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High School | Eric Sondheimer

The E in Ellis Could Stand for Excellent

September 12, 2003|Eric Sondheimer

Adult role models keep disappointing us, from presidents to coaches to professional athletes, so let me introduce you to 17-year-old Byron Ellis, a senior tailback at Venice High.

Ellis is the reason coaches coach and teachers teach. Everything about him is inspirational.

"He is the one who makes you realize it's all worth while," Coach Angelo Gasca said.

Since sixth grade, when a teacher recognized his academic potential and challenged him to work as hard in the classroom as he did on the football field, Ellis has been on a path where failure is not an option.

He was the valedictorian in the eighth grade at Marina del Rey Middle School. He has a 4.0 grade-point average at Venice, with a fall academic schedule that includes Advanced Placement calculus, AP government, honors English and honors history. He runs a 4.5 40-yard dash and rushed for 1,293 yards as a junior, averaging 8.7 yards per carry.

He's as comfortable listening to R&B as classical music. Call him a nerd and he'll feel honored.

He comes from a close-knit family that does not have overwhelming financial resources. His stepfather works the graveyard shift as a plant manager. His mother works 12-hour days as a secretary. For seven years, Ellis has lived in a two-bedroom apartment at the gated 601-unit Mar Vista Gardens, a federal housing project in Culver City.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
High school football -- A Sept. 12 Sports article on Venice High running back Byron Ellis incorrectly reported that the Mar Vista Gardens housing project is in Culver City. Mar Vista Gardens is in Los Angeles.

"When I first moved in, it was real dangerous," he said. "As a kid, you couldn't go outside without being afraid of getting shot. All the gang members are still there, but it's not as intense."

Staying away from gangs, avoiding drugs, doing homework before watching television, those are daily routines that Ellis believes are central to reaching his goals.

"My friends ask me every day, 'How do you do it?' " Ellis said. "I say I don't want to live at Mar Vista Gardens forever. I want to be tops in life in everything I do. I compete with the nerds. I compete on the football field.

"The desire to succeed means succeeding in everything you do, whether that's at home doing your chores or helping your mom watch your brother while she's at work. All the big things will fall in place after you do the little things."

Ellis is never afraid of a challenge. Last year, he enrolled in a piano class. He knew little about the piano but walked in and told himself, "I'm going to do this."

Soon, he was listening to classical music on his own and enjoying it. Football teammates laughed when they heard he was taking piano, but he got an A and performed his 10-minute recital in the auditorium in front of family and strangers.

Said Ellis: "I was kind of nervous. As a football player, you're all covered up. But once you're out there on the stage, you're just sitting there."

Ellis has the wisdom and moral strength of an 80-year-old grandparent. He makes judgments and decisions that his coaches hope will influence teammates. When he attends parties, he avoids predicaments that could jeopardize his future.

"None of that peer pressure affects me," he said.

It's not as if Ellis turned into a leader overnight. Even as a fourth-grader, he was demonstrating maturity beyond his years. His class was disciplined for causing a commotion and lost recess as punishment. Ellis asked the teacher if he could address the class.

"He told the boys how it was unfair to horse around, and Byron won them their recess back," his mother, Sharice, said.

On the football field, Ellis is an explosive, powerful runner at 6 feet 2, 190 pounds.

"He has an uncanny knack for staying on his feet and making subtle cuts to keep the play alive," Gasca said.

He dreams of playing in the NFL and looks forward to practice as much as games.

"I just wake up thinking about football," he said. "When I step into the classroom, I focus, but once that bell rings and it's time for practice, I'm ready to go. Most guys don't like to get hit. I love the contact. I like to be with my boys, the linemen. Most are my friends. I just like getting down and dirty."

Ellis is good enough to play for USC or UCLA and smart enough to attend Harvard, Yale or Stanford. But he committed to Colorado last weekend after taking his first recruiting visit.

The Buffaloes made a wise decision to offer a scholarship because word is going to spread about Ellis' athletic exploits, his charisma, character and confidence.

He wants to enter the medical profession if football doesn't work out. And he can't wait to test himself in college.

"You know how kids are forced to go to high school," he said. "I want to go where kids want to learn."

Teammates aren't surprised when they hear Ellis is busy doing homework, is washing the dishes at home or can't go to the movie because he's taking care of his 3-year-old brother.

"They know it's me," he said. "Every day, they say, 'Byron, how do you do it?' You have to keep working hard."


Eric Sondheimer can be reached at

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