Anatomy of an Era: Dave Ellis, Part 3
Excerpted from Chapter 9, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 1
Dave Ellis, Part 3
Sports Nutritionist #fuelingtactics
Q: Dave do you have a favorite kid who blossomed right in front of your eyes?
DE: Grant Wistrom was one of the case studies that I always showed recruits. Certainly any kind of rush end/outside linebacker recruit, I’d show ’em a 212 lb. to 265 lb. metamorphosis, a combination of maturity and training adaptations that occurred. And these parents and young athletes came in wanting to know how their bodies might change over the course of their 4 to 5 year exposure. And the reason I liked Grant’s data along with many, many other great documents & body composition histories was because of what kind of warrior he was. He was just a kid whose motor ran no matter how healthy or how sick he was; you couldn’t tell the difference.
So Grant will go down as one of my favorites. He was no less a ‘baller’ than Mike Brown or the Peter brothers, or Zach Weigert, or X, or Y, or Z – but I guess in the end, it would be a disservice to say that Grant was typical of the kind of leader that we had, that made that program a success. I got to work with Grant during his pro years so I had some follow-up with Grant after I left Nebraska -on behalf of his agent when I was asked to work with him- and worked with the teams he was on. And he was just as big a factor on the next level. And that’s why I bring him up here, because Grant was a force not just in college. He was kind of a light Defensive End/Outside Linebacker guy at the pro level, but he was just as big a force.
Now, those were men. This is a different gig. These aren’t just a bunch of big-hearted kids with wet noses, these are the best of the best. These are men who are in their prime who could break just about every college kid in half, you know? And to go have that kind of impact at the next level? Watch Zach Weigert, Mike Brown play as long as they did at the next level, it was easy to see they were special kids, they were difference-makers on every team they were on. They were the same kind of leaders in the pro ranks as they were in college. They were all extraordinary kids, making it easy to go put in a 12-14 hour day when you’re working with those kind of kids, to make sacrifices, you know that they’re sacrificing and you’re right there with them.
Really easy to put in a 12-14 hour day when Tom Osborne was getting there to the Stadium before you and then leaving there after you. We were really all just trying to serve the caliber of people that were there, that Tom had recruited, that staff and himself. These guys were… it wasn’t a put up or shut up deal, it was ‘put up because you didn’t want to let them down.’ A ‘You came to work every day and you did what you could because you just didn’t want to let them down’-kind of a deal. And we were all bleeding for that program.
So anyway, it was all good stuff. It’s really hard to find that kind of heart in the pro ranks. It’s a very different deal: you have players with agents in their ear, contempt between players & coaches, and coaches & management, it’s just this circle of distrust and, you know, “What’s in it for me?” And, “I’m gonna make my money now before I get hurt”-kind of deal. Everybody is kind of for themselves on these things. I was with the New England Patriots on their recent Super Bowl championship season and hired their sports dietitian for them, who’s there now full-time. So I was with them, and through that whole season on the sidelines for the games I was ‘The Cramp Guy.’ And, oh yeah, do you remember I started that Cramp Program? Do you remember that?
The Last Big 8 Trophy: Jay Foreman, Dave Ellis, Christian Peter, Jared Tomich & Mike Rucker (Paul Koch photo)
Q: No, tell me about it…
DE: Well, when I was at Nebraska I had a game day role beyond feeding, which was an additional hydrating factor on the sidelines. The focus was on interventions that minimized conditions of cramping, so I did a lot of homework on what was really going on in a muscle that would cause it to cramp. There was something going on that was more than just dehydration and sodium loss. There are many ways to cramp, and one that we typically see in football is very regional. It’s going on in a muscle bundle that’s overworked. It’s certainly hot, acidic, the pH is very low, tremendous free radical production, compromised antioxidants, the fluid status in that tissue may also be compromised. It’s a little hard to say, the whole story on exercise-related muscle cramping is yet to be pieced out.
Anecdotally, we learned that introducing some very water-soluble buffers in a bottle for defensive guys stuck out there on the field when the offense was struggling -to keep them on the field even when they start to grab and catch a cramp, stretching and icing that hot muscle and then literally force feeding water laden with various buffers orally- we could keep that kid on the field. And that was my role, and it went beyond doing their feeding. So, in addition to the feeding and such, I was ‘Game Day Cramp Guy.’
Q: I do recall some guys on a Monday or Tuesday, saying “Man, every time I came off the field Dave was right there in my face with a bottle of water!”
DE: (laughs) Right. It was a force feeding, because when athletes are unhappy and something goes wrong they quit drinking. So it’s my job to furnish them no matter how good or bad things were on the field, to stay on pace and proactively get ahead of the high-rep, emotional leaders who are more prone to cramp, especially early in the season when environmental conditions affect us, and also on fields where there is a sloppy field and more destabilization and fatigue going on there. So cramping is something that I studied a great deal when the game day intervention role was introduced at Nebraska, and it’s something I still use today in the pro ranks.
Hey, if I can keep a Rodney Harrison on the field in a Super Bowl while Donovan McNabb’s barfing and everybody’s cramping on the other sideline? That’s a three point game, you know? That’s a big deal. So it was good to be able to go to the pro ranks -where you have some credibility- that they listen to you. In the pro ranks they’re almost scared to have somebody stand in front of their team, because if you go in there and you can’t hold the kid’s attention with some credibility, it makes whoever brought them in to look like a dope, whether it’s management, coaching staff, whomever. Then they start with, “What next? What kind of junk are you gonna bring in next and waste my time?”
Q: Voodoo? Witch Doctor?
DE: Exactly. Right. In the pro ranks you survive on credibility. Messaging has to be on-point. And if you can help a guy stay in the league longer, lining his pocket, he’ll listen to you, believe me. And when you can go in front of a crowd and not lose a team and make the coaching staff and management look good, you’re on your way.
College sports has a lot of heart, okay? That’s hard to find in the pro ranks. But I tell you, on that Super Bowl team there were ‘Grant Wistroms’ on both sides of the ball that I thought made the difference. It was a neat year. And it was the year we moved to Colorado and they asked me to move out there and work for them full-time…and I couldn’t do it. Literally, I’d just finished moving the family to Colorado. We finished that season and I just ended up getting somebody hired full-time for them to doing a great job for them. That’s fun stuff. It’s great to have been a part of it and see elements in the pro ranks that resemble what was going on in our heyday at Nebraska.
And how do I say this? There’s no ‘chance happening.’ This is why teams succeed: You always have guys who take control in that locker room, and then have a presence on the field or the court that eliminates the most selfish, self-centered, ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’ guys, and makes them champions. It was no different with the Pats, and you can tell from one championship team to the next, those elements are there. I can understand why Tom succeeded.
David Ellis sharing wisdom with Justice Clarence Thomas (Unknown/Uncredited)
Q: Did anyone on those pro teams or latter college clients try to pick your brain on other things relating to those Nebraska teams?
DE: They all respect Tom and his staff’s achievements. Yet, you learn pretty quickly that you can’t name-drop ‘Nebraska’ all the time. It’s been the experiences that I’ve had since going private, into the pro ranks, that have allowed me to diversify my experiences. Yeah, I still talk about Nebraska all the time, but it’s more intermittent when it’s appropriate, because now I have so many other experiences to draw upon, too.
Funny, I was just watching some video clips and seeing some pictures tonight from my years when we were at Nebraska and we’d go to bowl games and have the big Christmas meal, and one of the players would dress up as Santa and my kids are sitting on his knee. Well, one of my kids needed some pictures for his high school graduation, so when I was going through them I was finding all kinds of Nebraska–days stuff. We spent a lot of holidays in the Fiesta Bowl and the Orange Bowl. A lot of good memories of Christmas in Miami. But Pederson and Callahan and those guys cut back. That was tough. It really was.
Q: Do you have a favorite sideline moment?
DE: A lot of good ones, man. But I’ll tell you kind of a funny one: we were at Kansas -and this was when Frank was the head coach- and the mascot, the Jayhawk’s marching around behind our sideline. I think they had a track around the field there. Well, all of a sudden the coaches’ headsets went out. The Jayhawk unplugged them! He was kind of standing by the sideline in front of the student section to get them going, you know? And Frank came smoking around to the source of the headsets and the crime and see what was going on, and literally tracked down what happened. I just knew this Jayhawk was up to something because he was standing right there as I was dishing out the fluids and stuff. He was banging on stuff, being a jerk, and I wanted to kill him. It was just one of those funny moments where we’re on the road and almost got beat at Kansas and pulled it out of our rear-ends, but the mascot had almost been our undoing in regards to our ability to communicate.
That’s the kind of chaos you get on the sidelines. People throwing stuff at you, like at Missouri when they threw corncobs at you. It was surreal, literally thousands of corncobs hurling at us. That was the kick-in-the-air Frost-Wiggins-Davison deal.
DE: They threw corncobs at us. All of a sudden the student trainers that are on loan to you from the hosting school when you are on the road, after they scored I saw them literally running… running away from the sideline.
And as I saw them running away I look up and here come the corncobs. It was a premeditated deal. The beautiful thing was, not only did we tie that game in a crazy fashion and go on, and then Scott Frost runs the two minute drill like Dan Marino and goes in there, and we went in. And their fans, they’re standing on the edges of the field, the fans just bull-rushed the field. So after all those corncobs we ended up going in there and pulling one out of the ‘jaws of death’ and then to go on and win the championship.
It was that kind of crazy stuff that you experienced on the sidelines with unruly fans. Going into Oklahoma one time, with Frank as the head coach when we lost down there -I think Eric Crouch’s junior year- we got trapped on the field. The cops had us surrounded because the fans were trying to get to us. They were pepper-spraying people. It was bedlam. We got off the field with a police escort, fans were taking swipes at us. It’s just every one of those big games on that sideline level, with all those achievements going on with the kids overcoming adversity, coaches overcoming adversity, a win or even a tough loss, you’ve got fans to deal with, you’ve got TV people to deal with, you have all these distractions, so many things that go on.
It all comes with experience, Paul. So, like these wily old veterans that stay in sports forever, they kind of see it all and have a remedy for all the B.S., they learned the hard way what to do, what not to do, and get through all the B.S. I’m sure I could come up with more stuff if you gave me enough time.
Q: I‘m used to hearing about the snowballs and iceballs and beer bottles from the drunks at Colorado, but never corncobs at Missouri…
DE: Colorado: drunks standing there, you’re tying your shoes and they’re right there standing there cussing you out with a bottle in their hands, a security guy looking right at them. Colorado? We stole so many games away from them. I know why they hate us, no doubt about it.
You know, I’m trying to think of a good one at the pro level. The Super Bowl, Eugene -what was his name?- one of our safeties breaks his freakin’ arm at the Super Bowl, Rodney Harrison is a middle linebacker back there playing safety. You know, a big-time warrior -should have been the MVP of that whole game- and he starts to cramp in the 4th quarter. ”We can’t lose this guy!” He comes off the field, I start force-feeding him the buffering stuff to keep him on the field while Philly and Donovan McNabb is freakin’ barfing and puking and cramping on their sideline, and we win that game by a frog hair.
And I can guarantee you, how we handled ourselves leading up to that game? How we watched the food supply we had in the locker room to accommodate the crazy schedule that comes with showing up so early for a game because of the traffic and the festivities? We had a better plan, and I know; I walked to the Philly locker and saw what they did and what they didn’t have. It’s great when you have a guy like Belichick look you in the eye and say, “You made a difference.” So that’s cool. It’s fun to go and make a difference, and that’s what I get paid to do, make a difference. And if you don’t make a difference you won’t be around very long.
To be continued…
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