Great Expectations - Chris Ellis Puts a Lot of Pressure on Himself
By Scott Ellis
Originally published Sept. 15, 2007 in the Ohio game program

For some athletes, handling high expectations can be like trying to fill the shoes of the Greek mythology figure Atlas, who was once punished by the god Zeus and made to bear the weight of the earth on his back. In today's world of 24/7 sports media coverage accessed through the Internet, broadcast airwaves and newspapers, the scrutiny of athletes and expectations for them to achieve both team and individual successes has grown to gigantic proportions.

In Virginia Tech senior football player Chris Ellis' case though, he is able to turn aside the pressure from outsiders - not because he is oblivious to it, but rather because he already placed all those expectations on himself. When Ellis made the decision to join head coach Frank Beamer's program at Virginia Tech, he was ranked the No. 13 defensive end in the country and the No. 66 prospect on SuperPrep's Elite 100 list following his senior season at Bethel High School. Hokie followers thought perhaps Beamer had found his next Corey Moore, who won the 1999 Lombardi Award as college football's lineman of the year after amassing 35.0 sacks for losses totaling 292 yards in three seasons.

The 6-5, 267-pound Hampton, Va., native started out strong in 2004 as a redshirt freshman, earning third-team Freshman All-American honors from The Sporting News with 33 tackles and three sacks. His numbers improved as a sophomore the following year when he recorded six sacks playing alongside senior defensive lineman Darryl Tapp, who would be drafted in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks.

The stage was set for the 2006 season. Ellis would become a breakout star with double-digit sacks and help bring the team back to a Bowl Championship Series game and then leave early to begin an NFL career. However, in what may be considered an ugly twist of fate, Ellis injured his shoulder in the second game of the season against North Carolina, limiting his effectiveness as a pass rusher the rest of the year before he could finally have offseason surgery. Two weeks later, he violated a team personal conduct rule and was suspended for one game, further hampering the early season.

"Last season was probably my most important season as far as the learning process because the injury slowed me down," Ellis explained. "I had to learn a lot about patience. I had to slow myself down because I'm so used to moving at a faster pace and getting the next objective done, just going from goal to goal."

The phrase 'slowing down' was never part of Ellis' vocabulary prior to the 2006 season. As he said, accomplishing the next objective in the quickest fashion possible was the only goal in mind. The story of how Ellis became a defensive end even reflects his philosophy.

"I was a lot skinnier when I was younger, so I thought I was going to be a wide receiver," Ellis said. "However, everyone wants to be a receiver in the rec league. The line was so long, just trying to get guys rotated and see who was going to play. Being eager to get on the field, I just asked the coach what was the quickest way to get on the field, and he put me down there at d-end, and I've been there ever since."

After a rough September in 2006, Ellis found himself in a situation where he had to take a step back and regroup, deciding how he could best continue to be a contributor on the squad. Instead of letting the unfulfilled expectations tower over him until the weight was too much to bear, Ellis turned the injury into a positive experience that would help him develop further, not only as a football player, but also as a person with the assistance of the football staff.

"I was playing with a lot of pain, more than people probably realize," Ellis said. "I had two different injuries to the same shoulder, but I had to suck it up for the team and fight through it, especially with the way we rotated defensively."

With the inability to meet the high expectations Ellis set for himself before the season, he experienced the frustrations all injured athletes feel when they know they cannot compete at their best, but he was still determined to achieve success.

"It was one of the first times I had to actually change my game to be more effective and save my shoulder a little bit," Ellis explained. "The injury happened so early in the season, and there was still a long season to go.

"I had to show them I could play through pain," Ellis added. "I taught myself that you can still go when your team needs you. That's something I prided myself on throughout the year, not being a letdown, not being the worst guy on the defense, still being able to maintain. Maybe not making the game-changing play like I'm used to making, but still being consistent and making the plays when they come to me."

Still, trying to compensate for the physical limitations and continuing to be an effective player were not objectives that would come easy for Ellis. Graduate assistant coach Cornell Brown, an All-America defensive end for the Hokies in 1995, worked closely with him to show that even with an injured shoulder, Ellis would still be able to utilize different techniques to effectively disrupt the offense's game plan.

"He helped me open up my game a lot more, and I had to be more versatile and use a lot of things I never even knew you could do at d-line," Ellis said. "Cornell was a big help with that, and he showed me some inside techniques. It was definitely something I had to adjust to. It was a little rough for a while and frustrating, but you're obviously learning something new so you have to take that adjustment time and use it effectively."

Acknowledging that this was an important transition period in his football career, Ellis remained patient and developed the necessary skills to remain a defensive force on the gridiron. With Brown's assistance, he would finish the year tied for the club lead in sacks (3.5), second in quarterback hurries (15) and tied for second in tackles for loss (7.5) on a defensive unit that would lead the nation in total defense for the second year in a row.

Once the season ended, Ellis quickly had shoulder surgery and began rehabilitation under the watchful eye of Mike Goforth, assistant director of athletics for athletic training. Now, he is ready to begin his final year at Virginia Tech and go out on top, both academically and athletically. Yes, Ellis is scheduled to graduate in December with a degree in apparel, housing and resource management, a fact both he and his parents are excited about for his future. Their guidance and values were influential in how he faced his obstacles last year.

"They were always there for the support part," Ellis said. "I probably pushed myself more than they did because I always expected the best out of myself. One thing I learned from them is if you work hard, it will come out well in the end. No one can take how hard you work away from you because as long as you take care of that part, everything else is going to follow through for you."

With his fellow senior mates from the 2003 recruiting class, including Xavier Adibi, Barry Booker, Vince Hall and Duane Brown, Ellis said that having the No. 1 defense in the country is just one of the many objectives set before the team. The focus is on winning another ACC title and returning to the Bowl Championship Series.

"The way we see it, we are going to be able to make plays this year and give the fans the season that they deserve for supporting us for so many years," Ellis said. "We have all the competition we want on our schedule this year. There's no loophole. We get to face FSU, a team that we didn't get to play in the past. We get to do everything we want to do this year and show everybody how determined we really are."

With that determination, Ellis hopes his competitive spirit shines and that he ends the year on top, but he doesn't want fans to worry. While he admits to having previously put a lot of pressure on himself, he has no regrets and adds that he doesn't feel any pressure now, with his individual and team goals set.

"I would rather have the expectations there than somebody not expect you to do it and then you end up constantly being the underdog," Ellis said. "I'd rather be able to say I'm going to do it and then do it.

"Last season, it looked like I had a drop-off year, but now it's going to look that much better, because I know how hard I worked, and I know what I looked forward to this year, and I know what to give them."

Relishing the opportunity to prove himself, he is ready for his last go-around as a Virginia Tech Hokie. Last year had its trials and tribulations, but Ellis believes it's all part of the process.

"The best way I can describe it is that it's like a rollercoaster," Ellis said. "There are plenty of ups and downs. You're going to do some turns. Sometimes, your back is going to be against the wall, but who doesn't love a rollercoaster? The only way you know whether or not you had a good time is how you come out at the end and how you dealt with the adversity. If you can still smile at the end and say you did a good job, it's all going to be good."