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Wednesday, Mar 25, 2015
Hernando High

Brooksville 'cowboy' roped into Hall of Fame

Hernando Today correspondent


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Editor's note: This is the third story in a series highlighting Hernando High's 2013 Sports Hall of Fame inductees.

Central High's current softball and boys golf coach Tyson Ellis has described his father in one mode for many years, saying, "Dad was born in the wrong century."

Tyson, a Hernando High graduate, recently took a moment to pay homage to his father, Grover Dale Ellis, who was tapped as one of eight members of the 2013 class of the Hernando High School Sports Hall of Fame.

Simply stated, Tyson portrayed his father as "a throwback to another time and place. Dad was a cowboy; one tough-nosed cowboy. He loved the open spaces and loved to steer cattle."

Grover was born the youngest of seven siblings in 1949 in Coffee County, Ala. near Dothan.

Ellis' father was a sharecropper while his mom was a domestic engineer before relocating to Brooksville in 1954.

Ellis' athletic roots could be traced to the early days of Hernando Youth League baseball.

Ellis' first coach was Ernie Wever, whose name adorns the park where HYL currently plays. He initially picked up a baseball when he was 12 and rotated between pitcher and shortstop.

According to Ellis, he stuck solely to organized baseball until one afternoon at Brooksville Junior High when coach Ernie Raulerson asked him to play quarterback.

Never before had he played organized football, let alone had he ever played signal caller.

"Heck, in those days we didn't even own a football," chuckled Ellis.

From that modest beginning, Ellis soon fell in love with football. So much so that Ellis not only played quarterback and safety for the Leopards for four years, but also anchored third base for four seasons at the varsity level for Hall of Famer Tom Varn's baseball teams.

Ellis, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 160, says he weighed about 135 at HHS.

As a freshman he was promoted to the varsity football squad under skipper Stan Hale in 1963. That Purple and Gold squad coincidentally closed out the season with six straight wins to finish 6-3-1.

As a sophomore, he began the season as the JV quarterback before skipper Buck Metts opted for a change. After dropping the first two games to Wildwood (27-0) and East Bay (20-7), Metts inserted Ellis at quarterback and switched Dean Sharp to halfback.

The move immediately paid dividends. Across the next eight games, HHS went 6-1-1. The only blemishes included a 13-all tie with Zephyrhills and a lopsided loss to Turkey Creek, 47-0.

In 1965 behind his third head coach in three seasons, Joe Pribil, Ellis blossomed.

Under Pribil, "The only time I came off the field over the next two years was when we punted on fourth down," recalled Ellis. "Otherwise, I never left the field."

Ellis' 5-5-1 junior season climaxed with a famed 7-7 tie against Jacksonville-Bolles during the third annual Citrus Bowl Game at Inverness.

"Bolles was as good as advertised. They were a powerful team. We were a bunch of little guys going against them," recalled Ellis, who was tabbed the game's Most Valuable Player.

As a senior, Ellis' final Leopard squad finished 7-3-1 and closed out with a 20-13 win in the fourth Citrus Bowl Game against South Sumter, 20-13.

As a safety, Ellis helped the squad post five shutouts that season.

His personal highlight reel arrived in a 27-6 win in Hillsborough County against Lithia-Pinecrest, Ellis notched three interceptions while hurling three touchdown passes and scoring once.

"I loved playing defense," said Ellis. "I didn't have to do any thinking. When I was on that side I got a chance at some payback."

In describing his playing style, Ellis was not a drop-back passer.

"I was definitely a scrambler," said Ellis. "As a senior, I got almost as many yards rushing as any of our running backs."

For all his successes on the field, his parents rarely saw him perform.

"My mom never saw me play, she was afraid I'd get hurt," said Ellis. "Dad never saw me play till I was a senior. Once he saw me play one game, he never missed another."

On why Ellis was proficient on the gridiron, "I liked the challenge involved; I loved the physical part of the game," he said. "The contact part I enjoyed a lot. Every time I went out there I felt like I belonged.

"I was one of those guys that never thought the game was over until the last whistle. There was no quit in me until then," described Ellis. "As a quarterback I was so fortunate to be surrounded by great receivers like Hale Lee, Terry Owens and Donnie (Moen)."

Ellis took a moment to acknowledge members of his O-line.

"Guys like my center Kenny (McKinnon), Charles Barnett and Roger Hanlon acted as my shield; they protected me," recalled Ellis.

Besides participating in four winning football seasons, Ellis will never downplay the baseball team's lone state championship (Class B) in 1967, beating Melbourne Central Catholic, 2-0.

"When I was a senior that was really the only time we really did anything exceptional," pointed out Ellis. "There's no doubt we had some good ballplayers. I think Coach Varn coached each of us up at some point in our careers leading up to that season."

On what stands out about the magical 1967 baseball season, "It just seemed like everything seemed to click after we lost the conference championship (to Turkey Creek). After that loss, we started playing relaxed and just kept winning."

On that team's remarkable run, "It was a special time and a special year," said Ellis. "When no one here has duplicated what that team achieved before or since - that's what makes it a very special team."

One of Ellis' Kodak moments arrived during the loss to the now closed Plant City school of Turkey Creek.

"In my first at-bat there, I burned their left fielder with a shot over his head (there were no fences at the time) and as I was running I felt my helmet falling off. I reached for it, but it fell off," he recalled. "But as I crossed home plate (with what should have been an inside-the-park homer), the home-plate umpire called me out instead - saying I threw my helmet for the third out.

"I was so upset," added Ellis. "I eventually calmed down. I responded with a homer and a triple. It was one of the best games I've ever played and one of the weirdest calls I've ever been a part of."

Upon graduation, Ellis was initially employed by Winn Dixie before joining the U.S. Army.

His ensuing tour of Vietnam left scars.

"That was definitely the hardest year of my life," detailed Ellis. "All I kept thinking about was going home. I kept thinking I didn't want to die there. I stayed away from any trouble and just couldn't wait to get back to Brooksville."

After another tour in Germany, Ellis returned home and married his first wife, Margie. The Ellis family had two children: Tyson and Casey.

Grover and Margie were married for 24 years. Ellis originally worked for the Beef Cattle Research program of the University of Florida for eight years at Chinsegut Hill.

According to Tyson, his father's job description was "a cowboy." The elder Ellis tended to 600-700 head of cattle across 2,200 acres.

Tyson admitted that "Dad loved his job and would have continued doing it if he hadn't contracted skin cancer."

As a result, Ellis sought a degree in electrical technology at Tampa Technical Institute.

From 1986 through 2011, Ellis was employed as an electrician for Hernando County School District. He served as an electrical supervisor across his last four years.

Instead of dealing with cattle at all hours of the day and night, Ellis' steady routine allowed him the flexibility to do something his parents couldn't - watch his kids evolve.

"I have to admit there's a lot of pride to watch your kids grow up in front of you," noted Ellis. "It was neat watching them play ball at Hernando and then be successful in life."

On being tabbed for the HHS Hall of Fame, "After Coach (John) Palmer sent me an email, I was tickled pink," described Ellis. "It's an honor just to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the greatest players I've ever seen or heard of."

On the Oct. 18 HOF banquet in Brooksville, Ellis admitted that he was honored that one of his O-linemen, McKinnon, was flying in from Virginia to speak on his behalf.

"I really feel humbled to have Kenny speak; I'm really touched," Ellis said.

Ellis is expected to be surrounded by his children, his second wife Carol and former teammates at the banquet.

"I'm not much of a public speaker," explained Ellis. "That's why it means so much for Kenny to be there. The next day will be much easier for me. Walking on to a ball field is something that came easy for me."

Ellis wishes his parents and the late Coach Varn could be there.

"It would have been neat to see my parents there," explained Ellis. "And I'm not quite sure what Coach Varn would say if he were there, but deep down he always believed in me."

On what advice he might give to an aspiring student/athlete, "I'd tell them, whatever you do, just don't quit; always keep working at it whether it's football, baseball, whatever," insisted Ellis. "Quitting doesn't help anybody. If you really believe in what you're doing, it'll happen."

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