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Father and son share longtime connection to Pitt football

By Ryan Bertonaschi / Senior Staff Writer

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When Elijah Zeise was eight years old, his parents took him to see a Pitt football game at Heinz Field.

It was 2003. The Panthers upset No. 5 Virginia Tech 31-28 beneath a visible eclipse that lit up the faces of some 66,207 fans in attendance almost as much as Pitt’s last-minute, game-winning touchdown did.

Elijah watched most of the thriller from a yellow seat in the frigid November air. He made his way to Heinz Field’s heated press box, which sits seven stories above the playing field, to watch the rest of the game with his father, Paul, who covered Pitt football for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the time.

As Paul typed away at his computer, Elijah took in the view: the half-grass-half-turf gridiron illuminated by hundreds of floodlights. Pittsburgh’s skyline and rivers twinkled together in the distance.

“It’s so sweet. Just looking down. It’s crazy,” Elijah, now a freshman wide receiver at Pitt, said. He now calls that playing surface his team’s home playing field.

In addition, Pitt’s South Side practice facility was once a spot where Paul took a young Elijah to watch his favorite Panthers go head-to-head in practice drills. Now, the building and its fields are where Elijah studies film, eats, lifts weights and runs passing routes with Pitt’s scout team offense.

Elijah is redshirting this season in an effort to master Pitt’s offensive system, and, due to the conflict of interest, Paul has permanently removed himself from the Heinz Field press box, where he covered Pitt games for 11 years.

Paul resigned from his position in 2012 when Pitt began recruiting Elijah. Paul has since covered the Pitt men’s basketball team full-time for the Post-Gazette, and he is the paper’s reserve writer for Pirates games in the summer.

In fact, during Pitt’s home opener against Delaware on Aug. 30, Paul was at nearby PNC Park covering the Pirates.

The NCAA does not put limitations on the employment of a student-athlete’s parent, but, according to Paul, the move away from Pitt’s football program was completely necessary.

“You can’t cover a team you’ve got a kid on. You just can’t,” Paul said. “There’s nothing that I can write or say that wouldn’t be perceived to be biased at least by some people. For instance, say [Pitt’s] receivers in the next two weeks were to drop 15 passes. So it’s clear to everyone watching that their receivers weren’t getting it done. If I wrote, ‘The receivers are not getting it done,’ then what does that look like? It looks like, ‘Give my son a chance!’”

Anyone who has heard Paul when he appears on Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan or KDKA’s Nightly Sports Call can probably imagine how his deep, rumbling voice sounded throughout the explanation.

“Plus, [Elijah] needs his room to breathe,” Paul continued. “I don’t want to be on top of him. This is his life, this is his time to be there. It was even worse during the recruiting process, because, to me, he had offers from other schools … If you’re an opposing coach, how would you view it if at one of the schools you’re recruiting against, the dad is down at their office every day?”

When Paul resigned from the beat during Elijah’s junior year of high school, he left behind a miniature legacy.

Paul had been covering the team for longer than any other primary reporter, and — aside from E.J. Borghetti, executive associate athletic director, and Chris LaSala, director of football operations — Paul was around Pitt’s football program more than just about anybody.

“He is a tough, but fair, reporter, and has always been respected in Pitt circles for those two qualities,” Borghetti said. “On a personal level, I always appreciated my collaborations with Paul. We worked countless hours together, chronicling some truly remarkable moments and players.”

Elijah said it’s hard for people within the Pitt program to see him in any other way than “‘Paul’s son,’” because of Paul’s familiarity with the program.

Paul has been around the program longer than all seven of Pitt’s head coaches and all of the assistant coaches during his span covering Pitt. Paul said he wouldn’t have a problem sending Elijah to play for any of them.

“Believe it or not, that includes [Todd] Graham,” Paul said. “Very few bad apples came through, even as assistants.”

During his tenure covering Pitt football, Paul had the opportunity as a father to three children and three stepchildren to see how wild, spoiled or just plain naive that young people — and the occasional coach — can be while in the spotlight.

“He actually gives me a lot of good advice,” Elijah said in a reserved tone, quite different from his father’s. “Especially since he covered Pitt football for all those years, he’s been around a lot of the good kids and a lot of the knuckleheads as well.”

Right now, Elijah has no ambition to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a journalist. In high school, Elijah maintained a 4.0 GPA, and his strength was math. Elijah is currently undecided with his major, but is looking for a field that might combine subjects such as accounting, mass transportation and Pittsburgh history. His fifth year of eligibility should help him receive an MBA.

During Elijah’s early high school years, Paul, his wife LeAnn and his ex-wife DeNita (Elijah’s mother) began to see that Elijah might play football for a scholarship after he graduated from North Allegheny High School.

Paul’s time around the program may have jump-started Elijah’s recruitment. Graham was coaching Pitt when Elijah was a freshman in 2011, and Elijah’s high school team attended Graham’s summer football camp that year.

Paul had several talks with Graham, who liked Elijah on defense, but Elijah wanted to play on offense, and that’s as far as the two sides ever got.

The prolonged discussions that Paul had with many of Pitt’s coaches led Elijah to say the day he first received a scholarship offer to play for Pitt was one of the best moments of his life.

“In some ways, it didn’t seem real to me,” Elijah said.

Elijah and his family are now in a great position. He’s conveniently able to visit Paul, LeAnn and his siblings at their McCandless home, and he often walks to DeNita’s home in Shadyside.

On home game days, eight of Elijah’s family members go to the North Shore. The family tailgates with other freshman parents outside Heinz Field. LeAnn and Paul’s daughter Hailey proudly sport Elijah’s jersey into each game.

But you’ll never catch Paul wearing one.

“It’s not because I don’t like Pitt,” he said. “There are some parents that live vicariously through their kids, and I’m not one of them. I root for three teams:  I root for Temple, Florida State and Penn-Trafford.” Paul graduated from Penn-Trafford High School in 1988, Point Park University in 1993 and Temple University in 1996, and he’s rooted for Florida State since childhood.

“Then I root for good stories,” Paul said.

The story of Paul and Elijah could certainly become an awfully good one to tell someday, and it’s only just begun.

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Father and son share longtime connection to Pitt football