Chip Scoggins: Vikings rookie Rhett Ellison has his own beat

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 5, 2012 - 1:21 AM

Rhett Ellison is a musician and a scholar -- not unusual in his family of high achievers (Dad has three Super Bowl rings), but not your typical Vikings rookie.

Rhett Ellison already owns a degree in international relations from USC and is working on his master's in communication management. As part of his thesis, he's conducting research on the NFL draft process, specifically the correlation between a strong combine performance and a successful playing career.

Ellison is studying the top performers in combine testing since 1992 and how they fared as NFL players.

"Not surprisingly," he said, "the combine has nothing to do with it."

Or, in many cases, it provides an incomplete picture. Ellison, for example, received a last-minute invitation to the combine as a fullback. The Vikings drafted him in the fourth round as a tight end. More specifically, he's a hybrid tight end who can block along the line, motion across the formation or play fullback in short-yardage situations.

Their hope is that Ellison assumes the grunt work role that Jim Kleinsasser held for so many years. He's even wearing Kleinsasser's old number (40).

"I think it's destiny and fate," said Ellison's father, Riki, who earned three Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers in his 10-year NFL career.

That partly explains why his son stood on the banks of the Potomac River and cried after getting a call from the Vikings last Saturday. In some regards, Minnesota already feels like home.

"It's come full circle," Rhett said.

As a kid, Ellison spent summers at his grandparents' home on Lake Minnetonka. Ellison's mother, Sheila, grew up in Wisconsin but moved to Edina as a high school senior so that her three younger brothers could receive better hockey training. Her brother, Dave Maley, won a state title at Edina, a national championship at Wisconsin and the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens. He currently is a broadcaster for the San Jose Sharks.

Sheila went to college at USC, earned a spot on the famous Song Girls squad and met Riki, a star linebacker who led the Trojans to a national championship and two Rose Bowl appearances. They started a family that lived for adventure and focused on interesting occupational pursuits.

Upon retiring from the NFL, Riki played rugby in his native New Zealand, coached football at T.C. Williams High (the Virginia school depicted in the movie "Remember the Titans") and founded an organization that supports the development of missile defense systems.

Sheila, an author, wrote a successful series of books on parenting and, after her divorce, the challenges of being a single mother. She's appeared as a guest on "Oprah" and written for national publications.

Their daughter Wesley played water polo at Michigan and is employed in the Wolverines athletic department in development. Another daughter, Brooke, works for The Onion in ad sales. (If Rhett ends up in any fake news, we'll know the source.)

"Rhett got all of the good genes from our parents," Brooke said.

Not just in sports. He's a talented musician, particularly on a drum set, though he also plays guitar and piano. In an eighth-grade talent show, he played drums in his rock band while wearing a blindfold because he felt it improved his musical instincts. Plus, it probably looked pretty cool.

"He's a real balanced kid," Sheila said.

Rhett wasn't allowed to play football until ninth grade because that was the same path his dad took. His first experience came at Pete Carroll's USC summer camp, and he quickly developed into an elite prospect in California and, not surprisingly, a USC football fan. His family tailgated and attended nearly every home game.

"The thing about USC is, if either parent goes to USC, you're going to get brainwashed your whole life," Rhett said, laughing.

He was no different. The Trojans didn't offer him a scholarship until two days before signing day, however. He had already committed to Virginia Tech and was excited for that opportunity, but he couldn't turn down USC.

His father's shadow and legacy didn't intimidate him, or the fact that Carroll recruited the best talent nationally. Rhett certainly could have chosen an easier path for himself.

"I give him a lot of credit for going to USC knowing that he had big shoes to fill," Wesley said. "He really had to work so much harder to prove that he wasn't just there because he was Riki Ellison's son."

He battled Clay Matthews every day in practice for two seasons and earned respect around the program by the way he approached things. He practically lived in the film room, stayed late after every practice and basically did whatever his coaches asked of him. Even glamour programs need some glue.

"Rhett is a great character guy," Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said.

That helped sell the Vikings, along with Ellison's versatility. His claim that he didn't expect to get drafted made for a good tale, but it was more a reflection of his humility and desire to manage expectations. Somebody was going to take him. It was just a matter of who and when.

Ellison watched the draft with family members at his dad's home in Alexandria, Va. To escape the tension, Ellison wandered down to the Potomac River by himself.

"Fifteen minutes later he came bursting in," Wesley said. "He said, 'It's happening now. I'm going to be a Viking.' He was crying and everyone was screaming and then 30 seconds later it was on TV."

They popped champagne and celebrated and reflected on the family's Minnesota ties. At one point, Rhett looked at the game ball his dad earned against the Vikings in 1988 as a member of the 49ers. He told his father that he wants to flip that and earn a game ball from the Vikings some day.

That might leave them in tears, too.

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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