Chris Ellis started an NFL game for the first time Sept. 12. He had five tackles and his first career sack as the Buffalo Bills lost their season opener to the Miami Dolphins, 15-10.
Less than a month later, the Bills released Ellis, an outside linebacker from Bethel High and Virginia Tech.
Still, the pink slip did sting, especially after such an encouraging start.
"Slowly my playing time declined after that and I came to realize I wasn't what they had in mind for that position," Ellis said. "So I kind of thought I was out of there. The new (coaching) staff wanted their own people."
To his credit, Ellis was unbowed. He returned home to Hampton, worked out, reunited with family and waited for a phone call.
Little did he know he'd wind up on the Pittsburgh Steelers' sideline at Sunday's Super Bowl.
"You can tell the difference in January (playoff) football," Ellis said this week. "That was an experience (unto) itself. It was a great ride. I just look forward to being a part of that next year."
The Super Bowl was "definitely a dream come true to be part of that experience. Wishing you were on the field, but at the same time, taking it all in."
Ellis' road to football's ultimate game began in late October with an invitation from the Denver Broncos. He agreed to a Tuesday workout with the hope of a contract.
But 24 hours before Ellis' flight west, the Steelers called. Can you get here today?
Ellis was on the next plane, his enthusiasm two-fold. First, Pittsburgh was championship-caliber, clearly better than Denver. Moreover, its coach is Denbigh High graduate Mike Tomlin, whom Ellis knows from their annual meetings at Carl Francis' Peninsula All-Star Football Camp.
"I'm pretty familiar with him," Ellis said. "Not as far as being coached by him, but on the street, man-to-man."
After his workout, the Steelers offered Ellis a position on their practice squad. He knew the all-work-no-play drill, having served on Tech's scout team while redshirting as a freshman in 2003.
So Ellis called the Broncos and asked if they would sign him to their active roster absent a workout. They declined, and he agreed to terms with the Steelers on Nov. 2.
Tomlin "being a straight forward guy, the first thing he said was, 'This is not a favor. I liked you when you came out of college, so I expect you to come in, pick up the defense and help us,'" Ellis said. "Those are my expectations anyway. … Hopefully it will be a good match."
Ellis was with Pittsburgh for its final nine regular-season games and its three playoff contests — victories over the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets and the 31-25 Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Ironically, the Steelers and Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau employ the same 3-4 alignment for which the Bills deemed Ellis ill-suited. A 4-3 end at Virginia Tech and in his first two seasons at Buffalo, Ellis shifted to outside linebacker this season when the Bills changed coaching staffs and schemes.
In Pittsburgh, Ellis bonded with fellow Hokie Jason Worilds, a rookie reserve linebacker this season, and learned from some of the best in the business: James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and former Virginia star James Farrior.
"You realize why and how good they are," Ellis said. "They put the time in, just a different breed. The Dick LeBeau defense kind of makes you that way, too, because it gives you so many chances to succeed.
"With someone of that legendary status, you expect them to be more aggressive. But he's more soft-spoken. His presence speaks for itself. He knows what he wants."
Practice-squad life, Ellis said, mirrors that of an active player. Same workouts, meetings and schedule. Except for game day, when sweats and, come winter, a parka, replace the preferred helmet and shoulder pads.
Ellis was so encouraged by a potential future in Pittsburgh that he turned down a roster spot with the Carolina Panthers in December. Why leave a contender for a doormat? Ellis thought, especially when the doormat is going to change coaches.
Ellis' future with the Steelers, or any franchise, hinges in part on the offseason's collective bargaining between the players' union and owners. Amid the uncertainty, he relies on the attitude that carried him through October's release from Buffalo.
"It was a little hard, but at the same time, it's the reality of the business," Ellis said. "You're going to cut one day, whether it's year 15 or year 3, you never really know. I just played it by ear. I try not to worry about the things I can't control."
Ellis returned to Pittsburgh after the Super Bowl with countless texts — Fox's telecast showed him on the sideline but misidentified him as injured center Maurkice Pouncey — and a new desire to earn the ring that just eluded him.
"It was close," Ellis said, "but at the same time it fuels the fire to get back there."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP