Most of the time I go mental, I must say, talking to the players at these orchestrated, cattle-car interview sessions at the Super Bowl. Same old questions. Same old quotes. It's like going to a shopping mall and seeing the same pair of shoes in 35 different windows. But every once in a while a rara avis pops up, someone intriguing, someone fresh, someone, well, someone very strange. And as they say here in Gold Rush country, "Eureka! I have found one."
Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to introduce the man the San Francisco 49ers affectionately call "Fruit Loops," a man who in the next life will be back either as a car wreck or an attack dog, Riki Ellison.
"I'm a psycho case," Ellison declared as he introduced himself. "If I wasn't a football player, I'd probably be dead."
But enough small talk.
What's the craziest thing he's ever done?
Casually, like he was reciting what he'd eaten for lunch, Ellison reviewed the highlights from his college career at USC: "I got run over by a couple of cars; I got shot at; I jumped off a building -- it's hard to say."
Taking it from the top . . .
Run over? "On my bike. I don't pay attention to stop lights. I got nailed two or three times. I lived. No big deal."
Shot? "My roommate hit some guy upside the head with a banana, right? Next day, I'm sitting in my dorm room, nine stories up, and all of a sudden I hear this -- Bam! A bullet hole, right through the window, man. Skidded past my ear, hit the door." (A bullet for a banana? What do you get for an avocado, mortar rounds?)
Jumped off a building? "I was 18 years old. I was a country boy in the city. I was on the roof. It was a fraternity thing, you know? A party. Maybe I had something to drink, you know? I'm sure there were some girls around. I said something like, 'Watch this,' and I jumped. It's hard to remember. I wasn't in a state of remembering, you know?"
How many stories up? Five? Six?
"Two. If it was six, I wouldn't be here, you know?"
Ellison had been grinning goofily all along as he told these stories, but now he was laughing.
"I'm crazy," Ellison said. "But I'm not stupid."
"The game's so sophisticated that you can't be stupid and play anymore," said Hacksaw Reynolds, like Ellison, a 49ers linebacker and a couple of quarts low. "But you can be crazy."
"Riki's the prototype guy you'd want to cast in 'Animal House,' " said Roy Foster, a Miami Dolphins offensive guard who was Ellison's teammate at USC. "He'd knock holes in walls all the time. It wasn't abnormal behavior for him. He's a classic linebacker -- life has no meaning."
"It's not all linebackers -- it's him," said Tom Holmoe, the 49ers safety who rooms with Ellison on the road. "He tells me he wants to work for the CIA as an undercover spy. Him undercover? Then again, he's so off the wall it'd be like reverse psychology. The guy's on a different planet than the rest of us. The only person in the world he listens to is his wife."
"She was a song girl at SC," Ellison said. "Prettiest girl I ever saw in my life. I had to work hard for her, man."
For all you guys looking for a sure-fire opening line, here's how Riki introduced himself to Sheila for the very first time:
"Hey, you good lookin' mama, get over here."
And you thought romance was dead.
Talk about persistent suitors. "I'd go over to her dorm at night, break down the front door, then smash down every single damned door on the hall looking for her," Ellison said. "I mean I worked hard for her."
One Valentine's Day, Ellison showed his love by letting Sheila's door stand long enough to draw a heart on it, and inside the heart he wrote "Riki and Sheila."
"His, I hope," Holmoe shuddered.
So how did such a calm, placid man get to the Super Bowl, you ask. By way of New Zealand, actually, and he's the only man in NFL history who can say that. Ellison's parents were born and raised in New Zealand. Still a citizen there, he only came to America because his mother, who was by then divorced, got a dance scholarship to USC when Riki was 8. Although he has no trace of it now, when he first got here, Ellison had a distinct British-sounding accent.
"That's probably why I'm a linebacker today," he said. "The kids at school hated me because of the way I spoke; they'd wait for me after school and beat the hell out of me. Let me tell you, I lost that accent real quick. In two weeks, I sounded like I was born here."
A couple of years later, his mother took him to see his first football game and he got hooked on the idea of playing for USC. "I saw the white horse and the black shoes, and I fell in love with it," Ellison said. "I said to myself, 'Man, I gotta do this. I gotta play football, and I gotta play it here.' "
After his mother remarried, Ellison took his stepfather's name, Gray (he changed back to Ellison in 1983), and pursued his football career in Arizona, where the family relocated. "We played against teams from Indian reservations," he said. "I learned to tackle by grabbing their ponytails and pulling them down." He always wanted to play linebacker. "I like people coming at me, trying to block me, trying to hit me. I enjoy the hitting."
Four knee operations and one name change later, Ellison joined the pros and in this, his second season, led the 49ers in tackles. Surely he is one of their toughest, and undoubtedly, their craziest player. Yet the last time he returned to New Zealand, his mates down there called him a wimp. "They really don't have any sense of what American football is. They think it's a wussy sport because you put on helmets and pads. They say real men play rugby."