INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The call came in the early morning hours, jarring Shaun Ellis from a deep sleep. Two buddies were on the line with some news that would shake the veteran defensive end even more.
His best friend, Yusef Jenkins, was dead, shot five times in an altercation that began when he returned a car seat to the mother of his child in Anderson, S.C., where he and Ellis grew up.
“They were like, ‘Yusef is gone. He’s dead.’ I’m like, ‘He’s dead? Stop playing,’ “ Ellis recalled. “And, sure enough, it was a true story.”
The funeral was four days later, and Ellis went home to pay his respects.
“He and I grew up together since we were knee high,” Ellis said. “We always played sports together — basketball, football, baseball. He was my teammate. It definitely hit me very hard to go see him buried.”
Ellis still holds thoughts of his friend close to his heart as he prepares to take the field Sunday for the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. He’s done it all season as a way to honor Jenkins, and to keep himself motivated on the field.
“I just want to go out and just play hard for him and just keep his memory alive,” Ellis said Wednesday, speaking publicly about the tragedy for the first time. “He’s one of the reasons that basically kept me motivated. Every day I think about him. It’s a tough pill to swallow. I miss him.”
The killing was part of a tumultuous year where Ellis gained a son, was sent packing from a job he held for more than a decade, and was hired for a new one under Bill Belichick in New England. He also had hip surgery, and his mother had quadruple bypass.
But it is his friend who stays closest to his mind.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Ellis said. “I haven’t really talked about it except to some teammates. They know. Sometimes I find myself in my locker just staring away, just thinking about my friend.”
Ellis, who was let go by the New York Jets after 11 seasons, was signed by the Patriots after the NFL lockout ended. He quickly bonded with his new teammates, who soon learned the reason he sometimes seemed deep in thought.
They did what they could to help.
“He shared his friend’s death with us,” defensive lineman Gerard Warren said. “This is a family. I think it’s a form of therapy to be able to have people that you can share things with and get it off your heart and off your mind.”
On Sunday, New York Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie may be blocking his teammate with the Jets from 2001-04. He didn’t know until Wednesday that Ellis had lost a dear friend.
“Tragedies affect all of us in different ways,” McKenzie said. “Sometimes we have this superficial view of the world because we’re insulated from everything that transpires, given that it’s football, football, football, week in and week out. And to have something like that happen in your life makes you aware that life is more than just what you do for a living, what you enjoy doing. It’s about the connections and the relationships that you have.”
Ellis has tried to focus on the bright spots in a year he will always remember. Among them was the birth of his fourth child, his son, Bryson.
“God has extremely blessed me” with healthy children, he said.
And then there was the morning in August when he was getting his kids ready for school.
He usually doesn’t answer if he doesn’t recognize the caller’s number. This time, he said, “something just said, ‘answer the phone.’ “
So he did.
“‘Shaun, this is Bill.’ I’m like, ‘Bill? Belichick?’ “ Ellis recalled. “He’s like, ‘yeah, yeah.’ Everything else is history.”
He had other opportunities but chose the Patriots because he felt they had the best chance to win a championship. He admitted that “it was weird” to switch over to the Jets’ fierce rivals but said he was welcomed warmly, particularly by offensive players who were happy they wouldn’t have to face him twice a season.
Tom Brady had to be especially grateful after having been sacked by Ellis twice in last year’s 28-21 divisional playoff loss to the Jets.
“From day one, when I first got here, Tom embraced me,” he said.
Now they’re teammates in the Super Bowl, a chance for Ellis to end his turbulent year at the peak of professional football. Best of all, family members plan to drive his mother — who is recovering well from emergency surgery but can’t fly yet — from her home in Anderson to the game.
On the field, her son will be thinking about his friend who is gone. He believes that will give him strength, and help him cope.
It’s his first chance to win a Super Bowl ring, maybe his only chance to finally get some closure.
“Hopefully, we can put a great ending to the story,” he said.