Editors’ note: This is the second installment in a five-part series examining the successes and failures of college football players from the recruiting class of 1990 at Florida, Florida State and Miami.
In the housing project where Adrian Ellis grew up, less than a mile from the University of Miami campus, the sound of cheering crowds at college ballgames sometimes mixed with the clap of gunfire.
Major league baseball star Andre Dawson lived two blocks away before leaving the poor, high-crime neighborhood. But Ellis failed to escape the area’s trouble and temptations, even after signing a national letter of intent in 1990 to play football for the Hurricanes.
His career totals since then: Five felony arrests and nearly two years in jail. Police said he committed violent crimes with a baseball bat, an extension cord and threats of murder.
Ellis pleaded innocent to each felony charge and was never convicted of a single one. But the legal trouble ended his lifelong dream of playing for the Hurricanes. And today, while many of his former classmates have graduated, he’s still more than two years from a degree.
Ellis was kicked off the Hurricanes’ roster in 1991, too tainted for a program already plagued with an outlaw image. He enrolled last fall at Central Florida in Orlando and played football and baseball this past year.
“He’s on borrowed time,” said John Swope, a former South Miami police detective who investigated one case against Ellis. “Everyone deserves a second chance. He’s had five. I’d say that if he messes up again, his luck has run out.”
An unwed father of three children, Ellis wants to re-enroll eventually at Miami - in law school.
“I plan on being the greatest defense attorney America has known,” Ellis said.
Many players recruited by Miami, Florida and Florida State come from underprivileged backgrounds, counting on football as a way out of the poor neighborhoods in which they grew up.
But a scholarship hardly guarantees success, even at a top-10 program. Some prospects can’t make the adjustment from street life to campus life.
Among the 56 players recruited in 1990 by the state’s three major schools, four never lettered and 29 have yet to graduate. The reasons include bad luck, bad grades and bad judgment.
Ellis’ story of failure is perhaps the most complex and dramatic.
Last month, four of his fellow 1990 recruits at Miami were taken in the NFL draft. Eleven of the 18 players have received their degrees. All remember Adrian Ellis.
“In class he was a very intelligent guy,” said C.J. Richardson, an NFL-bound safety who has a degree in criminal justice. “I didn’t perceive him as a guy that would get in trouble. Everybody liked Adrian and was shocked when they heard about the things he did.”
An All-State defensive back at Columbus High School, Ellis was rated by one newspaper as the 15th-best prospect in Florida following his senior season in 1989. A family friend paid his tuition to the private school, and he took advantage of the generous gesture, graduating with a grade-point average of 3.15.
“Adrian in high school was a wonderful person,” said his coach, Dennis Lavelle. “If you gave me an hour, I couldn’t think of two bad things to tell you. I don’t know if he ever spent a day in detention or ever talked back to anybody. He could have babysat my kids and had the keys to my house.”“He was the toughest S.O.B. I ever knew,” Lavelle said.
Ellis received enough letters from recruiters to cover the wall of his living room, which he did. A letter from Dennis Erickson was prominently displayed, and when the Hurricanes’ coach extended a scholarship offer, Ellis quickly accepted.
To celebrate, he redecorated his bedroom in the Hurricanes’ color scheme. Ellis painted the wall orange, coaxed his mom into buying an emerald carpet and worked as an umpire at Little League games to reimburse her.
Ellis’ freshman season at Miami ended with a knee injury in the first scrimmage, and he underwent surgery the next day. He hobbled to class that fall, made a swift recovery, returned to the team for spring practice and attended summer school.
Then he was arrested. Police said he took a television and VCR from a dorm roommate and pawned them to raise money for child support. The charge was reduced to a misdemeanor and Ellis paid a fine.Ellis brushes off the idea that it might be irresponsible to be an unmarried father of three at age 23.”I have no regrets,” he said. “I take care of my kids.”
On first impression, Ellis seems polite, friendly and bright. Small for a football player, he stands 5-foot-8. His hair is short, too. It’s easier to envision him in a Marine uniform than a jail jumpsuit.
Ellis will talk about his tumultuous past with anyone willing to listen. The youngest of four children, he was in grade school when his dad, an alcoholic, left home. His sister has two children and an addiction to drugs. His two brothers have served time in prison.
With the scholarship from Miami, Ellis became the first member of his family to attend college. His brothers and parents failed to finish high school.
“Adrian really wanted to get out of here and make something of himself,” said his mother, Bernice.
Mrs. Ellis works at a laboratory testing hospital supplies. She supplements that job by selling cups of crushed ice and fruit punch from her back door to neighborhood children for a quarter.
“No one has any money,” Ellis said, “except Andre Dawson.”
The opening comment about Ellis in a university news release written the day he signed with Miami: “A very intelligent player who has a knack for being in the right place at the right time.”
That appraisal was hardly prophetic.
Midway through his sophomore season, several men forced their way into a house in Ellis’ neighborhood, held the two occupants hostage and ransacked the place.
Police described a savage scene, with guns, ski masks and threats of rape and murder. Among the items stolen were stereo and camera equipment, a BB gun and a semiautomatic weapon found later at the home of Ellis’ girlfriend.
When police arrested Ellis, he said he had reluctantly accompanied three acquaintances who committed the crime.
He spent a month in jail and had to drop out of school. Without Ellis, who never played in a game, the Hurricanes won the national championship anyway.
Three weeks after Miami beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, Ellis lost at the poker table.
He had developed a gambling habit. It began with dice in high school, and he ran up debts as high as $400. Police arrested him twice on gambling misdemeanors.
The big winner at poker that January night, a frail man in his 70s named Fait Cutler, finally decided to quit about 6 a.m. and went to bed. Someone followed Cutler to his room, shoved him to the floor, tied him up with an extension cord and took $480.
Police arrested Ellis, charging him with armed robbery, false imprisonment, crime against the elderly and grand theft. Ellis said he went home before the crime was committed by someone else.
Two weeks later, police arrested him for assault with a baseball bat. Ellis said the target of his anger had roughed up his female cousin.
With three felony cases pending, a judge revoked his bond.
Adrian Ellis - clean-cut B student, scholarship athlete and pride of his high school and family - spent the next 19 1/2 months in jail.”I just felt that he was a complete liar,” Koby said. “I was convinced he had committed the crimes he was charged with.”
The assault with a baseball bat was quickly dropped when the victim declined to pursue it. But the poker case took more than a year to reach trial.
When Fait Cutler finally testified, he hedged on his story. He had known Ellis for years, but Cutler was no longer sure whether the robber had carried a gun, and he said the robber was wearing a ski mask - a detail omitted during his earlier conversations with police.
“The victim obviously was not dependable as a witness,” Koby said. “The whole case really fell apart.”
In mid-trial, she was forced to drop the charges.
Four months later, on Sept. 30, 1993 - Ellis has the date memorized - a jury found him innocent in the home invasion case following a four-day trial. Of the four suspects arrested, Ellis was the only one acquitted.
“Very frustrating,” said Swope, the detective who investigated the home invasion. “Adrian is articulate and carries himself well. It’s a product of being brought up in a private school. And he can sell it.”
Ellis was eager to play football again, but not in Miami.
“My mom and I decided a change of environment would be good,” Ellis said. He chose Central Florida because its status as a Division I-AA school would allow him to play immediately.The case was quickly dropped for lack of evidence.Ellis’ court file was now three inches thick. He said police in the neighborhood targeted him because of his name.”My brothers aren’t the best of guys,” he said. “That hurt me a lot.”
Ellis spent the past school year at Central Florida as a starting defensive back, backup center fielder and criminal justice major.
Now he’s in limbo and back in South Miami.
Ellis contends he should be able to play at Central Florida for at least two more years because the time he spent in jail shouldn’t count against him. The NCAA has rejected his argument, meaning his eligibility and scholarship have expired unless he can get the ruling overturned on appeal.
Eager to stay in school, perhaps Ellis has learned how to stay out of trouble. When an acquaintance recently offered to pick up his $4.33 tab for lunch, he insisted on paying himself, mindful of stringent NCAA regulations.
“Thanks anyway,” Ellis said with a smile. “I don’t want to get put on probation.”
This sidebar appeared with the story: MAKING THE GRADES Admissions figures for 1990 recruits, according to the NCAA: Florida football GPA 2.68 SAT 867 Florida State football GPA 2.67 SAT 792 Miami football GPA 2.36 SAT 783 All NCAA D-I football GPA 2.65 SAT 861