"The Las Vegas Raiders select, A'shawn Ellison of Central Michigan University”
By the time the speaker got to “A'Sh-” the Ellison household erupted. Hugs and jubilation filled the room in the Worthington, Minnesota home. A dream long pursued had come to fruition.
“I am thankful for God, my family, friends, teammates, coaches, all those who helped me get to this day. I am beyond thankful.” said A'shawn in a brief pause in the celebration. His mom and dad looking on with great pride.But beyond the texts and calls from thrilled teammates and friends, congratulatory tweets from the Chippewa faithful, and some additional praise came from a pair of coaches, connected by CMU's first draft pick. But the pure joy of today very nearly never happened.
“My freshman and sophomore year of high school, I have to be honest, I didn't take it seriously. I wasn't working as hard as I should in the class room and on the field. I thought I was the best athletically among my class and everything would work itself out.”
We sat down with A'Shawn the week before the NFL Draft. Retracing his steps with him. How he got from Worthington High School with a stadium size of a few hundred at best, to thousands of cheering Las Vegas fans. He delved into what was a rocky start to this journey.
“By the time I got to my Junior year, there was simply too much ground to make up in time for a normal route. I regained eligibility to play, but the offers just weren't there. I love football. I can't even think of my life without it. I wasn't sure what I was going to do.”
We asked where he got his poise he became so known for, despite a rocky start. His answer surprised us. President Theodore Roosevelt.
“It was in an English class in the first couple of weeks of my Senior year. We were given a random quote by a famous person and our assignment was the analyze it. I drew “The Man in the Arena” excerpt by Teddy Roosevelt. Something about it felt like it was speaking to me directly. I had a heart to heart with myself. I wasn't trying at the time. I had to strive for better things and the dream of playing football at the highest level would not just come to me. It had to earned. I knew it might not happen, but what was worse was not trying at all. It was an awakening.”
With a renewed confidence, A'Shawn enrolled at Minnesota West Community and Technical College. A'Shawn excelled at MWCTC, walking away with a 3.4 GPA and the eyes and ears of the college football world finally on him, as he emerged as one of the top JUCO prospects. A'Shawn garnered interest from all over, with a particularly heavy push from Wisconsin. But A'Shawn drew the interest of a particular rookie head coach taking the reigns at a then little regarded MAC School.
“I was welcomed to a new experience,” said ImposterCauster, now the head coach at NC State, “and while I knew that the team wasn't expected to do much, I was so ready to get into the groove of things up in Mount Pleasant. Obviously, my big challenge was to win with a roster that, while it was full of fine young men, had only five wins total in program history. The defense was unorganized and the offense was rather stagnant. I was given the reigns after a 16-7 loss to New Mexico, and let me tell you, that was an ugly game.”
Looking for immediate help, ImposterCauster turned to the JUCO market, and uncovered tape on a athletic ball hungry corner back from somewhere in Minnesota
“With Chippewa legend Horace Green set to graduate, I knew that this team needed someone to come in and be that lockdown corner that Horace became that season, and A'Shawn appeared to be just that. I invested in A'Shawn heavily that recruiting cycle, even taking a trip up to Worthington to visit with him. He's a really nice gentleman, as you'd know. Wisconsin tried to scare me off but I told A'Shawn that he'd make a name for himself as a Chippewa, and sure enough he did. “
“I'll never forget Coach ImposterCauster's words to me on that visit” A'Shawn shared with us a few days before the draft. “CMU wasn't the place were all the lights and cameras wouldn't be on you all the time, but should you put in the work, that can all shine through for the world to see. I felt a calling to Mount Pleasant. I don't know, I can't even explain it but there was a... pull, I knew it was where I needed to be.”
Whatever that calling was, it was not a straight road. Following CMU's first bowl berth in school history and the recruitment of A'Shawn and a remarkable class for the Chippewas, a vacancy appeared at ImposterCauster's Alma Mater NC State with many clamoring for the upstart coach from the MAC. It was simply an opportunity that couldn't be missed. But' Impostercauster kept in touch with many at CMU, including Walt Sutherland, who is currently NC State's QB coach. It was nothing but pride with ImposterCauster's last remarks
“While I hoped that he would get national recognition after I left, even I didn't foresee him claiming a spot on the All-American team. I'm so dearly proud of A'Shawn and I hope he makes an impact with Las Vegas.”
Thus entered paperllamasunited. In a surprising MAC-to-MAC move, the former Kent State and now Iowa coach opted to take the reigns for the Chippewas for the 2019 season. paperllamasunited reflected on his move:
“Now, I became the Kent State coach 3 games into the season in 2018, and then-Chippewas coach ImposterCauster had arrived on his respective campus as the head man just a few weeks prior. And though we were conference foes, there was a strong bond form early on - a lot of media was being pumped out of both Mt. Pleasant and Kent, and we both bounced things off of each other here and there, primarily through late night conversation. And, as it became ever more clear that Kent wasn't a permanent home for me, I began to look to spread my wings a bit. I applied as a dark horse for the Michigan job, but they chose (the much more qualified and deserving) jmjacobs as their heir to the thrown. Then my good friend ImposterCauster, rather abruptly, but not so much surprisingly, left Central Michigan, for his alma mater, North Carolina State. I was a bit overcome with grief, as we'd bonded over the great personalities that his Chippewas team expressed so well, especially over the unforgettable smile of spring 2019 graduate, cornerback Horace Green. And then, as the newly elected MAC commissioner for the 2019 season, I realized there was a perfect candidate to replace the first coach to get the Chips to a bowl game... myself. “
“I guess the best way to put it is this: ImposterCauster got me to CMU, but Paperllamasunited started the engine that got me into the NFL.” A'Shawn reflected. I read defenses the way I had never read them before. I don't think I would have had the success I have and I feel confident heading into the NFL thanks to the time I worked with paperllamasunited.”
The working relationship was perfect:
“The kid has got heart... all of these smaller schools try to talk up all their kids, saying they've got heart, and grit, and will be real champions of life, because most of them don't have a chance at the pros. But for A'shawn, we say he has heart in a different way. He was the heart of the defense, even playing way out there at corner on his own island. He inspired our young defensive ends Rory Bolin and Nazir Tatum-Kimborough, you could hear him yelling things of confidence at them from the other sideline. And while he has always shown true flashes of brilliance, he's stayed humble, and hungry.”
paperllamasunited then reflected on a story that might best capture A'Shawn in a nutshell:
“We were trying a particular style of route, and we had Walt Sutherland throwing passes... Walt never threw picks in practice. We had our top recruit, QB Byron Suggs, visiting us that weekend, and he had elected to watch practice from the bleachers. Well, on this particular day, Walt tossed 3 picks, in 5 passes, to end practice... all picked off by A'shawn. I wanted to be so mad at him after the 3rd one, the final play of practice and he returned it to the house. He could see me fuming, trying to pick my words wisely... all he could do is take his helmet off and laugh his ass off, and I'll always remember his dreadlocks falling out of his helmet just so, that all you could see were his glistening teeth as he laughed.”
“Is there a word that describes awe and terror at the same time?” Byron Suggs laughed while confirming paperllamasunited's story. I wasn't sure what to think visiting CMU, but seeing A'Shawn play in that practice really opened my eyes to the way things are done here. I had never faced a Corner like that in all of high school. The message was clear: You will have put in work to make it here. Even on the practice field. I think that day moved CMU to the top of my list.”
We asked Byron if A'Shawn was able to intercept any of his passes in practice. He could only nod with a wide eyed look.
After another bowl berth, the draw of a power five alma mater brought paperllamasunited to Iowa. Then a strange word starting getting thrown around. Rebuild. So many major pieces had left that had defined the Chips for the last two seasons. There was a lot of youth on the the 2020 squad. Making matters worse a coach was hired and then quickly resigned before ever coaching a game. Just days before the season started, Johnkirk a rookie head coach was hired.
“We had to make decisions that should have been made in the summer during weeks two and three.” Johnkirk said. “There was a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it. It was, truthfully, a scary situation and the kind of thing that can wreck a team for years to come. “
But for many on the Chippewas, spearheaded by A'Shawn, it wasn't time to pity themselves, it was time to work. Such work did not go unnoticed.
“A'Shawn Ellison has been nothing short of impressive in both skill and character. A true JUCO success story. The defense looks to him as a leader and a commander. It is almost like having another coach on the field. I can very easily see him continuing his career to playing on Sundays, if not a coaching career.”
A'Shawn played back the radio interview Johnkirk had with Kansas State media for us on his phone.
“Hearing a comment like that one can get cocky” A'Shawn said. But I kept that quip on my mind all this year. A lot of things can be said in practice, but for the first time, in front of national media, the dream was close. It could become real. I had to keep going.”
There was more work to be done. Word of which got around, even to paperllamasunited:
“When Ryan White was up at Mt. Pleasant for summer workouts, he texted me "A'Shawn has changed. I don't know how to explain it, but you're going to be happy when you watch the tape." I had no idea what that meant, because he was already one of the most hardworking, upstanding kids... And then this season started, and you could just tell, the way he'd make plays on balls, or lock down a receiver on a certain play, this kid had next level talent. I just didn't know it was All-American talent, but as the season went on, he just continued to impress, and that's coming from a guy now coaching against the best of the best in the Big Ten. “
A'Shawn Ellison's 2020 campaign set the MAC on fire and was the focal point of an otherwise disappointing season for the Chips. He led the MAC with six interceptions and garnered national attention with a pick six against Kansas State in week 3 and added twenty tackles to his tally. He capped off a successful campaign with unanimous All-MAC selection and Central Michigan's first ever national All-American honor.
Even with the happiness that comes with heaving the NFL dream being reached, there is also a new sense of scale. You've made it. Now you have to prove your worth. A'Shawn seems poised for this task, already earning solid performance reviews during the Rookie Mini-Camps.
“I'm eager and anxious to see where Las Vegas takes me in the next part of journey. With the love and support of everyone, I think I'm ready.”
As A'Shawn steps from CMU legend into the lights of the NFL. His legacy at CMU will be felt for many years.
“CMU has always been a place were we strive to always punch above our weight” Johnkirk said. “Regardless of where we are at, we want teams to respect our tenacity and drive. Talent is one thing. Character like A'Shawn and many others have defined at CMU will move us forward into success. I'm sure of it. That is what I will always remember most about A'Shawn and I'm incredibly proud of him.”
Analysts and pundits cannot tell us the future for A'Shawn and his story in the NFL. But A'Shawn can walk away with knowledge that for his time at CMU, he can count himself among those “who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement .”
Special thanks to @ImposterCauster and @paperllamasunited for their help!