By Mick Colageo, The Chronicle (Dartmouth)
BRIDGEWATER, Mass. -- On opening day of the football season at Bridgewater State University, Buffalo State had scored late to make it a one-possession game and, with the clock running out, attempted an onside kick.
Nate Ellis was on the kick-receiving unit.
“They drilled it at him and he caught the ball. He’s got good hands,” said BSU Head Coach Joe Verria. “It was a pretty critical play that he made.”
The play sealed a 30-29 victory for the Bears and made Sept. 1 a nice start to the rest of Ellis’ football career.
The college freshman from Dartmouth had come through en especially challenging 2017. What should have been a fun senior year quarterbacking Dartmouth High School turned into several weeks of doubt as to his future in athletics.
Ellis had played basketball and run track, but football was his passion, and he spent last fall wondering if he had played his last game after injuring his right ankle during a Sept. 22, non-league game at La Salle Academy in Providence.
Ellis didn’t realize that he had sustained a muscle tear that would require three surgeries in Boston for compartment syndrome, a dangerous condition in which blood flow is restricted to certain areas.
“I wasn’t too sure how hurt I was so I played the next game (Sept. 29) against Durfee,” he said. “That’s when I really realized that I was hurt.”
Incredibly, Ellis ran for three touchdowns in the 27-7 victory in Fall River, totaling 105 yards on 11 carries. He also went 3 for 8 passing, highlighted by a 36-yard touchdown toss to Eric Viera.
“Right when I went in (to the hospital), they knew I needed surgery immediately from the swelling,” he said. “It was three months before I could really start running again.”
Eighty percent of the muscle in his ankle was removed in surgery, and he spent the rest of the season wearing a boot while engaging in physical therapy.
From QB to QB Coach
Ellis’ understudy was his sophomore brother and fellow lefthander Nolan, whose 2017 season was meant to be spent quarterbacking Dartmouth’s junior varsity. The younger Ellis had played slot receiver on the freshman team for two games before being moved under center.
It was a lot to take in for both brothers.
“My inital reaction was to stay calm so he doesn’t freak out” said Nate, embracing his new role. Soon after, he realized Nolan was going to be more than OK.
“It was sooner than everyone thought. I think after the first couple of games he got it down, and everyone knew he knew what he was doing under center at such a young age,” said Nate. “He’s always been a good athlete so I had confidence in him, and I knew he’d do a good job. He’s a kid that never quits, too, he’s always fighting to the end.”
Both are left-handed throwers and lefties in life.
“At home, (Nate) always used to help me out of practice on, like, form and stuff because I was still getting used to it,” said Nolan. “He was one of the main reasons I was the quarterback because he helped me most of the time. No one else is a lefty so it’s harder to teach when (the student) is a lefty than a righty.
“It was pretty tough for me because Nate had just gotten hurt and I was put in that position. Varsity’s a lot different, it’s more fast-paced, there’s a lot more bigger kids there so I had to adapt really quick.”
In just his second start at quarterback, Nolan Ellis threw three scoring strikes — of 38, 32 and 76 yards — to Dane Ashton. The young quarterback rushed for Dartmouth’s other TD.
Dartmouth fought through an up-and-down season, made the playoffs, and Nate made a ceremonial return, boot and all, for one more high school snap, the final play of the Indians’ 14-0 Thanksgiving Day victory at Fairhaven.
“One snap, I handed it off, and the clock ran out,” he recalled. “I was happy to do that one.”
Nolan grew from 5-foot-8 in 2017 to 5-10 this year, and he put on 10 pounds in the weight room, going from 150 to 160. That will help him against defenders that were much bigger than him last year.
Back to the Future
Blessed with greater range than his younger brother, the 6-0, 180-pound Nate not only enjoyed an advantage seeing over the line of scrimmage when throwing the ball, he provided Cole Jacobsen a bigger target during the latter’s days as Dartmouth High quarterback.
Receiver is where Nate is redeveloping his game at Bridgewater State.
“We watch film obviously. He’s a very athletic kid, he’s smart and he’s good size for a freshman coming in. We see down the road he can help us,” said Verria, whose team is presently stacked at receiver.
But Verria hasn’t hesitated to insert Ellis into special-teams situations.
“He does get plenty of reps in practice, contributing as a scout kid running plays. He’s against the first defense every day so he’s getting experience,” said Verria, who liked Nate Ellis’ work in a preseason scrimmage against Anna Maria College. “He’s going to get a little bigger, a little stronger like any freshman. The work ethic is there, and that’s most of the battle right there.”
Nate Ellis’ football career is back in business, and he fully expects to see his alma mater keep it going with another exciting generation of passionate players.
“It think it all starts with the coaches, Coach (Rick) White, Coach (Peter) Rossi, Coach (Justin) Zexter,” said Nate, continuing to roll out names of the DHS staff that includes Mike Martin, Sam Madden, Chris Tullson, Peter Crane and Adam Desjardins. “They’re always teaching you that you should never give up.”