MONCKS CORNER - Bruce Ellington had just stepped out of the shower when his phone rang. His family, anxiously waiting in the kitchen, turned in unison. The caller ID flashed a San Jose, Calif., area code, and they frantically began calling his name.
Ellington couldn't miss this call. On the other end was San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, ready to tell the former South Carolina receiver his life was going to change. A shirtless Ellington had just enough time to hop into grey sweatpants.
He came sprinting from the back of the house, flashing the speed that gave SEC cornerbacks fits.
Ellington smiled as he paced the kitchen, listening to Harbaugh. He answered questions with "yes sir." They talked for less than five minutes. With his mind racing, Ellington could barely remember the details of their conversation when he hung up the phone.
"I just remember them saying, 'We'll pick you.' That's all I remember," Ellington said. "They told me that I can help the team, and they're going to get me. Once I heard that, my mind went blank. There was nothing else after that. I was just excited."
The 49ers selected Ellington with the 106th overall pick in the NFL Draft on Saturday. He will be reunited with former Gamecocks running back Marcus Lattimore, who urged Ellington to join South Carolina's football team three years ago.
Ellington was drafted with the sixth pick in the fourth round, later than anyone expected. He had a hard workout Saturday morning, sweating out his frustration. The family had gathered Thursday and Friday evening for the first three rounds of the draft. Each night, they left disappointed.
As soon as his phone rang, there were only smiles. Family members swarmed Ellington. Agent Tory Dandy hugged him. His mother held him close. The horde spilled out the front door, past the Gamecocks flag hung on the front porch and into the front lawn. Ellington posed for pictures, preserving the moment. One family member asked if he was ready to cry.
"Oh, I'm crying," Ellington said as he wiped away tears.
Gwen Ellington popped a CD into her garnet-colored car and held her son again. The song was "Cover Me Jesus" by Debra Snipes, a gospel track Gwen listened to before each of Ellington's football and basketball games at South Carolina. It mentions overcoming trials through grace. Ellington buried his face into his mother's shoulder, both of them sobbing as they danced.
Together, they thought about the work it took to arrive at this moment.
"I think about it every day," Gwen said.
A long, winding road
The party started one hour before Saturday's fourth round. Nick Bennett, Gwen's cousin, pulled his Gamecocks tailgate trailer behind the Ellington home.
He had the trailer built two years ago, and no detail was overlooked. It was equipped with a grill, a tap, a satellite antenna and two flat-screen TVs the family used to watch the draft this weekend. On the side, facing Bennett's truck, were three large pictures of Ellington in his South Carolina uniform.
"He said he wanted to be up front, leading the way," Bennett said.
Moments before the fourth round began, Bennett propped a framed picture of Ellington in front of the TVs. He hoped it would bring good luck. The picture - a shot of Ellington in a Gamecocks football and basketball uniform - also showed how close Ellington came to never seeing his draft day.
Former Berkeley High coach Jerry Brown said he struggled to accept Ellington's initial decision to pursue only basketball at South Carolina. Brown has coached eight NFL players. He knew what a future pro looked like under the lights on Friday night. Ellington always fit the description, Brown said.
Brown pressed Ellington relentlessly, talking a tale of the tape measure. A 5-9 athlete doesn't stand a chance in the NBA, he'd say. In the NFL, Ellington's speed would earn a lucrative income.
All his urging paid off.
"I'm just glad we're here," Brown said. "There was a time I was having nightmares and waking up in the middle of the night back in his senior year because he was telling me he was going to go to basketball. That's the worst thing I really ever had to deal with in coaching. Because I knew, having coached so many pros before, I told Bruce, 'You can play in pro ball.' "
Brown remembers the day Ellington chose to play football at South Carolina. He drove four hours roundtrip to Columbia just to watch Ellington's first practice. That night, Brown says he began sleeping better.
There's a reason Ellington stands out on the football field, Brown said. He was a three-sport athlete at Berkeley, also excelling in track. The quickness needed to play basketball mixed with his sprinter's speed, forming a special football player.
"All three of those sports produced Bruce," Brown says. "He's just so explosive. Bruce was the perfect storm in high school. There weren't two other players I'd put in his category that were so dominant. If you talked to opponents that were defending him, they'd tell you the same thing.
"I think he's going to be better in the NFL than he was in college. I think they'll utilize him to the nth degree. They'll realize all his skills. And he'll only have one sport."
Home across the country
San Francisco has a reservoir of receivers. It traded for former Buffalo Bills wideout Stevie Johnson on Friday. It already had Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree on the roster. Each has had at least one 1,000-yard season in their career.
Yet, there is a potential vacancy at slot receiver. Ellington, a 5-9 sparkplug who ran a 4.45-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, was considered one of the best slot receivers in this draft. When he dropped to the fourth round, San Francisco couldn't pass on him.
Brown called Ellington the fiercest competitor he's ever coached. It's a trait the 49ers also noticed.
"He's very competitive. You don't play two sports in major college football at the level he did without having something special about you - the mental toughness, the physical traits to do those things," 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said during a post-draft news conference Saturday night. "He's a skilled athlete, and he's a competitive athlete. Those are good qualities to have. He's also a very smart and instinctive athlete, and when you put all those together you've got a pretty good package."
When asked if he was surprised Ellington was available in the fourth round, Baalke sidestepped the question. Each team is different, he said. The draft's unpredictability is its beauty.
San Francisco observed Ellington from afar. The 49ers spoke with Ellington at the NFL Combine in February. Since then, there was no communication. While Ellington was flown across the country to work out with teams, the 49ers stayed in the shadows.
"A lot of times teams don't want to show their hand," Dandy said. "We knew the 49ers needed a wide receiver. I think it's a great fit for him.
"He'll get that veteran leadership, that mentorship, out there to learn. I think they're going to try to use him for special teams, punt return, kickoff return. So I think it's a great fit for him."
Ellington will fly from Columbia to San Francisco on Sunday afternoon, starting a new life as far from his old one as possible. Even across the country, he'll find familiar surroundings. Dandy represents Crabtree and Johnson. He expects the veterans to help Ellington adjust to the NFL.
Then there's Lattimore.
Ellington admitted he never imagined the chance to be Lattimore's teammate in the NFL. Reuniting with his old friend should help make San Francisco feel closer to home.
"I would've been happy wherever he went, but now that he's a 49er I feel good about it because Marcus Lattimore is there," Gwen said. "The two of them can stay together and be grounded and feed off one another. He and Marcus became friends, and they played together, so I think that's a good fit for him. I think they'll look after each other very well."
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