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Lions’ Elliss just a giant teddy bear

May 23, 2011
The Mining Journal

I have a feeling the several dozen Detroit Lions fans who made it out to Jilbert Dairy late Thursday afternoon would agree with me.

Former Detroit Lion Luther Elliss might've been a ferocious, quarterback-sacking defensive tackle on the field, but he's a teddy bear away from it.

The nine-year veteran of the NFL who made two Pro Bowls for his hounding style of running down quarterbacks 10 or 15 years ago visited Marquette last week as part of the NFL's Fuel Up to Play 60 program.

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Its aim is to fight childhood obesity and the growing prevalence of diseases it can spawn, most notably diabetes, by getting kids away from TVs and computers and into physical activities for at least 60 minutes per day.

Part of the program also emphasizes good nutrition for kids. Being active and establishing good eating habits as children has been shown in countless studies to be something usually carried over into adulthood.

Elliss seems a natural spokesman for this outreach program to kids and not because he scares kids into doing what he tells them to do.

In fact, it's just the opposite.

Despite weighing 310 pounds, he doesn't come across as that hulking football player who intimidates with size. Part of it is that he has 6 feet, 6 inches to spread that weight around.

He spent most of an autograph session sitting in a chair in the dairy's retail store and ice cream parlor, wearing sandals, jean shorts and the West Iron County Wykons football shirt he was given earlier in the day at Stambaugh Elementary School.

That shirt is a size XXXXL - that's 4 "extras" - that fit perfectly, by the way.

He was as nice as could be. Like a celebrity visiting town, but with none of the airs, knowing that just being himself was all that he needed to make a good impression. The only thing he was trying to sell was the NFL children's program.

Diehard Lions' moms and dads who approached Elliss were sometimes a little intimidated, but in all cases thrilled to meet one of the Lions who was one of the few bright spots for a team that has been disappointing at best, embarrassing at worst, for way too long.

Of course, these parents' 3- and 7- and 10- and even 12-year-old sons and daughters never heard of this Elliss character. They just knew there was this big man sitting at a table with a felt-tip marker writing on stuff.

That's because he's been out of a Lions uniform for seven years, retired from the NFL for six. An eternity to grade-school children.

But he easily managed to get a number of the kids engaged in conversation, talking about themselves and what sports they like to play and other small talk they could really appreciate.

One lady, Jodi Rolfson of Marquette, had a number of trading cards and asked if he minded signing several.

"No problem," he said.

In fact, he had to talk her into letting him sign her Detroit Lions T-shirt, and when she mentioned she had some more cards with her, he almost had to beg her to sign each and every one.

I had a chance to talk to Elliss - and I'd feel comfortable enough calling him Luther if I talked to him again today - on a cell phone on his way into Marquette on Thursday.

I asked him about the lockout - "I try to keep up to date as an 'alumni,'" adding "I feel certain there's going to be a season - there's just too much money as stake to let it go that far."

He understands one of the key issues is the players' long-term health care, since he was forced to retire at age 32 because of back issues.

Asked about the Big 10's recent proposal to provide scholarship athletes with stipends beyond tuition and room and board, he could see why that would be fair.

"The NCAA is a billion-dollar, non-profit industry. These student-athletes can't work, and if you figure in all the time they put into their sports, they've come up with an estimate of something like 36 cents an hour that they're making."

He's involved in other charities, too, since he's moved back to Utah to finish his college education and possibly get into coaching.

"My wife and I have a big interest in adoption, foster care and orphans," he said. "So many kids need good care."

Changing gears again, he said he's excited to see what the Lions will do with their new draft picks, particularly Nick Fairley.

"We had a pretty good defensive line when I was with the Lions, so it's really exciting to see what they're going to be like.

"I know you have a lot of Green Bay Packer fans around, but I think this team is going to do Lions fans proud."

This fan can only hope these Lions will do that as much as meeting Luther Elliss did.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.



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