49ers tryout gave Ellis valuable experience

October 16, 2018 — by Alan Zu

In a training facility near what would become Levi’s Stadium about 25 years ago, PE and Geography teacher Rick Ellis gathered with other top college football players to try out for the San Francisco 49ers.

As the group of aspiring professional football players walked into the training facility, they stared at the 49ers’ five glimmering Super Bowl trophies in awe. Ellis recalled sitting, feeling amazed and honored, in front of player Jerry Rice’s locker, changing into his new uniform.

Coming from two big Catholic families that enjoyed football, Ellis began to play the sport at a young age.

“I remember going over to my grandma and grandpa’s house, and they would have football helmets and shoulder pads, and I remember putting on the helmets like dress-up,” Ellis said. “That's where it started; it was from a really early age. Football was part of my life.”

Because football has been a large part of his life for so long, Ellis’s initial goal in youth was to be able to play college football. After playing at national powerhouse Mater Dei High School in Southern California, he was later recruited for the Division I football team at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga.

“There is so much excitement and passion in college football,” Ellis said. “When I grew up, there was so much intensity around it; I loved it and fed off that stuff.”

Ellis was the starter wide-receiver at Saint Mary’s. He was also the kick-returner; he ended his junior year season seventh in the nation for punt-returns and ninth in the nation for kick-off returns.

In spring in Ellis’s senior year in college, he and top players from colleges across the nation received invitations to the 49ers tryout.

Being a starter in college football, Ellis believed that he “had a shot” at playing professional football. However, being only a 5’7 speedster, his size and strength were obstacles.

“I felt that I was as good as anyone [at the tryouts] skill-wise,” Ellis said. “I was as fast as anyone there, I caught as well, I could lift as well, but I was probably smaller than anyone there.”

Because Ellis was undersized — not the typical 6’2”-264-pound player in the NFL — he had to work twice as hard to impress the coaches.

“People would say, ‘You’re too small to play college football,’” said Ellis. Even so, Ellis said he learned much just from trying out. He even had the chance to meet Steve Mariucci, then head coach of the 49ers, and shake Mariucci’s hand.

“He said ‘Well, welcome and glad you’re here,’” Ellis said. “This was the 49ers head coach! I felt big-time, and it was cool.”