It's a stunner these days when someone slams the door in disgust and leaves the San Francisco 49ers. Some would argue it's the best day job in sports. Your team goes to the Super Bowl annually; your owner throws money around like confetti, and you get fresh sourdough seven days a week.
Yet, after playing in two Super Bowls, nine playoff games and 77 games as starting middle linebacker, Riki Ellison left the 49ers in May to sign with the Raiders.
Who could work under those conditions?
Actually, it was the 49ers who forced Ellison out, he said. Those wonderful stories you hear about owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. waiting bedside for injured players and sparing no expenses for his beloved 49ers were merely stories to Ellison.
In his eyes, the 49ers put the screws to him after seven years of devotion.
Granted, Ellison was damaged goods. He broke his right forearm in the 1987 opener and missed the season. He had a metal plate inserted that was still in place when he broke the same arm against the Seattle Seahawks in the final exhibition of 1989, forcing him onto the injured reserve list for the season.
This was the first point of contention.
"I was very upset that my arm broke again in the same spot," he said. "I thought that was due to not taking out the metal plate that was in my arm. The medical profession was 50-50 on whether it should be taken out. If it was taken out, there's no question that it wouldn't have broken again."
Next, the 49ers left Ellison unprotected as a Plan B free agent last winter, upsetting him. It was not that Ellison didn't receive other offers.
"The phone was ringing off the hook," he said. "I flew out to Miami in the next couple of days, but I flunked the physical. It wasn't my arm, it was my knee. I couldn't pass a physical, so I was hands-off."
Ellison, 30, thought he would return to the 49ers and play out his career. After the Plan B trading period ended April 1, he met with Coach George Seifert and Vice President John McVay. They told Ellison he would be offered half his 1989 salary of $425,000 and would have to earn the rest in bonus incentives.
Ellison hit the roof.
"I told them that's unfair," he said, "to give me that type of salary when I'm incurring the same risk as anyone out there. But I had no choice. I had no options at all."
Ellison seriously considered retirement to pursue a career in politics. He majored in international relations at USC and was a candidate for the State Assembly from the 20th District in Northern California.
But when he returned home after his conversation with Seifert and McVay, there was a message waiting.
"I had a call from Al Davis," Ellison said. "On the exact same day. They (the Raiders) told me to fly down. I knew I'd flunk the physical, so why fly down? But I came down. They worked me out, I did great and I passed the physical. I couldn't believe it. It was pretty neat how it happened."
Soon thereafter, Ellison left politics behind and became a Raider. "It was a tough decision," he said of leaving the Assembly race. "Everything was in place. I could have won it. What it came down to was, I can always be a politician. I can come back when I'm 50, 60, 65 years old. But I could never come back and be a professional athlete when I'm 50. It's hard enough doing it now. The other reason was I wanted to prove to myself that I could play at this level, and I could overcome my injuries."
Ellison couldn't help consider the irony of his switch. Middle linebacker Matt Millen, released by the Raiders before the 1989 season, was signed by the 49ers to replace the injured Ellison.
As a Raider, Ellison starts in Millen's old position. Two guys unwanted by their respective teams switched uniforms and became starters again. Strange business.
The Raiders were concerned only with Ellison's medical chart, not his ability.
"If you can keep Riki Ellison healthy, he can still play the game of football," Raider Coach Art Shell said.
Ellison can still play. This summer, he beat out last year's starter, Ricky Hunley, who was cut before the season opener. Ellison's football life was renewed. He has 10 tackles in two games.
Sure, the 49ers had great teams, but Ellison said the team was operated like an automobile assembly line. Under Coach Bill Walsh, the mood was cool and calculated. No one's arguing that all the parts didn't come together.
"I'm having fun here," Ellison said. "It's so different than what I was used to for the last seven years. It's a lot easier to come from there to here than to come from here to there. There's a lot more pressure (in San Francisco).
"I was there for seven years, and each year they win, there's more pressure. You don't get excited to win there. It's, 'How bad did you win?' They wait for the playoffs before people get jacked up. Winning a game here is a big deal, and I love it."
The Raiders haven't made the playoffs since 1985, so consider the inspiration.
Ellison, for one, said he prefers Shell's style to Walsh's.
"Art makes it more enjoyable," he said. "He makes it a blast to play for him. The schedule here is so different than what I'm used to. It's so loose. The practices are loose. Up there it was '80s-type yuppies; everything was refined and efficient."
Raiders, of course, get to explore their sense of self. Other than winning, there are few rules. Ellison hasn't yet braided his hair or arrived at practice on a motorcycle. But he is playing a different style of football.
"I haven't played 50 plays in a game since I was in college," he said. "With the 49ers, you played 19 plays a game at middle linebacker, and the rest is nickel (defense). They play so much specialized stuff. The first game here, I played 42 plays. This week, I played 50. This is a whole different deal."