SAN FRANCISCO — Linebacker Riki Ellison and 49er teammate Tom Holmoe were in a small boat on a lagoon near their Foster City homes, watching Fourth of July fireworks and preparing to add a little bang to the celebration.
Ellison had brought along a bag of goodies that included enough M-80s--each equivalent to about a quarter of a stick of dynamite--to keep a mining company in business for a month.
It was a blustery night, and Ellison couldn't keep a match going long enough to start the fun. Determined not to let a little breeze spoil his evening, he used the only available windbreak, striking a match inside the bag.
The bag caught fire, some small firecrackers started exploding, and Holmoe bailed out.
"Holmoe was dressed real nice when he jumped ship," Ellison said. "I was just sitting there laughing. I guess I could've been blown to pieces. But I just put it out with my hands, and nothing happened."
Another classic crazed-NFL-linebacker anecdote, right?
But just when you start to categorize this guy, he does something unexpected, like showing up at the training table with the latest Foreign Affairs journal.
Ellison reads it, too. He has a degree in international relations.
They say intelligence and common sense don't always coexist, and Ellison may be living proof. He spent his days at USC trying to make the characters in "Animal House" seem genteel.
He had four knee operations in college, three of which were probably the result of his playing basketball, surfing, running into cars with his bike and jumping off fraternity houses . . . all while he was still in a cast.
It was all part of his college experience, which in reality was wilder than his wildest dreams. As a youngster, he had drifted off to sleep most nights counting the number of USC opponents he would run over and the Trojan song girls he would date.
And Ellison has this knack for realizing his dreams.
"He's one of those fantasy types you read about," said Ronnie Lott, a teammate at both USC and San Francisco. "He married a USC cheerleader and named his dog after his school (Troy). He epitomizes the All-American boy, even if he was born in New Zealand."
Ellison was born in New Zealand--Christchurch, to be precise--but his story really begins in Malaysia, where his father was a professor.
"My first memories were of tigers and snakes running around and people talking about the (Vietnam) war being close by," he said. "I guess my mom couldn't handle living there after a while, so they got separated, and we moved back to New Zealand." Ellison was 4 at the time.
His parents were divorced, and his mother remarried. In 1968, she got a postgraduate dance scholarship to attend USC, and the family moved to Pasadena.
Ellison took the surname of his stepfather, Dennis Gray, when he came to America, but living in the United States wasn't all it was cracked up to be, as far as 8-year-old Riki Gray was concerned.
"I used to get the crap beat out of me every day after school by about 10 guys," Ellison recalled. "You know how kids are with someone who's different. I lost that accent in days."
Then one day his stepfather took him to a USC football game, and he saw his future flash in front of him.
"I fell in love with it," he said. "I mean I really fell in love with it . From then on, that was my dream.
"I'd never been to a major sports event in my life, and seeing all those people and the horse and the cheerleaders, that whole thing, it was real special for me."
When his stepfather got a job as headmaster of a private school on an Arizona ranch, Riki kept the dream alive for five years by scanning the radio dial for the faint signals of Trojan broadcasts.
But by the time he turned 13, he had yet to actually play a game of football.
"We were at this ranch school between Flagstaff and Phoenix," Ellison said. "We played basketball but never football. But I was such a fanatic about it, my parents finally sent me to a John McKay football camp when I was 13."
"I was so fired up," Ellison said. "I remember Coach McKay in his golf cart and Coach (John) Robinson. And I remember Coach (Marv) Goux distinctly."
Half of the current Ram coaching staff might have taught him the game's fundamentals, but that's not why Ellison has led the 49ers in tackles the last two seasons. His exuberance is overshadowed only by his aggressiveness.
San Francisco linebacker coach Norb Hecker noticed the "gleam" in Ellison's eyes during a tryout at USC. Most scouts had paid more attention to the scars on Ellison's knees and told him to forget pro football. Hecker, though, persuaded Coach Bill Walsh to select Ellison in the fifth round in 1983.
Surprisingly, Ellison has proved to be one of the NFL's most durable players. He has started 54 of 55 games since the 49ers picked him, and he will be in there at inside linebacker again Sunday against the Rams at Anaheim Stadium.