CORTLAND, N.Y. (WFAN/AP) — The sound of loud, metallic punctuation is still fresh in Kenrick Ellis’ mind. It was one of the darkest days of his life.
The New York Jets defensive lineman was behind bars and would stay there for more than three weeks.
No football, no freedom. The solitary life of an inmate.
“Man, that was the scariest moment ever,” Ellis said softly after a recent training camp practice. “It was 7 p.m. on June 15. When I heard that door clank shut, I was like, ‘Well, this is my reality now.'”
He was a long way from the football field, just another inmate at Hampton City Jail.
Ellis pleaded guilty in May to assault and battery stemming from a 2010 fight while attending Hampton University in Virginia. He entered an Alford plea, meaning he didn’t admit guilt but acknowledged that prosecutors could prove the case against him. Under an agreement with the court, he was granted a split-sentence — 23 days in prison before the season, and the remaining 22 beginning next March 1.
The arrangement allowed Ellis, entering his second year with the Jets after being a third-round pick, the opportunity to join his teammates in time for camp and to play this season. The Jets (No. 17 in the AP Pro32) are counting on him to be a big part of Rex Ryan’s defense after a disappointing rookie season in which he made just seven tackles in five games.
“Oh, man, it’s a blessing being out here,” he said, drenched in sweat. “It just feels good to be on a football field and just having the opportunity I have. I’ve been in a whole other situation, so I’m just happy to be here.”
And, it shows. Defensive end Mike DeVito said Ellis constantly jokes around with his fellow linemen, keeping things light even during the toughest moments of practice.
“People can get down during training camp,” DeVito said, “but he has kept a really high attitude because he has seen how bad things can be.”
Ellis is a hulk of a man, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 345 pounds, but he did anything he could to try not to stand out in prison. He’s not sure if anyone recognized him or knew who he was, and he didn’t want to find out.
“I just went in there and took a humble mind-set and kept my head low and tried to stay out of things,” he said. “It’s a whole different society in there, so I tried to be the outcast and did my time and stayed away from everything.”
Coming up with a game plan to do that was a challenge. But the first step was getting over the anger and frustration that he was even there in the first place.
“I just had to accept the reality of things, like, ‘This is what it is. I’m going to be here and now how am I going to make this thing go fast?'” Ellis said. “I did it by reading books, meditating and trying to stay focused on the goal, knowing that I do have something outside those walls.
“That’s why I’m here today.”
During his 23 days in prison, Ellis read seven books — “pretty much anything I could get my hands on.” He zipped through “The Big Bad Wolf” by James Patterson, “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki, and “The Millionaire Next Door” by Thomas Stanley and William Danko, to name a few.
“Being in there, that was the only way to get your mind off the current situation,” Ellis said.
There was also the day when he was told he had visitors, and saw Jets owner Woody Johnson and general manager Mike Tannenbaum sitting there waiting for him.
“I just feel like it’s part of my responsibility to support our guys through thick and thin,” Tannenbaum said. “Woody Johnson and I went down there just to see him and to let him know we were standing by him. It’s easy to be there in the good times, and we wanted to be there for him then.”
Ryan also came by to check on Ellis, who was touched that the three traveled to Virginia just to see him.
“I was shocked,” Ellis recalled. “I mean, you’re down and out, and your head coach who barely has any time and he’s got a busy schedule and the owner and the GM come by to see me? It really meant a lot to me. It made me feel like I really need to give out more to this organization because they obviously believe in me. Now I just need to believe in myself and get the job done.”
The Jets are counting on him this season, especially since Ellis has an entire offseason with the team under his belt — something he didn’t have a year ago because of the NFL lockout. He is also in much better shape, helped in part by the mixed martial arts workouts he did with linebacker Bart Scott.
“Last year, it was like a roller coaster — you know, up and down,” he said. “It was a very stressful situation. I just want to stay healthy and be active every week.”
Ellis has gotten a number of snaps with the first-team defense during the last few days, filling in for starter Sione Pouha, who sat out with a cut over his left eye that required a handful of stitches. The coaches are happy with what they’re seeing, saying they expect him to be a major contributor on a line with lots of depth.
“The fact I know what to do now, that helps the defense,” he said. “I’m not knocking Bart off his blitz, and I’m not knocking David Harris off his blitz. I know where I’m supposed to be at, and I’m going to fight like hell to be there so the other guys can make their plays.”
He’s a humble, soft-spoken guy off the field who takes a ferocious approach — a “switch,” he calls it — to working on becoming the dominant type of player he believes he can be. Ellis knows there will be more challenges down the line, and he’ll be ready to handle whatever comes his way.
“Man, I just feel like it’s a path,” Ellis said, looking down at the grass. “Everybody has a different path, and my path is just different. It’s not being the underdog or whatever. It’s just different from somebody else’s path. So, you just have to take those weaknesses and turn them into your strengths. It’s easy when you have no choice, you know what I’m saying? You just have to settle in for what’s reality and keep pushing forward.”
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