Brotherly love aids big surge for WCU
Elders carrying load for Rams on offense, defense, special teams
WEST GOSHEN >> In a backand-forth battle of big plays, one of the biggest sequences came when West Chester University’s Jarey Elder picked off a Shippensburg pass, and his older brother Jarel promptly scored on the very next play.
It gave the Golden Rams their first lead and they never trailed again en route to a 37-27 triumph last weekend over the previously unbeaten Red Raiders. West Chester is now all alone in first place in the PSAC East and will be heavy favorites in their final four games of the regular season, including Saturday’s clash against Bloomsburg at Farrell Stadium (12:30 p.m. kickoff).
Few could relate to such a unique moment between brothers/teammates because it is obviously a rare occurrence. But we found out later that WCU’s head coach, Bill Zwaan, was actually somebody who could truly appreciate what had transpired.
“It has happened at least one other time,” he said with a chuckle.
The year was 1971. Zwaan was the star quarterback at Archbishop Carroll and his younger brother, Joe, was a linebacker for the Patriots.
“Joe had an interception in a big playoff game against St. Joseph’s Prep, and I scored on the very next play,” Zwaan recalled.
The similarities are striking, but it ends with the post-game celebration. There may have been a hug or a handshake 46 years ago. On Saturday, at Shippensburg’s Seth Grove Stadium, the Elder brothers went with a gleeful, high-flying, twisting chest-bump that’s all the rage these days. It was spontaneous and heartfelt, but the execution was a little off.
“It ended up being kind of a Euro step,” explained Jarel, a senior running back. “You are supposed to go up and over to opposite sides, but we weren’t on the same page because I nearly knocked Rey-Jay’s teeth out.”
WCU’s Big-Play Duo
Jarel, 22, is a proven all-league runner, who rushed for 1,013 yards a year ago and is the reigning PSAC East Co-Athlete of the Week. Just 5-foot-7, 165-pounds, he ran for 149 yards and two touchdowns against Shippensburg. He leads the Rams with eight TDs and is fifth in the conference, averaging 92.5 rushing yards per contest.
Jarey, 20, is a 5-11, 170-pound sophomore who plays free safety and currently leads West Chester with two interceptions and is second on the team with 28 tackles so far. Jarey played in all 11 games as a true freshman in 2016 and earned the starting job this spring.
“They are both big-play guys,” Zwaan said.
“When brothers are very competitive, sometimes there can be a jealousy if one is playing more than the other, and that can get in the way.
“But mostly they are supportive of each other, and that’s what Jarey and Jarel are. They are competitive, but they are the first ones to highfive each other. They hang out together. They provide tremendous support for each other.”
In addition, Jarel returns punts and Jarey is the kick-return man. That means that on any given play, you can be assured that an Elder is going to be on the field for WCU about 95 percent of the time.
“We played both sides of the ball in high school,” Jarey said. “Now I can actually watch him play, and it’s a blessing. Everything he does, I’m watching and everything I do, he’s watching.”
Background Goes Deep
They are ‘Rel’ and ‘Rey’ to just everybody associated with WCU. Let’s just say up front that there are a lot of nicknames surrounding the Elders. With names like Jarel and Jarey, it’s understandable. Plus, they have older brothers Jamal and Jaren.
“My mom still messes up all of our names,” said Jarel, who calls his younger brother ReyJay.
“Jarel’s nickname is Rel, but sometimes my Mom calls him ‘Smelly Rel,’” Jarey laughed. “Everybody loves to hear that one.”
The Elders are from Allentown, by way of Plainfield, N.J. Now 30, Jamal played football for Plainfield High School. The family then moved to Pennsylvania in 2005 and Jaren, 28, was a star at Parkland High. Parents Thomas and Sheri always encouraged the boys to play sports, but they insisted that they all get an education.
“They come from a great family, and they have their heads on straight,” Zwaan said of the Elder brothers. “They know what they want to get out of college, both on the football field and in the classroom. They will make something special out of themselves.
“They are very focused, and that’s great to have on a team because they get other guys focused. They aren’t just talented players, the leadership they show is really special.”
Due to the age difference, the brothers never played on the same organized football team until 2012 at Parkland, when Jarel was the star senior and Jarey was a promising two-way sophomore starter. All along the way, however, there were a lot of competitive battles in the backyard, the driveway and the schoolyard.
Recently, the four brothers got together for a spirited game of four square.
“We are competitive with everything we do,” Jarey said. “We always talk about who is the better basketball player, or pool player, or who is the best all-around on the football field. It’s always a fun family argument.
Jarel added: “It was always a big family discussion. I always say that Rey is the most talented one. He’s not as fast as me, but he is quick and has a knack for where to be on the field. We both have playmaking ability. Any play can turn into a big play with either one of us.”
“He says I’m not athletic — that I’m just good at football. I tend to agree because on the basketball court, it’s not a pretty sight. I’m all about defense.”
When told of his older brother’s comment, Jarey seemed both moved and also a bit annoyed.
“That’s a great compliment coming from Rel,” he said. “A lot of the things I do I attribute to him. Growing up, I watched and learned from him. He’s been a guy I could always go to for advice, whether it was football or with life.
“But I have to say that even though he is faster in a straight ahead sprint, when it comes to lateral quickness, he can’t beat me.”
The Recruiting Process
Due his small stature, Jarel wasn’t highly recruited out of high school even though he was a standout.
“A lot of schools were backing off of him, but we saw a great playmaker,” Zwaan said. “He was just all over the place.
“We thought we got a really good one and he turned out to be a great one.”
A couple years later, Jarey was bigger and a much more sought after prospect. He was recruited by FCS schools like New Hampshire and St. Francis (Pa.) and received a scholarship offer from the University of Albany. He was also highly sought after by PSAC programs like Bloomsburg, Indiana (Pa.) and California (Pa.).
“Their parents liked what was going on with Jarel, especially academically,” Zwaan explained.
“We knew we were in for a battle to get Jarey, but he was leaning our way right from the get-go because of Jarel. It wound up being easier than I thought.”
Right from the start, Jarel wanted his brother to join him at West Chester, but was reluctant to join in on the recruiting effort.
“I stayed out of it. At the end of the day I wanted it to be his decision,” he said.
“(Jarel) was hands-off and didn’t want to influence me too much,” Jarey acknowledged. “I do remember him telling me that this is the one time in your life where you can be truly selfish and do what’s best for you.
“I don’t think I ever came right out said it, but I just wanted to play with Rey again. It was just kind of an understanding.”
As expected, Jarel took his little brother under his wing when he arrived on campus in 2015.
“Our parents raised us well, so I knew he wasn’t going to get in trouble or anything,” Jarel said. “It was more making sure he stays on track with grades. I didn’t have to say much about football.”
Always Close; Now Closer
It didn’t take long for the two to meet on the practice field. That’s because when Jarey arrived, Zwaan and his staff decided to put him in the defensive backfield rather than at one of the skill positions on offense. Jarel, on the other hand, has been a running back from the moment he stepped on campus.
“We knew we were good enough at running back with guys like Brandon Monk and Jarel, and that (Jarey) could play receiver on offense,” Zwaan explained. “But we also knew if we put him on defense and he would make big plays and be a leader. He still has an offensive mindset, but we just felt he would prop up our defense more.”
The brothers have collided more than a few times in workouts, with Jarey trying to make a tackle, or Jarel trying to make a block. It’s standard competitive football, with just one exception: “Sometimes I have to block Rey,” Jarel said. “One time I was supposed to do a chop-block, and I don’t like to do that to anybody on the team. I tried to give him a little hit and he got up, and said: ‘I can’t believe you just tried to chopblock me!’”
They have always been close, but now that Jarel is a senior and Jarey is a starter, they are hanging together away from the football field more than ever.
“We are gelling a little more as he gets older,” Jarel said.
“When you are growing up, nobody wants to have their younger brother around,” Jarey added. “But now, we have a lot of the same group of friends and play on the same team. It’s brought us a lot closer, and we are extremely thankful for that.”
Jarey knows that things are going to be different when Jarel graduates next spring (he is majoring in biology). And not all of it is bad.
“I kind of went through the same thing in high school,” Jarey said. “When he graduated, I wasn’t Jarel’s younger brother anymore. That is one thing I am looking forward too. I love playing with my brother but it would be nice to be known as Jarey and not Jarel’s little brother.”
Jarey is majoring in professional studies and is thinking about pursuing a career in health and coaching. He says that that all of his teammates are his brothers, but that getting the chance to play college ball with Jarel is special.
“Being able to see (Jarel) go out there and make plays motivates me to do the same,” he said.
“There is nothing better than playing with my brother,” Jarel pointed out. “If he’d have gone anywhere else, I would have been a little upset.
“We have moments that we can cherish forever.”
West Chester’s Jarel Elder runs with the ball during a game last season against Shippensburg.
Jarey Elder, here during his time at Parkland High School, was recruited by a few FCS schools before deciding to join his brother at West Chester.