The Life and Death of Adrian Ellis

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

But Ellis kept on. In 2002 he made a run for a city commission seat as Adrian "Casanova" Ellis. A devastating Community Newspaper article detailed his arrest record and a recent warrant for nonpayment of support to a one-year-old daughter in Jacksonville. Ellis lost, coming in third of four candidates, with 419 votes.

By 2004, the owners of the same newspaper contributed $500 to his second bid for a commission seat. Ellis was determined to bring developers to his neighborhood. In the weeks leading up to the February election, he campaigned vigorously.

On the evening of January 28, Ellis called police to his home. Three men had beaten him to a pulp, he said. In the hospital, through a wired jaw and swollen lips, he told reporters the attack had been politically motivated. His opponent, an attorney named Craig Z. Scherar, seemed an unlikely suspect for such a violent plot. (He had flubbed his last run for city commission by campaigning in a Zorro costume.) Scherar walked off with 66 percent of the vote.

Justin Renteria
Justin Renteria

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement found two sources who alleged Ellis was jumped for outstanding gambling debts. Another told investigators that Ellis's assault had been orchestrated by the boyfriend of one of his children's mothers. When confronted with the allegations, Ellis declined to take a polygraph test, and ended up asking the agents to "kill this investigation right now," according to official documents.

The following year, Mayor Horace Feliu appointed Ellis to the Community Redevelopment Agency, where he worked to steer money to parks facilities and black businesses in the town's most blighted corners. He ran for the commission again in 2006 and lost. He lobbied for a massive rezoning project known as Madison Square, a four-story multiuse complex aimed at the center of South Miami's black neighborhood. The proposal incensed white anti-development activists and commissioners. Ellis rose to the fight.

He skewered South Miami this past summer when the city granted a predominantly white tackle football league the use of the Southwest YMCA facility. Ellis demanded to know why a small, predominantly white league was establishing itself in a city with an already thriving, predominantly black program. When he didn't get a satisfactory answer, Ellis left angry.

This past August 7, he marched back, flanked by a delegation of clergy, black citizens, and a dozen members of the 90-pound South Miami Gray Ghosts squad decked out in their blue uniforms. The crowd spoke for an hour, and called for the removal of a white commissioner opposed to the Madison Square project.

Ellis's right earlobe shined with a large stud; his solid frame fit slickly in a large black sport coat. Behind him, an ocean of hands waved in approval — his football team, his friends, his neighbors, his mother. The night's events, organized and fomented in part by Ellis, would make the project a political inevitability in town.

Ellis had finally become what he had wanted to be: the coach of everyone. Days later, he told Mayor Feliu to watch his back. Ellis had plans on running for his job.

It's the afternoon of October 6, 2007. Hot wind blows and dark clouds shift over Palmer Park, the place where Jerry Rein once worked and where Adrian Ellis once ruled.

The South Miami Gray Ghosts have been wiping the field with the Naples Titans for about two hours. The blue and gray home team shows no signs of fatigue, even into the late afternoon. Beneath bulbous helmets and heavy padding, the tiny linemen advance up the field like a clumsy tidal wave.

The clouds part, shooting sunlight onto a gathering that brims with so much energy it feels like a mass religious ceremony. A DJ blasts NFL sound bites during downtime. Parents seated on coolers and folding chairs do their best to wrangle youngsters under the small spectator tents. Cowbells jangle with each advancement.

Adrian Ellis's absence from South Miami is most palpable here.

Had things happened differently in September, he would no doubt be standing, straining against the sideline, in a blue shirt and yellow tie, surrounded by children. He would command the kids and parents like a conductor, calling for cheers and play signals from a tent full of parents.

One such maneuver, "the airplane," involved a drive of four or five wide receivers up one side of the field. When Ellis gave the word — usually in the form of a colored card — every spectator in the bleachers would stand up, stick out their arms, and lean into the wind as though flying.

During practices, Ellis offered to coach the children of coaches in other weight divisions. He customized drills to each individual player and always made sure everyone on the field had eaten something (if only a banana) before game time.

Last year he took the 90-pounders all the way to the playoffs, where the championship eluded them by a mere six points. After the game, he lectured — not scolded — the team, according to one parent. "He would motivate them," Nkenga Payne says from the bleachers. "He taught my son everything he knows about football. My son loved him. He was Coach Adrian — that was [my son's] whole world."

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