When Bruce Ellington chose basketball over football in 2010, the football coaches at South Carolina were disappointed, even a bit puzzled by the 5-foot-9 prospect’s decision, but they didn’t pursue the issue.
One member of the program, however, wouldn’t let it go.
“I was like, ‘Dude, you need to play football,’ ” 49ers running back Marcus Lattimore said of his conversations with his former, and current, teammate. “ ‘If you play football, you’re going to go to the NFL.’ ”
After all, Lattimore had watched Ellington, a quarterback at the time, run for 191 yards and four touchdowns in South Carolina’s high school championship game. The two were from different ends of the state but became friends in 2009 when both were in the running for the coveted title of Mr. Football for South Carolina and attended a number of postseason events together.
Lattimore eventually won the award. But he noted that Ellington had more all-purpose yards during their senior season. He also knew a basketball career seemed unlikely, especially for someone well below the 6-foot mark, and he continued to pitch football when they enrolled at South Carolina in the fall.
“We give Marcus a lot of credit for recruiting Bruce,” South Carolina receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr., said in a phone interview. “I told (Ellington) that if he’d stuck with basketball he’d be playing in Poland or Czechoslovakia right now.”
The conversion didn’t happen right away. Lattimore wasn’t the only one trying to convince Ellington to drop basketball. The more voices that tried to argue him out of his decision, however, the more entrenched he became.
“When someone tells me I can’t do something, I’m going to go out there and do it,” he said.
So Ellington decided to stick with basketball in 2010. He was the starting point guard that season and led the Gamecocks in scoring with 12.8 points per game and landed on the SEC All-Freshman squad.
But in October of that year, he began to reconsider.
Ellington was one of the 83,000 or so in the stands when South Carolina stunned then-No. 1-ranked Alabama 35-21. His buddy, Lattimore, scored three touchdowns in that game and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery scored two more. The atmosphere was electric, euphoric and wild. Ellington wanted to be a part of it.
Once basketball season was over, he went to Spurrier Jr., who had recruited him in high school, and said he thought he could handle both sports.
“I remember we were in the film room later that year and that Alabama game came on,” Spurrier Jr. said. “And Bruce said, ‘Pause it! Pause it right there! There I am in the stands! I’m the one waving the towel!’ ”
Spurrier Jr. and the other coaches quickly learned they didn’t have to take it easy on their two-sport athlete, whom they used as a wide receiver. He arrived at practice before the 2011 season in better shape than everyone else.
“He can run for days,” Lattimore said. “His biggest strength to me – of course, he’s quick, he’s fast, he’s explosive, he runs good routes – is that he’s just so much more in shape than everyone else. People talk about how in shape Jerry Rice was. He reminds me of Rice, his work ethic. And he already graduated. He could do it all.”
Upon joining the football team, Ellington said he quickly gravitated toward a group that included Lattimore, Jeffery, who now plays for the Chicago Bears, and safety D.J. Swearinger, who now plays for the Houston Texans. The group simply worked harder than everyone else.
“I said, ‘Man, I want to be like them.’ ” Ellington said. “And that made me a better person, a better player.”
It also strengthened his friendship with Lattimore.
Later in 2011, Lattimore tore the ACL in his left leg. A year after that, he suffered a far more severe injury to his right knee, one from which the 49ers running back is still recovering.
Lattimore said Ellington helped him through his darkest days after the injury when his football future was very much in doubt.
“He was there for me,” he said. “He was one of the close friends that came over, texted me, called me – whatever I needed, he would be there for me. He’s a great football player but a better person.”
The two former Gamecocks have been practicing together in the 49ers’ “football school” sessions ever since the team used a fourth-round pick on Ellington on May 10. Today the 49ers begin a three-day rookie minicamp and Lattimore, because he was never on the team’s active roster as a rookie in 2013, is eligible to attend.
At some point, he may look over at Ellington and remind the receiver who helped get him to the NFL.
“And I’ll take half of that signing bonus he got,” Lattimore joked.