Navy linebacker Ellis learns to adjust Hard classes, losing among experiences

December 04, 1991|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- For Mark Ellis, life at the Naval Academy has been a series of adjustments. To rigorous academics. To the military atmosphere. To losing on the football field. And to a climate, probably like that of other schools, where some classmates frown upon athletes.

Such as that time during his plebe year when Ellis went to a friend's room to pick up a pair of shorts. Instead, he ran into an upperclassman who pulled Ellis and began a humiliating 45-minute tirade against football players that left him confused.

Leaving "crossed my mind a lot," Ellis said of the incident. "My friends were at college doing the things college students do, and I was pent up here. But I said I wouldn't leave unless I got kicked out."

So Ellis adjusted. And endured. And, through three years of playing linebacker for Navy's struggling football team, he has developed into a solid performer.

A speedy outside linebacker, Ellis started seven games as a plebe and six as a sophomore. He's started every game as a junior and, going into Saturday's Army-Navy game at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Ellis is fifth on the team in total tackles (79), second in unassisted tackles (59) and has forced three fumbles.

"He has the quickness and good reaction time," Navy defensive coordinator Dick Biddle said before the start of the season, "that enables him to operate in the open field."

And that talent has proven wrong all the college recruiters who bypassed Ellis when he came out of Sussex Central High School in Virginia. He was an all-state center his junior and senior years, but because he accomplished that at 180 pounds, few colleges were willing to give him a shot.

"William & Mary was interested in me, but when I met with the coach, he looked at my size, looked at my position and said, 'You're too small to do that,' " said Ellis, who also played linebacker his senior year. "Some coaches say you're too small, despite what you've done."

When it came to committing to a school, the decision was among William & Mary, Navy and Army.

"William & Mary was too close to home, and West Point was too cold and the travel back and forth would have cost too much," Ellis said. "Everyone I talked to [at Navy] said it would be all worth it, so I came."

And, in doing so, he left his home town of Wakefield, a rural, peanut-growing town in Southern Virginia.

"A lot of the teen-agers in Wakefield go to school and don't really think about going to college," Ellis said. "People there get a job, get a car and they're happy. They just stay and live at home. That's not what I wanted."

Nor was it the life his aunt and uncle, who raised him since he was 1, wanted for him.

"My great-grandmother, whatever she said went," Ellis said. "So, when I was born, my mother was moving to Maryland, and my great-grandmother said, 'You're not taking the baby.' So I stayed with my aunt and uncle and lived with them ever since. My mother's back [in Wakefield] now, but I call her by her first name, because my aunt and uncle have always been my mom and dad."

The lifestyle for the Ellis family -- his uncle works in a lumber yard, and his aunt is a housewife -- is far from extravagant. His family didn't have a phone when he was recruited, and even today calls are taken at another aunt's house down the street. It was only recently that his aunt and uncle acquired a car.

"There sure weren't any rich black people in Wakefield. We had everything we needed, but not everything we wanted," Ellis said. "My family always made sure anything I needed I got."

After committing to Navy, Ellis went to the Naval Academy Prep School in Rhode Island before coming to Annapolis in 1989. He started the season on the plebe/junior varsity team, but was soon called up the varsity, where he finished the season with 60 tackles (40 unassisted).

The transition to the classroom was not as easy. With Navy's strict academic requirements, he was placed on academic probation his first semester. But since then, he has worked hard to maintain his academic status.

"After starting my third game as a freshman, sometimes I would let my academics slide just a bit," said Ellis, an economics major. He later realized that before arriving at Navy "I never really learned how to manage my time."

And for Ellis, there was the adjustment to military life.

"The lifestyle is one that you don't experience at home, unless you get yelled at all the time," Ellis said. "When I did something wrong at home, I was talked to, and there was communication. After a while, people here realized that yelling doesn't bother me."

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