The unexpected blindsides Henry Ellard. In his youth, kids picked him last on their playground football teams in Fresno, Calif. Then to everyone’s surprise, including Ellard himself, he became an NFL wide receiver. In the 1992 off season with the Los Angeles Rams, he ran track to stay in shape. Then to everyone’s surprise, including Ellard, he qualified for the Olympic trials in the triple jump.
There was the time in 2014 when Ellard retired from NFL coaching and moved to San Antonio to be near his daughter, who attends Trinity University, and his in-laws. Then to everyone’s surprise, he wound up coaching the wide receivers at San Antonio Christian High School.
“I didn’t plan to get into coaching at all,” said Ellard, seven games into his first season with the Lions, who are 4-3.
Back in the late ’90s, Ellard read a story about the abrupt departure of a high school football coach in Southern California. Then boom, desire hit hard. Ellard volunteered at a school with a senior class of barely 100, starting an assistant coaching career that would take him to Fresno State, the Rams, the New York Jets, and New Orleans Saints. He would coach two All-Pro receivers in St. Louis – Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt – and end up nominated with both for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
When the Lions began practice, players recognized a new coaching face on the field. But who knew it was a guy who caught 814 passes for 13,777 yards, 65 touchdowns and went to three Pro Bowls?
“Our players would not have known his background if we hadn’t told them,” said Lions Coach Carl Gustafson. “He is so humble. He never talks about himself. You have to pull it out of him.”
Henry Ellard? Players started googling a man who retired from a playing career before most of them were born. Videos popped up. Eyes bugged out. Players pelted him with questions. Stories emerged. Ellard did not make the high school varsity until his junior year.
“I was a late bloomer,” he told them.
Players pressed for the good stuff. They learned Ellard played against Deion Sanders. That Sanders, one of the greatest corners in NFL history, considers Ellard one of the hardest receivers he had to cover. That when Ellard retired, his 13,377 yards were third-best in league history, his 814 receptions ranked fourth.
Players: “What was that like?”
Ellard: “I was living a dream and getting paid for it.”
When that dream ended, Ellard realized another. He reached the Super Bowl. In 2001, he coached the receivers on a team known as “The Greatest Show on Turf,” a club that featured quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall Faulk.
“He has an experience that’s unmatched,” said senior Lions receiver Mason Laurence. “It’s incredible.”
Incredible is a good word to describe Ellard’s physical condition. He retired 18 years ago, weighing 188 pounds. He weighs 184 today. The man is 55 years old and built like a world-class athlete, which he still is.
In July, he set the American triple jump record for men 55-and-under, winning the USA Masters Games with a leap of 13.36 meters, crushing the former mark of 12.76. His goal: the world age group record of 14.13 meters.
“It’s a long shot,” he said. “But I’m going to set my mind to it.”
Ellard would not be setting triple jump records if not for another blindside. While preparing his daughter for an AAU meet in New Orleans three years ago, he observed an aging pole vaulter. Curious, Ellard approached the man who appeared to be in his 50s. When the conversation ended, Ellard leaped into a new world. Masters track. He trained alone and won his first meet at 52, the Masters Outdoor Championships in Winston, Salem, N.C.
That’s Ellard. He shows up out of nowhere and makes an impact. Take 1992. Nine years after his last track meet in college, Ellard returned to the triple jump and qualified for the Olympic Trials. He fouled on his first attempt, pulled a muscle on the next attempt and never recorded a legal jump. That he qualified with minimal training almost a decade after college is astounding.
But then so is this: Ellard was an NFL anomaly. The average pro wideout in his day was taller – Ellard is 5 feet 11 – and less durable. The average career of a second round pick like Ellard is five years. Ellard lasted 16, avoided serious injury and became an All-Pro receiver at 28, an age when many are fading or retiring.
Almost 20 years after his last game, Ellard routinely appears on lists of best receivers not in the Hall of Fame. An ipetition was launched to get him into Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His brother, Ron Ellard, created a video to support Henry’s cause. The San Antonio Christian community is pulling for him. And the Hall welcomes fans to vote for their favorite nominees for the Class of 2017 here.
How does Ellard feel about his omission from Canton?
“I feel blessed just to be on the ballot,” he said. “I never even thought I would play in the NFL. Talk to the friends I grew up with. They didn’t think I would, either.”
The humility is authentic. When we spoke about his career in track, Ellard mentioned it was a convenient way to avoid spring football in high school and college. He never mentioned that he’d qualified for the Olympic Trials, which I discovered after our interview.
When the Ellards enrolled their daughters at San Antonio Christian in 2015, Henry quietly blended into the crowd of parents. It took a while before anyone realized his NFL past. It wasn’t until last spring, when Henry and Lillian began showing up at the track to work out, that athletic director Brandon Parrott made his approach. He asked if Henry might want to help the football team. Now here he is.
“My family was behind it,” Ellard said. “So I said, ‘Why not?’”
The Lions are improved. Led by new coaches Gustafson, formerly at Churchill, and Ellard, San Antonio Christian has already won more games this season (4) than last year (3), despite injuries to its top two quarterbacks. Two receivers, Laurence and Landon Specia, have been selected to play in the San Antonio Sports All-Star football game.
Laurence, pressed into quarterback duty Friday night, also has been selected for the Blue Grey All-American Bowl. He credits Ellard for his improvement.
“I learn new things from him every day,” Laurence said. “He’s helped elevate my game to a new level. It’s been awesome.”
Gustafson agrees: ”He’s done a great job. The credibility that comes with his experience, you can’t manufacture. The guys on the team listen to every syllable and word when he speaks.”
Gustafson remembers watching Ellard play on television against the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers. Gustafson did not always cheer for him then, but he’s pulling hard now. Ellard, he and so many believe, belongs in the Hall of Fame.
If that day comes, no one will be surprised. The only surprise will be that it took so long.