BALTIMORE — Every day people come to a crossroad in their lives.
They can remain on the path they are on and deal with those consequences. Or they can choose to head in another direction and face those obstacles.
No one knows when these roadblocks will arise — they could come as a teenager, a 20-something or even later in life.
Plus it doesn’t matter what profession they choose, a banker, a lawyer or a football player. At some point, they will have to choose and it’s how they respond which shows their true character.
For former Richmond Senior standout and current member of the AFC champion Baltimore Ravens, Dannell Ellerbe, his first crossroad came as a redshirt freshman while attending the University of Georgia. It nearly cost him his career with the Bulldogs.
What should have been an enjoyable week for the Hamlet native, turned into a nightmare. On Jan. 2, 2006, Georgia lost to West Virginia 38-35 in the Sugar Bowl. Two days later, Ellerbe was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and auto theft. Authorities ended up charging Ellerbe with felony theft by taking of a motor vehicle, misdemeanor charges of DUI, underage possession and giving a false statement.
Georgia coach Mark Richt suspended Ellerbe indefinitely following the arrest and said at the time, “His future with the team is undecided at this point and will be determined at a later date.”
The coaching staff sent Ellerbe back home to North Carolina and suddenly he faced an uncertain future.
“It was a wake-up call,” Ellerbe said. “I got charged with something I didn’t do. I was able to beat it, but it was a life lesson.”
Five months later, Ellerbe was reinstated to the team but still faced sanctions not only from Richt, but the school as well. Richt suspended his linebacker for the first three games of the 2006 season and Georgia’s Student Judiciary placed Ellerbe on six months probation and ordered him to attend an alcohol-awareness class.
“Dannell made a serious mistake that is not taken lightly,” Richt said about bringing Ellerbe back to the team. “He will pay a significant price and I’m confident he has learned an important lesson.”
Ellerbe failed to find his place during his sophomore season, recording seven tackles in 10 games before bursting onto the national scene as a junior. He finished with a team-high 93 stops and was selected to the All-SEC second team.
The off-field struggles were a thing of the past and Ellerbe was allowing his play do his talking, becoming a preseason All-SEC first-team selection and was on the Bronco Nagurski Award watch list before his senior year.
The Bulldogs became the odds-on favorite to win the national championship. Not only were teammates Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated, but Ellerbe was on there with them as well.
However, things didn’t go as planned for Ellerbe. He suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in the fourth game of the season against Alabama and was sidelined for four games. Ellerbe watched as the Bulldogs’ national title dreams slipped away as well as his hopes of being the first linebacker selected in the 2009 NFL draft. For the first time, scouts and draft experts questioned Ellerbe’s on-field ability as his tackle total fell to 33 as a senior.
Still Ellerbe held out hope his name would be called. He watched as Stafford and Moreno were selected No. 1 and No. 12 by the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos, respectively. In the first round, four linebackers were picked, including Aaron Curry with the fourth overall pick by the Seattle Seahawks.
No problem Ellerbe thought, there was still plenty of time to get drafted.
After two days, seven rounds and 256 selections, Ellerbe never heard his name called. Twenty-eight linebackers went off the board in the draft and Ellerbe was surprised he wasn’t among them.
“I couldn’t believe I wasn’t drafted,” Ellerbe said. “There were a lot of guys drafted that I was way better than. Even punters and kickers were picked.”
Three years after facing an uncertain future in Athens, Ga., Ellerbe’s next step was unclear. He was once again at a crossroad.
Even though the Baltimore Ravens had the opportunity to pick Ellerbe, the team selected linebacker Jason Phillips from TCU in the fifth round. While its roster seemed to be filled with linebackers, Baltimore contacted Ellerbe and invited him to camp as a free agent.
That was all Ellerbe needed and wanted — a chance.
“I knew I had what it took to be in the league,” Ellerbe said. “I wanted to prove people wrong. I’m not saying if I went in the first round I would have taken it easy, but I knew I should have been drafted.”
Ellerbe used that chip on his shoulder to show the Ravens staff he deserved to be in the NFL and should have been one of the 28 linebackers selected in the 2009 draft. Of those 28, only 14 were still playing at the end of this regular season.
“Once I got to camp and started playing in the preseason games, I knew I was going to make it,” Ellerbe said. “There was no doubt I was going to be one of the 53.”
For the majority of his career, Ellerbe had been a mainstay on the Ravens’ special teams. On occasion, he would slide into the starting lineup because of an injury and through his first three years Ellerbe recorded 90 tackles, an interception and a sack.
Just like in college, Ellerbe had a breakout season in his fourth year in Baltimore. Jumping into a starring role following injuries to starters Ray Lewis and Jameel McClain, Ellerbe finished the regular season with 92 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks and two forced fumbles. He continued his good play during the Ravens’ run to the Super Bowl with 23 stops and an interception in the AFC Championship game against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
The opportunity to shine on the biggest stage hasn’t escaped Ellerbe’s mind, but he feels it is just part of his master plan. He added having veterans like Ed Reed and Lewis has helped keep the younger players grounded surrounding the Super Bowl experience.
“Reaching the Super Bowl is just a third of what I want to accomplish,” Ellerbe said. “I want to win the game and I want to be the Super Bowl MVP. I hope the dream comes true. We’re all professionals and we know what is at stake.”
Without revealing too much of Baltimore’s defensive gameplan to throttle Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers, Ellerbe said the Ravens have faced multi-faceted quarterbacks this season — Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III. While that is the good news, the bad news is Baltimore lost both games.
Vick threw for 371 yards and a touchdown as well as rushed for another 34 yards and a score in Philadelphia’s 24-23 victory in Week 2. RGIII put up respectable numbers against the Ravens, 242 passing yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 34 yards. Griffin was injured in Washington’s final drive of regulation in which backup Kirk Cousins tossed an 11-yard touchdown to Pierre Garcon with 29 seconds remaining and converted the 2-point try to force overtime. The Redskins pulled out a 31-28 win in Week 14.
After watching Kaepernick rush for a playoff-record 181 yards and two touchdowns against Green Bay in the second round of the playoffs, Ellerbe said the plan is to keep him in the pocket.
“We have a couple of plays where someone will spy on him,” Ellerbe said. “Our line has to be disciplined and stay in their rushing lanes and not let him run out of there. It should be a great game.”
Not only has Ellerbe been trying to overcome nagging injuries to play in the Super Bowl, but he has also been battling his biggest problem to date — getting enough tickets and hotel rooms for his family and friends to attend the game.
“It’s been the biggest headache…I hate it,” Ellerbe said. “You get 15 tickets, two free ones and the others you have to pay for. It’s been crazy because everyone has come out of the woodwork wanting tickets and I’m still trying to get more.”
When the final piece of confetti is swept off the turf at the Superdome, win or lose Ellerbe knows what lies ahead for him — more uncertainty because he is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.
Even though Lewis announced his retirement and it would be logical to believe Baltimore wants Ellerbe to slide into a permanent starting role, there is no guarantee Ellerbe will be in a Ravens’ uniform next season.
“I have thought about it, I would be lying if I said I didn’t,” Ellerbe said. “I love the Ravens, but it’s a business. We’re in this to make as much money as possible.”
— Sports editor Shawn Stinson can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 14, or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @scgolfer.