Friday Night Legends: Mack Ellis excelled in two sports at NCCU
By Mike London
Mack Ellis left North Carolina Central University with a degree, two championship rings and his senior football jersey.
The 29-year-old North Rowan graduate is proud of those things. The jersey hangs on a wall of his Durham home, a daily reminder of the best comeback of his life.
“People ask me how I did it — played two sports in college and still got schoolwork done,” Ellis said. “I tell them I was fortunate to have a grandfather (the late Steve Gilmore) who always stressed grades before we ever got on a playing field. That made a difference for me.”
Ellis admits the transition from high school to college athletics beat him for a while, but now he’s in the Eagles’ Sports Hall of Fame. He was All-CIAA in track and he was part of one of the best football teams in North Carolina Central history.
Ellis’ big brother is Mitch Ellis, who was 8 years older and a famed quarterback. Mack traveled with his family to all of Mitch’s games — a trek that led from North Rowan to Fork Union Military Academy to Delaware State and finally to Catawba, where Mitch helped the Indians become a power in 1999 and 2000.
“When I was a kid, Mitch would line me up in the yard, I’d run a route and he’d hit me in the chest,” Ellis said. “At night, we’d be laying in bed, with the lights off, and he’d be throwing passes to me across the room. I either had to catch it or let the ball hit me in the face.”
It can be tough being a little brother, but Mack says it was mostly good.
“Everyone knew who my brother was and they called me ‘Little Mitch,” Ellis said. “There were big expectations on me, I guess, but people figured out quickly from how I was built that I wasn’t going to be a quarterback.”
The stocky youngster became a two-time all-county football player. He had his moments as a defensive lineman, offensive lineman and linebacker.
“I wasn’t the biggest guy, but I usually could out-strength people or out-think people,” Ellis said. “I usually could beat my opponent to a spot.”
Ellis was a jayvee MVP, but he was cut from the varsity tryout. That was a setback, but it led to him shining in track and field. He placed third in the 2A state meet in the shot put as a junior and senior.
Ellis wasn’t heavily recruited, but he got a late offer from N.C. Central. He reported for duty in August, 2003, eager and excited, but the euphoria wore off quickly.
“Hundreds of crunches, and then running non-stop for 12 minutes, and if you stopped, you had to roll,” Ellis said. “Trying to learn the playbook and trying to learn the blocking schemes, I just felt lost. Getting up at 6 a.m. and coaches yelling at you on every rep. I just wasn’t ready for all that. It broke me, to be honest, and I gave football up. It felt weird not to be playing, but I just wanted to be a regular student.”
He stayed in school but said goodbye to football. He remembers being at a Catawba-North Carolina Central basketball game in Salisbury and running into Bill Hayes, who was N.C. Central’s athletic director. He explained his decision to leave football to Hayes, and Hayes told him to be in his office Monday morning.
That led to a second chance for Ellis, and he made the most of it. Besides excelling in track, he became a three-year football letterman (2005-07) as a center and long snapper. He played on back-to-back CIAA championship teams in 2005 and 2006.
The 2006 team went 11-0 in the regular season and was declared the Sheridan Broadcasting Network Black College National Champions. That team achieved a No. 4 national ranking and broke school records for wins and points (371).
“I played behind an All-American (Robert Duncan) for two years, and it was a great learning experience,” Ellis said. “I still played enough to feel like I was part of it.”
The 2005 and 2006 N.C. Central clubs had a great running back in Greg Pruitt Jr. Both teams lost close games in the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.
“I had great experiences,” Ellis said. “I played at the Meadowlands. I rushed the field when we beat Elizabeth City State for the CIAA championship on a last-second, 51-yard field goal. I remember us beating North Carolina A&T on my birthday.”
Last fall, the 2006 N.C. Central Eagles were inducted as a team into the school’s Hall of Fame, and it was a thrill for Ellis to see his teammates again.
He isn’t married yet.
“I work a lot,” he said. “I’m holding down two jobs with FedEx and Michelin and I don’t have a lot of free time.”
What free time he has, he donates to the local Boys Club and he enjoys mentoring young shot-putters and standing up as a positive role model.
“I had great role models growing up like my grandfather and Mitch and Coach (Robert) Steele at North,” Ellis said. “Sports gives you something to take pride in. Sports will keep you level-headed.”