A gift of respect
He expected it might be his head coach's favorite accessory --- a bowl watch --- or perhaps even one of the trendy gifts like designer headphones.
But University of Tennessee tight end Alex Ellis never dreamed he was unwrapping his dream Monday morning as the Vols gathered one final time before their Christmas break.
Inside Ellis' Christmas package, Tennessee coach Butch Jones had placed commemorative scholarship papers.
"I've talked about how I've been waiting for this day, every day," said Ellis, who said he wasn't one to show his emotions but couldn't help but shake during the presentation. "No, never. I never could have imagined that for a Christmas gift. That's what every walk-on dreams of. I can't wait to tell my mom."
A couple hours later, and Ellis hadn't told his mother, a nurse in Delaware who bestowed the "Skitter" moniker on him all those years ago?
"Coach Jones told me to wrap it back up and to give it to her for Christmas tonight," Ellis told VolQuest.com when reached by phone. "I'm flying home tonight, and I'll get to see them to at like 12 o'clock."
For Jones, seeing Ellis rewarded serves as a tangible reminder of why Jones recalls first pursuing the coaching profession, utilizing some roster attrition to reward Ellis.
"It means everything. That's what our program is about, it's about family and opportunities. Here's a guy who's been a walk-on in our program and now started games for us. He deserved it," Jones told VolQuest.com on Monday. "And it's all owed to Alex Ellis, his competitive character, his love for his teammates, his love for Tennessee.
"To be able to reward him on this last day of practice, in a team setting, that's what makes coaching rewarding. I'm proud of him. I love everything about Alex Ellis. He's a leader on the field, but he's also a leader off the field. Perhaps the greatest thing you can say about him is that he has the respect of his peers and coaches."
While the scholarship belongs to Ellis, the 6-foot-4, 238-pound Del Mar, Delaware, native points instead to all of his teammates after breaking through the rotation this year at tight end to appear in all 12 games, starting one and notching his first career touchdown on a fake field goal pass from Patrick Ashford.
"That's part of it, of what's special. It's every one of them," Ellis said. "It's a collective group that did that. Without them, I couldn't do it. It's ride or die right there. Those are my brothers. They got my back through anything. I got theirs. They just congratulated me, loved me up. They gave me big hugs and everything. It was not just one person. It was the whole group. It was kind of cool to see that."
Ellis joins a fairly exclusive fraternity among current Vols; he'll play offense and perhaps line up directly beside Jacob Gilliam, Tennessee's right tackle, in the Taxslayer Bowl January 2 against Iowa. Gilliam in May was awarded a scholarship from Jones, and Gilliam responded by returning from a torn ACL suffered in the season opener to reclaim the Vols' starting spot on the right edge.
"It shows if you put your heart and soul in it and work, and work some more at this ... you can make it," Ellis shared with VolQuest.com. "(Tight ends coach Mark) Elder and Coach Jones said they trusted me in certain situations and they definitely let me be successful in the program. You can't repay that. And I thank them for that a lot. That's what it's all about. Hard work and perseverance. That's what drives me, keeps me working."
Now, he's got a cool story to share about how he used to be a walk-on football player.
"That's what I thought, some bowl gifts. I was like, 'Aw, shoot!' Coach Jones was like, 'Open it here.' I thought it was like a watch or Beats or something," Ellis said. "Then as soon as I opened it I was like, 'Oh no, gosh no way!' I tried not to cry. I'm not much for letting everyone see my feelings, but I was just trying to keep it together."