Sunday, November 3, 2013
'Squash the Anger. Squash It!'
Copyright 1996, Durham Herald-Sun Company
BY TIM PEELER
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Greg Ellis walked out onto the field for East Wake High School's 1991 Homecoming game against Triton High School, escorted by two deputies from the Wake County
When the game was over, four deputies walked Ellis' parents to their car, then escorted their frightened son, a junior linebacker at the time, back to the locker room.
Ellis was in the middle of the most intense battle of his life and it had nothing to do with football.
Some former friends had had just about enough of Ellis' all-star accomplishments in football, basketball, and in the classroom, and they were pursuing him at every turn.
``This guy came up to Greg and said, `Greg, we have a gun out there waiting for you,' '' Ozell Ellis, Greg's mom, remembers from that night six years ago. ``I haven't ever been so scared in my life.''
Neither had her son.
He was distracted in the game and ashamed of what was going on around him. When he saw tears in his mother's eyes after the game, Ellis knew something in his life had to change.
``My mom started crying,'' Ellis said, ``and that really bothered me a lot.''
The feud went on for months. The gang showed up at the house of Ellis' aunt during a party looking for trouble. They went to Ellis' home, armed, looking for more trouble, which was avoided only because Ellis was at basketball practice. Both times, the law had to be called.
These were not average schoolyard bullies. Two of them are serving life sentences now for killing someone during a convenience store robbery, and a third is in jail on other charges.
One day, they cornered him on the grounds at East Wake. As he tried to walk by, one of them slapped him on the back of the head.
He swung back, in full view of the principal.
The instigators were suspended from school and Ellis was punished with an in-school suspension, but the matter was never fully resolved, not until Ellis left his hometown of Wendell to begin his All-America career as a defensive end at North Carolina.
The whole situation changed Ellis' life. He hadn't done anything wrong except stand up to some bullies who, he believes, simply couldn't deal with his pursuit of a better life. But in his mind, he also hadn't done everything right.
``I was doing things that I shouldn't have been doing,'' Ellis said. ``I just decided then that I needed to live for the Lord.''
Ellis, who grew up in a Christian home, became a more devoted follower of Christ after those experiences. It's a devotion he says has helped him through even more difficult days during his freshman year in Chapel Hill.<
Ellis was two-sport star at East Wake High School, playing football for Johnny Sasser and basketball for Phil Spence. He was a Shrine Bowl selection in football and an East-West All-Star participant in basketball.
He remembers vividly his experiences at the East-West game, not so much for what happened on the court, but because of a brief conversation he had with Spence.
``He told me after that game that Coach Sasser had stomach cancer,'' Ellis said.
Ellis worried about his former coach, who had personally driven him to the Shrine Bowl and driven him to the airport for several of his recruiting visits, during his freshman season as he watched Sasser's health quickly deteriorate.
By spring, Sasser had passed away.
Then, a week later, Ellis' father, Lawrence, died from complications of diabetes, another devastating blow for a young college freshman. It was in the middle of spring football practice, when Ellis was fighting to earn some playing time, but he left school immediately to be with his family.
By the time the funeral was over, Ellis had made all the arrangements for his mother, taken care of the family and said goodbye to his father, one of the biggest influences in his life.
``I was worried about him a little bit,'' North Carolina coach Mack Brown said. ``When
you lose a parent and a high school coach who is very much like a parent, it is a very traumatic thing.''
Instead of being hardened and embittered by the double-barrel blow, Ellis turned to his faith to help himself and his family through the difficult times.
``With me being a Christian, I realized that God is a perfect God and he doesn't make mistakes,'' Ellis said. ``Everything happens for a reason. Even though my dad is no longer with me and my high school coach is no longer with me, I loved them dearly. God had a better plan than I did for them.
``You have to accept reality.''
The North Carolina coaches were amazed how the young freshman handled himself during that spring. It was then they realized Greg Ellis was a special person.
``He is the pillar of his family,'' UNC assistant coach Donnie Thompson said. ``He
is just a strong, strong individual. He puts God first. He is able to handle a lot of things.''
Ellis has always had a strong faith, even as a child.
His mother remembers those days in middle school when he would wake them on Sunday mornings and beg them to take him to church.
"Momma, y'all going to church today?'' he asked.
``No, son, we are too tired,'' they sometimes answered. Lawrence Ellis was working two jobs at the time and Mrs. Ellis was working as a custodian at Carroll Middle School.
``Well, can one of you get up and take me to church?'' he asked.
``If I didn't get up, my husband would and take him,'' Mrs. Ellis said. ``He would come to our bedroom after church and say `Momma, y'all need to give God some of your time. Maybe things will be better for you.' ''
Ellis has squashed more quarterbacks than any player in UNC football history. He broke Marcus Jones' career sack record in the first quarter of the first game of the season, getting rid of a cloud that had followed him since last year's Louisville game, when he blew past Lawrence Taylor for second place on the career sack list.
But he went the final two games without a sack and since bowl game statistics don't count, he spent the off-season wondering if he would ever get the record.
He's only gotten one more since then, as he's faced the same kind of double-teaming pressure Jones got his senior year. That season, as a sophomore Ellis became a star.
This year, other players such as junior Ebenezer Ekuban, Mike Pringley and Vonnie Holliday are building their reputations while Ellis tries to fight off several blockers.
That's fine with Ellis.
``It gets frustrating sometimes,'' Ellis said. ``But it gives other
players a chance to step up and make some plays.''
With Ellis getting all the attention, North Carolina has more sacks
than this time last season.
Still, Ellis is a little itchy in the trigger finger.
``I want a sack,'' Ellis said.
Make them say 'Ouch'
On any given Saturday, during network broadcasts of college football games, Ellis appears on screen, imploring young people to walk away from violence. He obviously has first-hand knowledge of his message.
``When they asked me to do this commercial, I was really amazed,'' Ellis said. ``It was like God was saying `Greg, you are the one to do this.' It is my big opportunity to give back to a lot of little kids and help them.''
Ellis, however, has been giving back for years. He spends many of his Monday afternoons, the only day the football team has off during the week, speaking at schools in the Triangle. So far this year, he has been to Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, East Wake Middle School in Wendell and several other local schools.
Ellis' firm Christian beliefs might seem mutually exclusive for those who see him only as a fierce All-America defensive end for UNC's top-ranked defense. But whenever Ellis knocks someone down, his is the first hand to reach out to pick that person up.
When he sacks a quarterback, Ellis lifts him up off the ground, then pats him on the helmet.
``When I am playing football, I am not out there trying to hurt anybody,'' Ellis said. ``I want to hit people, make them say `Ouch!' and make them think No. 87 is a pretty good player, but it is all part of the game.''
UNC defensive coordinator Carl Torbush, a devout Christian himself who leads chapel services and Bible studies for Ellis and his teammates, sees nothing passive about his star defensive end, despite the contradictory message of ``Love Thy Neighor'' and ``Kill the Quarterback!''
``I have always been a firm believer that if I am going to witness to somebody or get their attention to witness to them, the best thing to do is whip them,'' Torbush said. ``If you keep coming at them, then they will say, `Hey, there is something to this guy.'
``Greg is that way. If he knocks someone down, he will help him up. Then he will knock him down again. After the ball game he will hug him around the neck. Sometimes you hear that Christian athletes are a little passive, but that is far from the truth.''
Of course, Ellis sheepishly admits that he's not totally as gentle as a lamb. The gesture of helping up a quarterback is noble and all, but it's also part of a ruse Sasser taught him long ago.
``When you knock somebody down in football, you can go help them up and make sure he is all right,'' Ellis explains. ``That kind of makes them think I might not do it again. Maybe they think I didn't mean to do it.
``It is kind psychological.''
From the Heart
There is no ruse to Ellis' fundamental beliefs, which he frequently shares with his teammates and with kids in the community. He talks about his faith and hard work and overcoming adversity, all topics he knows well. He doesn't really enjoy making the speeches, he just thinks it something he ought to be doing.
``I really don't like it,'' Ellis said. ``I hate giving speeches. I hate talking a lot, period. But I realize it helps people so I don't mind doing it.''
Torbush knows that Ellis isn't the most comfortable witness on the planet. He's seen him squirm.
``I have asked him several times to give a testimony and that is not easy to do in front of your teammates or people you don't know,'' Torbush said. ``He probably sweated more for five minutes than he does in a two-hour practice, but it all came from the heart.''
When he doesn't make it back to his home church in Rolesville, Ellis attends services at King's Park Christian Fellowship in Durham or, during two-a-days when Tar Heel players aren't able to go to regular worship services because of practice, he joins defensive coordinator Carl
Torbush's chapel services.
``He is a man of God,'' King's Park minister Ron Lewis said. ``He is an outstanding person.''
``I don't think Mr. Webster went far enough in coming up with words,'' UNC defensive ends coach Donnie Thompson said. ``He is so extremely bright beyond his years, as far as having his life in order.''
``He is the ultimate coach on the field,'' Brown said.
Everyone has an anecdote about how kind and sharing Ellis is. Last Saturday during UNC's win over Virginia, a young defensive end was getting a good bawling out by an assistant coach. Ellis went over to the young player and put his arm around him.
Brown came over and called off his assistant, and Ellis leaned over and told his teammate, ``It'll be all right.''
And, even since the decision he made that Homecoming night so many years ago, everything has been all right for Ellis.