The Life and Death of Adrian Ellis

Star football player, convict, politician left his mark on South Miami

Their mother, Ella Bernice Armstrong Ellis, tried to keep the boys out of trouble. "[We were] trying to get him away from where we live at," she once said, "away from the guys and things, to try to keep him on the straight line." She sent them to the Boys' Club in Coconut Grove, where a bald, paunchy basketball coach named Jerry Rein took notice of the Ellises. Rein had a wife and child of his own but made it his mission to take care of troubled kids. When he transferred to a park in South Miami, he became a regular installment in the Ellis boys' lives.

Jeffrey, Corey, Sammie, and Adrian sometimes slept at Rein's house on weekends; Rein took the family out for pizza after games. He bonded most with Adrian.

"My brother lived like a very poor man," recalls Rein's sister Ellen. "But he gave to those kids." She remembers Ellis as a bright boy with a constant smile, unfailingly polite and kind. "We adored Adrian, and Adrian adored my brother," she says. He joined the Reins for assorted Jewish holidays. Rein sometimes called Ellis's school to make sure the boy was in class. If he wasn't, Rein gave him an earful.

Justin Renteria

In 1985, Ellis played point guard on Rein's basketball dream team, the Gray Ghosts. Ellis was a team-leading scorer; the Ghosts won 18 straight games that year and played in a national conference in Orlando.

Ellis also excelled on the Gray Ghost baseball team. But he was obsessed with football. He rarely — if ever — missed a practice for South Miami's Pop Warner league. And he was good. Too good for South Miami, Rein believed.

Rein took Adrian into his home. The boy left the Gray Ghosts and began playing for Dave Westberry's Tamiami Colts. A federal corrections officer, Westberry was known as the best coach in the Pop Warner league. "He was a stud," Westberry recalls of Ellis. "He used to do a little rap song before each game. He got along with everybody — always had a smile on his face." The Colts won every game that year. Westberry remembers the kid as a team leader.

For ninth grade, Rein took Ellis to Christopher Columbus High School, a private Catholic boys' academy on SW 87th Avenue. The tuition was cheap by private standards (only $6800 per year today), and best of all, Columbus competed, seriously, with all the big public schools. The school offered no scholarships, but Rein persuaded a wealthy benefactor to fund Ellis's high school education.

The school's lofty baby-blue arches and white monk statues must have struck Ellis as odd. Odder still must have been the school's population of mostly goofy white boys clunking around the grounds in brown leather shoes, shirts, and ties. Soon Ellis, too, was clunking onto campus, leaving his dusty footprints on the school crest — the Santa Maria sailing through rough waters above the word adelante (forward!).

Ellis soared. He played in the school concert band and on the baseball team. He studied hard and pulled a 3.15 GPA.

And he proved his football genius as a versatile defensive back. Dave Reilly, head of the athletics department, remembers Ellis as someone who could play both sides of the ball. "He was a great player," recalls former Columbus coach Dennis Lavelle. "He was smart — really smart. And tougher than an old boot.... You couldn't find a single person at that school that would say anything bad about him."

The Herald put Ellis on its all-decade fantasy team, named him fourth-best prospect in the county, and ranked him 15th-best player in the state.

South Florida sports blogger Jay Rao recalls Ellis as a kid dynamo who dominated the field during the Eighties. "It seems just like yesterday he was playing quarterback, receiver, defensive back, and sometimes lining up at running back," Rao wrote recently. "He literally seemed like a one-man team."

Though offers poured in from nearly every program in the South, Ellis chose to stay close to home. "I can remember being excited as a Canes fan when I learned Ellis announced he would attend the University of Miami," Rao blogged shortly after Ellis's death. "He seemed destined for stardom. More than 17 years later, I have never heard from him again — until now."

Adrian Ellis's funeral was held Friday, September 14, at St. John's African Methodist Church, in the heart of the area he had hoped to turn into a towering commercial mecca for the black community.

Police closed off the street as the somber crowd of hundreds trickled out and onto the sidewalk. At the center of the grieving mass, Ellis lay entombed in a bright white coffin covered in crimson roses. Above his body, a black Christ shimmered through stained glass.

His family took up the first two pews while a throng of friends and well-wishers stretched into a multipurpose area at the rear of the church. The whole room seemed to shake when the lone, shrieking voice of a little girl cried out, "I want my daddy." Even the double row of uniformed preadolescent football players shivered with understanding. The City of South Miami and Miami-Dade County both presented resolutions commending Ellis as a great community activist.

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