Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis emerged from relative obscurity to help save the Wildcats in their opener at California last week. Ellis returned a pair of interceptions for touchdowns in his team's 44-30 win, earning Bronko Nagurski national defensive player of the week honors.
The best thing about the night, Ellis said, was that his mother and stepfather were in the stands watching.
"My mom was crying a little bit," he said this week. "I teared up a little bit, too."
It was an emotional breakout performance for Ellis, who almost didn't make it to Northwestern because of a family tragedy.
Ellis grew up in Baton Rouge, La., just minutes from LSU's Tiger Stadium, but decided early on in high school career that he wanted to use football as his way into an elite academic university. He committed to Northwestern the summer before his senior year and told every college that was interested in him that he'd made up his mind.
But his father, Greg, died unexpectedly on March 21, 2010 -- Collin's senior year of high school. In the aftermath, Collin -- who has two brothers and a sister -- initially thought he would stay closer to home for college to help his mother, Becky, with the family.
"It's easy after something like that to say, 'Hey, look, you've got to move on and deal with it,'" said Joey Thibodeaux, his prep coach at The Dunham School. "But he was making a very major decision in moving thousands of miles from home and away from his family. That was tough. Collin did feel a tug to stay home."
Ellis' family told him that going to Northwestern was the right thing to do and that it was what his father wanted. Ellis knew he had found the right school when Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald and assistant Randy Bates came to Louisiana for Greg Ellis' funeral.
"My dad wanted me to come to Northwestern more than any other school in the nation," Ellis said. "I feel like I'm making him proud by doing that. It's obviously a very hard deal, but football was my outlet and way to get away from it."
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior had shown promise earlier in his Northwestern career but had trouble staying healthy. He suffered broken bones in both hands that held him out of action, and he entered this year locked in a battle with Drew Smith for the starting job at outside linebacker. He impressed the coaching staff with his work during preseason practice.
"This is probably as healthy as he's been in two years," Fitzgerald said. "He's a very talented athlete, and for the first time in probably two years we got a glimpse of him at close to 100 percent healthy."
Wildcats fans liked what they saw from Ellis in Week 1. He grabbed both his interceptions on tipped balls before sprinting to the end zone. The first one covered 54 yards, while the second went 40 yards and gave his team a 10-point fourth-quarter lead. When he grabbed the second pick and saw daylight, Ellis remembers thinking, "I can't believe this is actually happening."
That he possessed such good ball skills came as no surprise to Thibodeaux. At The Dunham School, Ellis played fullback in a Wing-T offense and rushed for about 1,200 yards as a senior, earning district offensive MVP honors. Ellis would occasionally line up at receiver and Wildcat quarterback as well. Playing for a small school, though, Ellis received only mild interest from Southern schools including LSU, where his family still has season tickets. Bates found out about Ellis and invited him to a Northwestern camp, where the connection was born.
"He was a great athlete who could do a lot of things, but schools didn't know what to recruit him as," Thibodeaux said. "He was 205, 210 pounds, and they didn't know if he would grow. I don't even think Northwestern knew where to play him at first."
Ellis has spent time at all three linebacker spots for the Wildcats and started 10 games in 2012, though he finished with only nine tackles. His production had yet to match his potential until last weekend.
"I got to the point where I was tired of not performing," he said. "That motivated me every morning to get up and make myself better in any possible way, and it all started in the weight room.
"Then it really came down to this summer, when I started excelling at what I was doing. It all clicked. I finally know where all the help is, when I can be aggressive and when not to be aggressive. Coaches always say 'Do your job,' but it never really resonated with me that if you actually do your job, you'll make more plays."
Ellis doesn't want to be a one-hit wonder with those two pick-sixes. He says he missed out on making several other plays in that Cal game, including another possible interception. He wants to make a season-long impact.
His toughest adjustment at Northwestern was leaving the South and all the outdoor activities he loves in Louisiana. Ellis is an avid fisher and hunter whose favorite pastime is bowhunting deer. Thibodeaux remembers Ellis showing up to practice in his hunting gear.
Ellis saves most of his hunting these days for school breaks when he goes home, though he has found some good spots for salmon fishing in Lake Michigan. Evanston might not be much like Baton Rouge, but Ellis knows he's in the right place. The place where his father wanted him to be.
"He lived vicariously through me because he never got to play football," he said. "It feels so good to get to honor him and his memory this way."