The choir director at Roncalli High School still remembers his first encounter with Elijah Mahan.
Joey Newton had two show choir spots to fill entering the 2016-17 school year, and Mahan, who was transferring in from Center Grove, had expressed interest. Before Newton even heard a note, he saw Mahan dancing — and he was sold.
“I kind of peeked into the room, and I mean instantly I was like, ‘Oh my god, this kid is in.’ He’s really good, and it took no time to see what a good dancer he was.”
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Now a junior, Mahan has used his singing and dancing talents to land the lead role in Roncalli’s fall musical, “Bye Bye Birdie.” He doubles as the leading rusher for the Rebels’ football team, which enters tonight’s game at Fishers unbeaten and ranked first in Class 5A.
Balancing two very different pursuits is nothing new for Mahan, who had to balance show choir and wrestling last winter. This fall, he’s spending most of his Monday and Thursday afternoons at rehearsals and his Tuesdays and Wednesdays at football practice.
So far, he’s been able to pull it off — in large part because Newton and Roncalli football coach Scott Marsh are willing to be flexible.
“For me as a football coach to say, ‘Hey, you can’t be passionate about other stuff,’ that’s not fair to a kid,” Marsh said. “What if a kid is more passionate about something else other than football? You can’t be myopic as a coach, and certainly here, where we’ve got so many talented, bright, funny kids. The bottom line is, if you’re passionate about something else, we’ll find a way to make it work.”
When Mahan misses out on the installation of that week’s offensive package on Mondays, he catches up by studying the new plays on the Rebels’ Hudl website and by following up with teammates when he has questions. Marsh describes the 5-foot-10, 173-pounder as “conscientious,” and Mahan clearly hasn’t had trouble grasping what he’s missed.
Through six games, he’s racked up 442 yards on 75 carries, scoring four touchdowns. He’s provided a nice complement to senior backfield mate Patrick McManama (398 yards, nine TDs).
McManama is more of a bulldozer, Marsh says, while Mahan has “got a certain wiggle and a certain burst that we don’t have.”
That wiggle, Mahan says, has come along since he started wrestling in seventh grade.
“My footwork became 10 times better,” he said. “I think dancing and wrestling both helped with foot coordination and discipline.”
Mahan hasn’t had any formal dance training and hadn’t been in a stage production before, but that didn’t stop him from landing the lead role of Conrad Birdie, a 1950s rock star based on Elvis Presley.
As it happened, his star turn came about somewhat by accident.
“I didn’t know he was the lead, because I’d never seen that musical before,” Mahan said. “My mom showed me a video and was like, ‘You want to be that guy.’ I was like, ‘All right, I’ll try out for that guy.’ And after they announced everybody, I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ and they go, ‘That’s the lead.’ I go, ‘What?’”
Newton is not at all surprised by the success Mahan has had.
“He just has great stage presence, so he did a great job on the acting,” Newton said.
Having found his calling, Mahan says he plans on taking dance classes for the first time next summer, and he hopes to pursue dance or fine arts in college.
“Bye Bye Birdie,” which runs Nov. 9 to 11, will be his breakthrough moment on that front — but there’s a chance that those coming to see that Friday’s show might see a different Conrad. If the Rebels keep winning on the gridiron, they’ll have a regional game that night — and while he’s passionate about theater, Mahan isn’t about to sit that one out.
“I’m kind of upset,” he said of potentially missing one of the four shows, “but at the same time I’ve got another team I’ve got to worry about. If I miss (Friday), that’s just one night; I’ve still got three more. Regionals, if we’re out, we’re out.”
Such conflicts haven’t really come up in the past for the musical production team. Until about five years ago, the show was put on in the spring — and Newton can’t recall having any other football players involved since it was moved to the fall.
It’s quite rare to see a young man tackle such seemingly disparate pursuits at the same time, but then again, Mahan is pretty rare himself.
“He’s not interested in fitting in, and that’s very clear, in a good way,” Newton said. “He doesn’t care that he does choir and is in the musical and does football. He’s not trying to fit into any certain stereotype or anything like that.”
He’s bright, he’s funny, he’s witty,” Marsh added. “He’s a showman by nature.”