For Hokies' Ellis, Waiting Is Hardest Part

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va., Aug. 7 -- Chris Ellis rejected patience his whole life. As a child, he was expelled from two preschools for the same transgression: stepping on other children's fingers because he couldn't sit still during naptime.

When he arrived as a defensive end at Virginia Tech, Ellis disregarded running plays as a contingency, bolting up the field trying to sack the quarterback each play. Last summer, Ellis prepared himself for a big junior season -- double-digit sacks, shelves of postseason awards -- after which he planned to leave school early for the NFL and become a high draft choice. Who wanted to wait?

But an odd thing happened to the boy who was thrown out of two preschools, the defensive end who craved big plays and the football player who wanted to leap to the NFL after last season. Patience forced itself upon him.

Ellis's NFL plans were dashed when he injured his shoulder in Virginia Tech's second game of the season. His season sank lower two weeks later, when he was arrested and charged with obstructing a police officer, then subsequently suspended for one game. In his return, he committed two personal foul penalties and received a tongue-lashing from Coach Frank Beamer on national television.

In the final game of the season, against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, he tore the labrum in the shoulder that had ached all season long. Spring practice would be filled with rehabilitation from surgery and the thing he dreaded more than anything: watching and waiting.

"It was a rough season for me last year," Ellis said. "It was a long season."

But in those months, Ellis absorbed more about patience than he ever had before, never more so than last spring, when his rehab started. For several days after undergoing surgery, he couldn't do anything. When his program started, he progressed slowly.

"It was more patience than anything," Ellis said.

Meantime, his teammates began spring practice without him. When he carpools with teammates, he urges them to hurry, always ready to leave early. So after spring workouts, several teammates would convene at his house, and he stewed. He told them, constantly, "Damn, I wish I could be out there with you right now."

"He was just complaining like mad," linebacker Vince Hall said. "We all understood, but no matter what you say to him, it's not going to do nothing. He already has it in his head that, 'I know I'm supposed to be out there.' He don't want to stay in one place for too long."

Before the spring, he learned how to slow himself down on the field. Graduate assistant Cornell Brown, one of the greatest defensive ends to play at Virginia Tech, taught Ellis how to play without making his shoulder vulnerable. Rather than charging after quarterbacks, he held his ground and stuffed the line.

"I couldn't turn it loose the way I was used to playing," Ellis said. "I couldn't let my body go. I couldn't risk hurting worse and being out. But I still had to be effective."

His statistics suffered when his shoulder injury altered his style, his sacks falling from six in his sophomore year to 4 1/2 in 2006. Before last season, Ellis estimated he would reach a dozen. Still, Brown said Ellis's play reminded him of Peter Boulware, Brown's former Baltimore Ravens teammate who often played with a bum shoulder.

"He wants to always be in the middle of everything, kind of go, go, go, go," Brown said. "With his shoulder, he had to know that everything is not going to be as easy. He was really hurting. As he went along and got numb to the pain, he went out and just played and gave everything he had."

By the time the year ended, Ellis's results fell far short of what he had hoped. He realized almost immediately after he first damaged his shoulder that the NFL would have to wait. Now he is healthy, again expecting a double-digit sack season.

He is on schedule, he said, to graduate in December, one of the reasons he learned that waiting isn't always so bad.

"My mom has been telling me that since I was young," Ellis said. "It's something I need to work on. But at the same time, patience is a virtue."

Hokies Notes: Defensive tackle Barry Booker did not practice Tuesday and wore a boot on his left foot. He is questionable for Virginia Tech's first scrimmage of the preseason Saturday. Cornerback Brandon Flowers was limited in practice because of a right ankle injury, but is expected to play in the scrimmage.

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