Jalen Ramsey thought there had been a mistake. He'd been competing with Eli Woodard for rankings positioning for months. He knew his skill set. He knew his reputation. He certainly knew his name.
So when somebody screwed up Woodard's locker placard a few days before the U.S. Army All-American Game, it didn't go unnoticed.
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Wait. Who the heck is Eli Apple? Ramsey had a laugh.
"At first, we were all laughing because they messed up his name," Ramsey said. "Then somebody pulled up his Rivals account and it said Apple on there, too. I didn't know what was going on for a while. It was confusing."
Of course it was no mistake. Eli Apple is the son of Tim Apple. Eli Apple is the guy who spent his childhood training with his father on a soccer field behind his childhood home. Eli Apple is the one who hugged the only man in his life after the first round of scholarship offers were made official.
"Woodard" is simply the final lingering hint of a man whom the No. 4 cornerback in America last saw when he was an infant. That name will die with his high school career. The subject isn't one Eli and Tim like to discuss outside of the vague description of a "troubled man."
"I couldn't even tell you what the guy looks like, honestly," Eli Apple said of his biological father.
When Tim and Eli discuss their relationship, the word "step" is nowhere to be found. Make no mistake, this is a bond between father and son. And now, just a few months before the standout corner embarks on his journey to college, his last name reflects his past.
"He's been my dad since I was 2," Eli said of Tim. "Since my real dad left us, he's been my dad. I wanted to have his last name before I started playing on TV. He's the one who helped me grow. I wanted to find a way to pay him back for everything."
The name change is, at its core, a tribute -- a thank you of sorts. It's a hat tip to the man who raised him, put a football in his hand and helped him graduate high school a semester early. In a way, Eli Apple is Tim Apple's gift to Ohio State.
Tim is the one who convinced him to put down the basketball and pick up the football in the sixth grade. He's also the one who helped foster a move from quarterback to cornerback when it was clear that Eli wouldn't possess the height of a top-level signal-caller. His fingerprints are all over Eli Apple the budding star. More important, though, they're smudged up and down Eli Apple the person.
"Everyone has to get on their kids; the only question is how much," Tim Apple said. "Eli always took the right path. There weren't a lot of kids around here who were doing the kinds of things that he wanted to do."
Five-year-old Eli was a groomsman in his parents' wedding at the Brooklyn Tabernacle. The man he calls dad never left his side ... not at the ceremony or any time after. Tim Apple hasn't missed one of his son's football games (home or away) since he first picked up a ball. He's set to arrive in San Antonio on Friday afternoon and will be in the stands when his son plays his final organized snap as a high schooler.
The possibility of tears at that time is very real.
"It's bittersweet," Tim Apple said. "You don't want to lose your son. No parent does. But losing him to college is a lot better than all the other ways you can lose him."
The name change can't become legal until Eli Apple turns 18 this year, but for most purposes the deal is done. The process was by no means simple.
"The jerseys and everything for the Army game and everything were already ordered when we called to tell them we wanted to change the name," Tim Apple said. "The people at Army took it so seriously. I can't say enough about how seriously they took it and what they went through to get it done."
When he takes the field at the Alamodome for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Saturday, the back of the jersey will feature what he considers to be his real last name for the first time. The story isn't unique. Ask Tim Apple about it, though, and he tends to look at it on a macro scale.
"I think our story is just a win for stepfathers and stepsons out there," he said. "It's motivation for other dads and motivation for kids and their stepdads.
So who the hell is Eli Apple? That's complicated.
First and foremost, he's the son of Tim.
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