Ezekiel Elliott’s subtle season-long gesture to a young fan with cancer

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, running for a first down in a game against the Washington Redskins in November, wears an orange wristband every game to show supports for a young fan with cancer. (Photo for The Washington Post by Toni L. Sandys)

The flash of color comes quickly, a bright sliver that reveals itself when Ezekiel Elliott emphatically signals he has picked up a first down for the Dallas Cowboys, an orange bracelet worn just above his gloved right hand.

The simple token has found a home on the star running back’s wrist, worn over the course of his breakout rookie season as a tribute to a young fan in Massachusetts, of all places, who has been confronting a cancer diagnosis. It came into Elliott’s possession courtesy of a 14-year-old girl who contacted the former Ohio State standout, looking for anything to boost the spirits of her 16-year-old brother as he faced surgery for the osteosarcoma that brought his own football playing days to an end.

The Silver family is a group of ardent fans of everything Ohio State, for whom their step-grandfather, Steve Crapser, played on the 1968 national championship squad that ranks among the best college teams of all time. Jake Silver had hoped to kick for the Buckeyes one day, until his cancer was discovered in May.

The family made bracelets stamped with “Silver Strong” as Jake underwent treatment for the same disease that took the life of his father’s younger brother at 13. Silver’s sister, Halle, had a thought: Why not reach out to Ohio State players for a morale boost?

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Plenty of athletes take up the cause of children with illnesses and maybe, if the social media gods cooperated, Halle could get one of them to send a message or a quick video to her brother, whose bedroom is decked out floor to ceiling with Ohio State gear.

On July 24, she tapped out an Instagram direct message detailing her brother’s condition and sent it to Elliott, Cardale Jones and other players from Ohio State. The next morning, up popped a reply from Elliott’s handle. “I want one of those bands !!” And then another: “Send me a bunch I’ll wear it all season.”

Stunned, she typed back, “Is this actually u?”

“I think I’m real,” Elliott responded.

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“I cried my eyes out,” she recalled.

Halle Silver received the response while her brother was undergoing a pre-surgical bone scan. Crying with excitement, she called to relay the news mid-exam. “When I told my mom, she was worried because I was crying,” Halle said.

Inside the tube, Silver was amused.

“I started laughing actually because I thought it was kind of funny that she did that,” he said. “When she said she’d gotten a response, I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s really cool.’ “

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The moment Elliott asked for a bracelet was the high point of a rough year for a family dealing with a disease that “likes to grow in large bones and metastasize to the lungs,” according to Silver’s mother, Melissa Duca, on the family’s GoFundMe page. As Elliott was preparing for his first pro training camp in July, Silver was finishing 10 weeks of chemotherapy and getting ready for another phase of his treatment: surgery to remove a large part of his femur and to replace his knee, which would be followed by five more months of chemo and rehab.

“He’s never cried once that he’s had cancer,” said Silver’s father, Rob.

Still, the idea that Elliott would make such a gesture was a huge lift for an anxious family.

“It has been hard,” Duca said, “but the good that people have shown us is amazing and helps a lot.”

After the family shipped the bands to Cowboys training camp, Elliott wrote to Halle, “Tell [Jake] I say be strong !” In mid-August, Duca spotted the bracelet on Elliott’s wrist while watching the NFL Network. Halle messaged to say that her brother “was ecstatic” and requested that he confirm he was wearing “Silver Strong.” “On my right wrist,” he replied. “I’ll have it on all day.” When asked about wearing it once the real games started, Elliott wrote, “Yea won’t take it off.”

Sure enough, the band could be seen on Elliott’s wrist throughout the fall as he rushed for 1,631 yards on 322 carries in 15 games, putting him, along with Dallas rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, in the conversation for both MVP and rookie of the year. While The Post made multiple attempts to reach Elliott, his agent and lawyer, Frank Salzano, confirmed the connection with the Silvers.

As the yardage and the victories have piled up, that Ohio State family in Massachusetts searches Elliott’s wrist each week, a Cowboys connection for avid New England Patriots fans.

“Jake doesn’t show a lot of emotion, but when he first saw Ezekiel wearing the bracelet during a game, we paused the TV to see it,” Duca said. “Now I have a page in our yearly photo album with pictures of him wearing the bracelet. It is fun to see and something to look forward to on Sundays.”

Along the way, there have been other showings of support. Silver’s father, step-grandfather and some of his high school football teammates shaved their heads in solidarity. Travis Shaw, the former Boston Red Sox infielder, wore the bracelet in a game last summer at Fenway Park. Silver met NESN broadcaster Tom Caron during a hospital visit and started thinking about a future career in the field. Crapser reached out to his former Ohio State teammates and coaches and “found we had lots of prayers,” including those of Lou Holtz, an assistant on the ’68 team.

On Thanksgiving weekend, Silver watched his Ashland High School beat Hopkinton for the first time since 2007. “My whole football team wears [the bracelet],” he said, “and they think that it’s so cool that [Elliott] wears the bracelet as well.” But Silver suffered a setback that put him in the hospital, where he viewed Ohio State’s overtime victory over Michigan on Nov. 26.

This week, just before the Cowboys’ first playoff game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, Silver’s treatment is concluding but remains a struggle, even with a party to look forward to coinciding with Sunday’s showdown. Last Friday, Silver got another lift when Elliott messaged him on social media. “What up bro,” Elliott wrote while sharing an image of the bracelet on his wrist. “Been thinking about you. Hope all is well. Been rockin my SILVER STRONG band everyday.”

Further tests and assessments await Silver, but as he recovers, his family will keep watching the Cowboys, searching for the orange ring on Elliott’s wrist. “It puts a pretty big smile on my face,” Silver said. “It makes you feel good.”

With the Cowboys at 13-3, they have people thinking they could be playing in Super Bowl LI next month, possibly against the Patriots, the team Silver has rooted for “only since I was about 1.” Picking a side would be a tough call for a kid from New England, but Silver said that, if he’s forced to make the choice, he’ll be pulling for Elliott.

They now have a bond, represented by a simple orange band.