After homework, Ellison hopes to make the grade

Drafted in 2005, Atiyyah Ellison’s first NFL playing time came last season with the Jaguars. Drafted in 2005, Atiyyah Ellison’s first NFL playing time came last season with the Jaguars. (Stephan Savoia/Associated Press)
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / January 8, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH — Atiyyah Ellison stood in the Patriots’ locker room Wednesday far from the creature comforts of his new house in Boonville, Mo., where his wife, Jessica, was with their boys, Tyson (5) and Braylon (3).

The 6-foot-3-inch, 315-pound defensive lineman out of the University of Missouri expressed hopes of finding a home in New England after bouncing around the last five seasons from Carolina to Houston to Baltimore to San Francisco and to Jacksonville.

After being inactive for most of this season, save for a one-week stint with the Chiefs at the end of October, Ellison became a stay-at-home dad. He helped with chores, volunteered at his son’s school, all while trying to keep in shape. But when the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, Ellison began thinking about finding a job in the real world, putting together a résumé and contacting some old college connections.

“Life happens, too,’’ said Ellison, a third-round pick (89th overall) of the Panthers in 2005. “I never got that much time to spend with my family, so I was enjoying that, too. But obviously me being at work is better than me being at home.’’

But his prospects for employment in the NFL seemed to dwindle as he watched much of the regular season unfold on the big screen of his home theater system.

“He put it in his man cave in the house we built so all the neighbors would come over to watch ‘Monday Night Football,’ ’’ said Jessica. “For them, it was just another Monday night game, but for him it was another missed opportunity. It was a bittersweet thing. It started out really great having him at home, but as more and more time passed, it got harder to watch.’’

The feeling his career was slowly coming to an ebb gnawed at Ellison, until, that is, he was thrust into the middle of the playoffs with the AFC’s top-seeded team. All without having played a single down.

“That’s crazy,’’ said Ellison, who saw his first NFL playing time last season with the Jaguars, 15 games and six starts, recording 28 tackles, one sack, and one pass breakup. “I mean, I’m blessed just to be here.’’

In a span of 48 hours, Ellison’s flickering career was given a reprieve when the Patriots brought him in Sunday, worked him out Monday, and signed him Tuesday after rookie defensive tackle Brandon Deaderick was suspended.

“I had never been in that position where I wasn’t with a team at the end of the season, so it was my first time working through that,’’ Ellison said. “So, yeah, I really wasn’t expecting a call, honestly. Especially in the playoffs.’’

But when opportunity rang in the form of a call from his agent, Jim Steiner, it did so with a distinctive ringtone: the sound of a cash register.

“I did it so I knew it couldn’t be anybody else but him,’’ Ellison said with a chuckle. “It’s just funny to me because usually [when his agent calls] it’s something about money. Either I owe him money or we’re going to get some money together.’’

When Steiner called to inform him that the Patriots were interested in having him in for a workout, Ellison was thrilled, but reluctant about having to miss his wife’s birthday yet again. With no prospects in sight, Ellison figured he was in the clear and attempted to make up for those missed birthdays by planning a surprise party for his wife and mother-in-law, who share a Jan. 5 birthday, at a nice restaurant in downtown Boonville.

“My wife, it’s her 27th birthday,’’ Ellison said. “But she knows it’s a no-brainer. She’s on the same page as me.’’

Of all the previous workouts with other teams, Ellison said there were only two times he was asked to remain.

“The best birthday present of all was when he called to say he wasn’t coming home,’’ Jessica said with a laugh. “So, I’ll take it. It was fine. To be honest, I don’t know that it’s going to be a really big deal, because 27 is not some magical number that you never forget. So I’d much rather have him chasing his dream than sitting at home having cake with me.’’

Jessica never wavered in her support of her husband’s career.

“We were kind of evaluating where we were in life — either way, whatever way it went — we were counting our blessings that it got us this far,’’ Jessica said. “We could enjoy being in our new home we built last year. Kind of enjoying the team we have here, knowing any day it could change, even if we did get on each other’s last nerves from seeing each other every day, all day, it was a blessing.

“This whole journey for him and for us has taken us to places in the country I don’t think we would have been able to go to before or have an appreciation for. Having an appreciation for the business and for the career and getting a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s really like and how it is for the glamorous people [on a team] and how it is for those just trying to feed their family and make the best they can out of their career.’’

On Wednesday, Ellison went through his first practice in full pads with the Patriots. It was the first time he donned football gear since August, when he was in camp with the Jaguars.

“Even when I was in Kansas City, they didn’t have padded practices,’’ Ellison said. “So it felt strange, but it kept me warm, though.’’

Ellison, though, has been working pro bono for the Patriots. Since it is a bye week, he will not likely draw a paycheck unless he is able to stick with the team through next week.

“It’s all good, man,’’ he said. “I mean, I wasn’t getting paid for sitting at home, either. So, you know, it’s all good.’’

As he stood in the Patriots’ locker room, soaking up the atmosphere and relishing the opportunity to be the company of Pro Bowl players such as Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork, and Wes Welker, Ellison knew keeping alive his NFL dream — if only for one more day — was its own reward.

Michael Vega can be reached at

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