Ball Bearings

Riki Ellison returns to his roots for some life coaching.

If I happen to die any time in the next six months or so, it'll probably take the mortician several days to wipe the smile off my face. The reason for my perpetual upturn is a Nirvana-like experience I had last week. (Not Nirvana, like mumble through some really crappy songs and then blow my brains out rather than have to look at Courtney Love one more time; Nirvana, like transcendent and vaguely spiritual.)

The scene was actually quite surreal. They sat facing each other, only a couple feet apart, eyes locked. The tiny office off the old football locker room was hotter than Tom Jones' crotch back in his polyester days, but neither man seemed to notice. For hours they talked, words flying, hands waving, priceless information flowing from teacher to pupil. Football jargon, straight talk, training tips, common sense, rules to live by--all given equal weight by speaker and listener.

It was really quite amazing. I just sat there and watched, a morbidly-obese fly on the wall, notebook in hand, but too awestruck to take notes. OK, too lazy to takes notes, but awestruck, nonetheless.

The pupil was Riki Ellison, four-time Super Bowl champ, All-Pac-10 performer at USC, and, in keeping with the Memento timeline motif, All-State player at Amphi High back in the 1970s. Indeed, after Ellison (who went by the name Riki Gray back then; long story) graduated from Amphi, he broke local football fans' hearts by not going to the University of Arizona. Instead, he went to USC, where he played on a national championship team and was named Defensive Player of the Game in the Rose Bowl as a freshman!

He spent 10 years with the San Francisco 49ers (including eight as the defensive signal-caller) during their Joe Montana-Ronnie Lott glory days, and then finished up his career with the Oakland Raiders.

Ellison has been working for Lockheed in Washington, D.C. It appeared that the lifelong free spirit (his 49er teammates dubbed him "Fruit Loops") was settling down a bit. But then a few months ago he got a phone call with an intriguing offer.

Ellison was asked if he would like to be a football coach at a nearby high school. And not just any high school. This was T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., the one immortalized in last year's fact-based movie Remember the Titans.

Williams High was desegregated by court decree in the early '70s. The explosive racial tension at the school and in the town were smoothed over and then virtually set aside by the almost-miraculous season enjoyed by the newly integrated football team, which came out of nowhere to go undefeated and win the state championship.

Alas, the legacy of that team faded with time, and inner-city Williams High became a perennial doormat in Northern Virginia prep football. The school hasn't had a winning season since the late '80s and went 1-9 last year.

Ellison, who has no previous coaching experience, agreed to take on the daunting task on a couple of conditions. He insisted on doing the job without pay, and he would have to have time to consult with his mentor, a man considered by many to be one of the greatest high-school football coaches in America.

And so they sat, Riki Ellison and Vern Friedli, legend and legend, pupil and teacher. Friedli is entering his 25th season at Amphi and will break the Arizona high school record for wins by a coach at a single school sometime this season. Despite coaching at what is often the smallest (in enrollment) 5A public school in the state, his accomplishments are staggering. Eighteen conference titles in 24 years, 19 straight trips to the state playoffs, and Amphi is the last Tucson team to win a 5A state football crown.

It is for these reasons and so many more that his former players treat him with reverence. Whether they become pro athletes or doctors, stockbrokers or pool installers, they all make the pilgrimage back to see The Coach. And that's what Ellison is doing in that sweltering room. He has called Friedli on a regular basis for the past two months since accepting the job, but now he has flown cross-country for some intense sessions.

When asked why he would accept such a challenge, Ellison replies, "Football has done a lot for me. I'd just like to give something back. And if I'm going to do it, I want to do it right. I want to do it Vern's way."

Basically, what is happening is that Friedli is scrubbing away the layers of nonsense and needless complexity that have built up on Ellison in his nearly two decades of college and pro football. Friedli peppers his keep-it-simple mantra with "This is high-school football; you don't need that," and "Most kids aren't taught that."

Ellison contemplated a playbook consisting of 70 or 80 plays. Friedli's has 20 or so, and in many games, Amphi will only use four or five and just grind the other team into submission with its intensity and precision style of play.

Repeatedly, Ellison will scribble a drawing of a formation on a legal pad and ask, "What if they do this?" Friedli will laugh and say, "Gosh, I hope they do! We'll run it down their throats."

Over and over, Friedli touches on the building blocks of Amphi's success. Conditioning. Simplicity. Solidarity. Technique. Perfection. Intensity. Slowly the smile comes to Ellison's face as he remembers back to what it was like to play on a team that won not because it was fancier or trickier or more chemically enhanced, but because it played harder.

Ellison knows that it may take some time to turn things around at T.C. Williams, but he's certain that if they do things the Vern Friedli way, they can't help but be successful.

I mentioned to Ellison that for a while it reminded me of Yoda giving priceless advice to an avid pupil. He shrugged that aside.

"Yoda, nothing," he smiled. "I've come to the Messiah."

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