The Life and Death of Adrian Ellis

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

A chorus of "When I See Jesus" rose up, its fantastic exultation loosening the lugubrious spiritual muck in the room. The sweet gospel machinery made everyone, including the off-duty cop meant to keep order, bow their heads.

More than 10 speakers took the podium. Dr. Jane McQueen, director of the county's Head Start program, oozed affection for Ellis, who had addressed the county commission on behalf of their agency while dressed, from head to toe, in white. Ellis looked like an angel, McQueen recalled. "Our angel," she said.

As the proceedings drew to a close, the Gray Ghosts began to fidget, and St. John's Rev. Gregory V. Gay asked a question.

Justin Renteria
Justin Renteria

"Can I keep it real, right quick?" Gay asked, cocking his body at the hip as if waiting for an answer. A thin gold crucifix dangled at his navel from a long chain.

The crowd bellowed. Yes, he could.

Ellis, Gay boomed, was a real man. He didn't run from adversity. He stood, feet forward, and took it. "He stayed right here in this community," Gay hollered. "And he took it."

When Gay saw Ellis at KFC last week, the reverend continued, he wasn't buying one bucket of chicken for his 15 kids. He was buying 15 individual boxes. "Adrian loved his family," he said. "He treated every child as an individual."

"We all have a past," Reverend Gay asserted as the crowd said amen and hallelujah. "Some of us still got it."

Before accepting his scholarship to UM, before leaving the well-ordered halls of Columbus High School, Ellis began to slip.

Time spent in his old neighborhood didn't do much for his plans. Dope dealing and dice games were rampant in the Lee Park Apartments; Ellis developed bad habits. Grant Miller, one of Ellis's many coaches, recalls seeing deals go down outside the apartments all day long. Ellis gambled, racking up as much as $400 in debt at a time.

At age 15, Ellis got into a serious relationship with his neighbor, Leanna Sowells. In 1989, in the middle of Ellis's 11th-grade year, Sowells gave birth to Adrian Jr. Little Adriana soon followed.

By late 1990, Ellis got picked up in gambling raids. His mother wished he would get away from it all. "Adrian really wanted to get out and make something of himself," she told a Herald reporter.

Recruitment letters offered hope. Adrian and his mother papered the living room walls with them; they framed the letter from UM offering a full ride. Ellis painted his bedroom orange and — after saving money from his job as a Little League umpire — laid down emerald carpeting. A friend even brushed school mascot Sebastian the Ibis onto his wall.

During Ellis's freshman year, Sowells sued him for child support and won $50 monthly. To make matters worse, he injured himself during his first football scrimmage and underwent knee surgery the following day. He spent the semester on crutches but recovered in time for spring training.

After completing summer classes, with his sophomore year ready to kick off, Ellis was busted for stealing a TV set and VCR from a dormitory. He said he pawned the items to pay child support. He pleaded down the charges and paid a fine, but the stunt got his scholarship temporarily revoked and cost him his spot on the Canes' 1991 championship team. Ellis's almost-teammates Leon Searcy, Jessie Armstead, and Michael Colvin Barrow, to name just a few, all went on to the NFL.

When contacted for comment, former Canes coach Dennis Erickson said he didn't remember Ellis at all.

While the Canes marched across gridirons without losing a game all season, Ellis took out a small loan and soldiered on at his studies. His scholarship would be renewed if he straightened up and flew right. So he knuckled down. He moved his clothes and some high school trophies into Sowells's bedroom. Adrian Jr. slept in a crib at the foot of their bed. Ellis divided his time between her room and his mother's place.

But cut off from football, he got sucked into mischief. In October 1991, he showed up at a buddy's house with a trio of thugs — friends, he would later say, of his brother. The group ransacked the home of an absent pot dealer, kicked the dealer's roommate in the head, and threatened to rape his girlfriend. They stole a stereo, a camera, a jar of change, and an SKS assault rifle. In a statement to police, Ellis said he hadn't gone to the house with the intention of robbing anyone.

That much got him out of jail. But it wouldn't keep him out.

Three months later, 70-year-old Fait Cutler accused Ellis of breaking into his bedroom, throwing him to the floor, and tying him up with an extension cord — all for $480 in poker winnings (and all while wearing his UM jacket, no less).

Ellis got out of jail again, only to be nabbed for cracking a man (who ultimately didn't cooperate with authorities) in the head with an aluminum baseball bat. Ellis spent most of the next two years behind bars awaiting trial for the crimes.

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