Oct. 20, 2005
By Ken Kleppel
“Notre Dame fans should feel happy that Ellis is Ellis. He’s the type who will probably have some under-privileged kid pattern himself after some day. That’s Clarence Ellis. That’s the kind of person he is.”
–South Bend Tribune, 1970
And that’s exactly what happened.
On the gridiron, Clarence Ellis seemed to always face a challenge that he would eventually overcome.
Offered an athletic football scholarship by only Notre Dame and Western Michigan, Ellis turned the notion that he was too small to complete into pure nonsense. In so doing, he became a three-year starter in the Notre Dame secondary, a consensus All-American pick in 1971, and fifteenth overall selection of the 1972 NFL Draft. Ellis would play professionally for three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons before retiring with the Denver Broncos in 1975 and embarking on a successful career with the IBM Corporation, Honeywell International, and finally the Dekalb County School District in suburban Atlanta.
But his most lasting accomplishment may very well be the manner in which he enabled others to overcome challenges in their lives.
James Easton, a forty-six year old husband and father of three, provides proof of this legacy.
“I get choked up when I talk about Clarence,” says Easton, who notes that only his mother and Ellis refer to him as Jimmy. “The way Clarence did things was a good example for me in my life. I would not be who I am right now without him.”
Easton’s parents divorced when Easton was six years old. Without a male figure for Easton to look towards for support, Easton’s mother turned to the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program of South Bend, and ultimately, Ellis.
Ellis provided much more than support as he counseled Easton on both academics and life lessons throughout Easton’s adolescent years. In his first year in the professional ranks, Ellis funded the round-tip airfare for Easton and his brother to attend a Falcons game and visit with Ellis and his teammates. The relationship has since lasted a lifetime.
Easton would go on the play college basketball at Mississippi Valley State. Today, he coaches and teaches in Jacksonville – a career vocation he attributes to Ellis -and dreams of the day that his children will be able to attend Notre Dame.
“Clarence always told me that you can’t cry about spilled milk,” says Easton. “You can’t put it back in the bottle. Just go forward”.
Such a philosophy suits Ellis well. After playing his last game before the Falcons, Ellis waited two decades before attending another. Nearly as much time passed before he returned to campus for a game after his graduation in 1972, but Ellis made the trip to watch his nephew march in the band.
Yet Ellis would only let a few months transpire without keeping in touch with Easton.
“Life gets to a point where you get down to basics – family and those individuals who are close and dear to you,” says Ellis, who admittedly is echoing his former coach Ara Parseghian’s advice regarding appreciation opportunities in the moment.
“With so much going on you kind of realize that things can be swept away very quickly. Nothing is guaranteed. Right now I am just trying to keep it simple.”
Ellis keeps it simple today — he takes breaks from the Fayetteville, Ark., heat to visit his grandchildren in Grand Rapids, N.D., and enjoys each day with his wife Renee, whom Ellis identifies as his life’s passion.
And he has never forgotten the basics. Just ask Jimmy.