initial offer may have been too, if not for the warning from Kill. Schools across the country ramped up their efforts to court Elmore.
Larson smiled as he remembered pulling into the high school with Elmore one morning to an unexpected sight. “We get out of the car and [former NFL linebacker and Ohio State alum] Mike Vrabel is standing in the parking lot with his Super Bowl rings on.”
When it came time for Elmore to make his college decision, Larson handed his oldest son, Rocky, a gas card and loaded him and Elmore into the family’s Honda Civic. The two drove to Iowa, Nebraska, Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Near the end of the trip, Elmore woke up from a nap and told Rocky he had made his decision. The two called Larson. The following day, Elmore went to the Twin Cities and told Coach Kill that he would be a Golden Gopher.
“Every school I went to, I compared to Minnesota,” said Elmore. “Minnesota is 40 minutes from where I went to high school. That town put so much into me and to help me become the person I am, I knew I wanted to stay close.”
Many high school kids choose to play close to home so they can play in front of their families. Elmore made the same decision. He wanted to stay close to his 3,000-person family in Wisconsin.
“My definition of family is not like anyone else’s, just like my definition of home isn’t like anyone else’s,” said Elmore. “As far as family, it’s anyone that’s willing to risk something for me. I have a large, large family.”
Jake Ricker is an associate athletic communications director for Gopher Athletics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.