Willie Ellison, ex-NFL player, fondly remembered in Pearland
For a man who was hammered by the likes of Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones on a daily basis, one could still find the soft side to Willie Ellison.
The former NFL running back and Pearland High School substitute teacher was remembered by his co-workers this week as a gentle giant.
Ellison, who died March 11 at age 73, touched the hearts of many on the Oiler campus. His funeral was held Friday at Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston.
“He was a guy that just loved being around kids, sharing his story of how he was raised and the work ethic it took to get him where he was, which was the NFL,” said Pearland assistant football coach Dwayne Evans.
“He always talked about playing against Mean Joe Greene and playing with The Fearsome Foursome (Olsen, Jones, Lamar Lundy and Roger Brown). Willie talked about how all the black players stuck together and took care of one another to make sure they were doing the right thing.
“He was definitely one of those pioneers who helped pave the way for the younger athletes you see today.”
Ellison, who played eight seasons in the NFL, was a running back for the Los Angeles Rams from 1967-72 before playing his final two seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.
A Texas Southern University graduate, Ellison took over the Rams’ starting running back position in 1971.
On Dec. 5 of that season, Ellison produced one of the most memorable days in NFL history.
The 6-foot, 2-inch, 210-pound tailback rushed 26 times for 247 yards against the New Orleans Saints, surpassing the NFL single-game record of 237 yards held by Jim Brown. It also bettered the AFL mark of 243 yards established by Cookie Gilchrist of the Buffalo Bills in 1963.
In the Rams’ 45-28 victory over the Saints, Ellison scored just once - the game’s first touchdown on an 80-yard run on the third play of the matchup. Los Angeles’s running game was so dominant that day that Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel completed just 10 of 18 passes for 137 yards.
Ellison had been moved to the featured running back position that season under first-year head coach Tommy Prothro after George Allen had been fired following the 1970 campaign.
In his stellar effort against the Saints, Ellison rushed for 186 yards on just 13 attempts in the first half after which Los Angeles led, 35-7.
Ellison was tied with Jim Brown for the NFL single-game rushing record with two minutes left in the game, but was pulled to a chorus of boos.
He was then reinserted, broke the record and received a standing ovation after establishing the new standard.
On the website Today in Pro Football History, Ellison was quoted after the game:
“Yes, they made me aware of the record (at halftime),” Ellison said. “I knew I needed something like 60 yards to break the NFL mark. But really I didn’t let it concern me. I felt whatever comes will come.”
Ellison was selected to the Pro Bowl that season, finishing the year with exactly 1,000 yards rushing on 211 carries (4.7 yards per carry). The following season, Ellison rushed 170 times for 764 yards (4.5 average).
His 1,000-yard rushing season was the second in Rams’ history.
Ellison, a second-round pick in 1967 and the 33rd choice overall, was traded along with Rams’ backup quarterback Pete Beathard following the 1972 season to the Kansas City Chiefs. Ellison would retire in 1974 at the age of 29.
Eyadema Croom, supervisor of security at Pearland High School, said he could always count on Ellison to brighten his day.
“He was a beautiful person,” Croom said. “He had a great personality and a great spirit, and he spoke well to me every time I saw him. He was like a father to me.
“One of the things he used to say to me was ‘Where’s my security? OK, security is tight.’
Croom said Ellison was equally engaging in the classroom.
“When he’d get in the class, he’d say ‘My name is Willie Ellison,” Croom said. “Do y’all know who I am? Google me. I played in the league.’”
Caroline Edwards, a security monitor at Pearland High School, visited with Ellison almost every day he was on campus.
“He was outgoing and very pleasant,” Edwards said. “He never had a discouraging work for anybody.
“You couldn’t have met a nicer person. He would tell the guys who played football for Pearland that when you get the football, don’t look back, just keep running for the goal line.
“He was just a great person, and I think everybody you speak to here at this campus would give you the same impression.”
Evans, the running backs coach at Pearland, was quick to receive advice from Ellison.
“The kids really related to him, and he’d give them pointers on what to do,” Evans said. “I would ask him what kind of drills can I do with my kids, and whatever he offered would always help.
“It’s always great to talk to someone who’s been there and done it. He had a ton of interesting stories. We’d just sit for days listening to him talk.”
Literally, Ellison always had something to bring to the table.
“His wife would always pack him a little piece of cake every day in his lunch,” Evans said. “One day, he came up to me and said ‘Hey coach, I made her pack you a piece of cake today, too.’”