Ellington smiled when the story was relayed to him.
“I never knew that story,” he said. “But I do remember going into the office that spring, and I do remember telling him that. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be the starter. I knew I had the talent to be the starter and I just wanted to prove it to the coaches and get their respect.”
Elliott’s intuition was correct, and Ellington’s accomplishments over the past two seasons have put him among the program’s all-time greats. He enters this week’s regular-season finale against Georgia Southern ranked No. 3 in passing yards (4,228), second in touchdown passes (33) and third in total yards (5,461).
He has more than earned their respect.
Elliott said, “What an inspiration he is to myself and to our football team and to everybody that’s watching and paying attention to what we’re doing.”
Ellington originally committed to Louisiana-Monroe when he graduated from Center Hill High School in Olive Branch, Miss., but he did not qualify academically. He stayed in-state and enrolled at Itawamba Community College, not far from Tupelo, and went on to become a second-team junior-college All-American. He then committed to Arkansas State.
Meanwhile, Elliott was looking for a quarterback to replace Conner Manning who could come in and play right away. Elliott had a friend on the JUCO staff who suggested the Panthers look at Ellington. After conducting some due diligence, Ellington and his family came for a visit in Atlanta. Within three weeks from the start of the courtship, Ellington changed his mind and opted for Georgia State.
“What a player and what a person he turned out to be for our football program,” Elliott said.
In the middle of a remarkable season that saw him leading the Sun Belt Conference in total offense, Elllington tore the ACL in his right knee in the ninth game, just before the end of the first half against Louisiana-Monroe on Nov. 9. Ellington vividly remembers the popping sound that occurred when he stuck his foot in the ground to make a move. He knew it was bad right away and the trainer confirmed it was a torn ACL.
It looked like a season-ending injury to everyone except Ellington. After giving his teammates an encouraging speech at halftime, Ellington began to conjure the likelihood of playing on the bad knee.
“Literally the quarter after it happened, I was thinking about playing the next week,” he said.
The doctor left the decision up to Ellington, who didn’t need to think twice. His mind was already made up. After talking it over with his parents, Ellington told the staff he wanted to play.
“I knew I just wanted to get out there and try to play and just see how I felt,” Ellington said. “After the doctor said it was my decision, I knew I was going to play for these guys.”
Ellington has played two games since and been effective, despite limited mobility. He can run, but can’t make the cuts that made him so elusive and avoids as much contact as possible. The injury hasn’t hurt Ellington’s ability to pass. He threw for 132 yards and one touchdown against Appalachian State and threw for 208 yards and two touchdowns against South Alabama.
“I told (offensive coordinator Brad Glenn) I didn’t want him worrying about me,” Ellington said. “I told him to call the game and I’ll protect myself.”
At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Ellington has the size should warrant a few looks from professional scouts, although he’s unsure how process will work since he’ll have surgery after the season his over. If that doesn’t work out, Ellington said he’ll probably become a college football coach, something he’s thought about since he was in the ninth grade, or investigate a career in the secret service.
“That stuff is really interesting, come in three or four days before the president to check stuff out,” Ellington said. “I’m a nerd when it comes to stuff like that.”