INDIANAPOLIS — The call came in the early morning hours, jarring Shaun Ellis from a deep sleep. Two buddies were on the line with some news that would shake the veteran defensive end even more.
His best friend, Yusef Jenkins, was dead, shot five times in an altercation that began when he returned a car seat to the mother of his child in Anderson, S.C., where he and Ellis grew up.
“They were like, ‘Yusef is gone. He’s dead.’ I’m like, ‘He’s dead? Stop playing,’ ” Ellis recalled. “And, sure enough, it was a true story.”
The funeral was four days later, and Ellis went home to pay his respects.
“He and I grew up together since we were knee high,” Ellis said. “We always played sports together – basketball, football, baseball. He was my teammate. It definitely hit me very hard to go see him buried.”
Ellis still holds thoughts of his friend close to his heart as he prepares to take the field Sunday for the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. He’s done it all season as a way to honor Jenkins, and to keep himself motivated on the field.
“I just want to go out and just play hard for him and just keep his memory alive,” Ellis said Wednesday, speaking publicly about the tragedy for the first time.
“He’s one of the reasons that basically kept me motivated. Every day I think about him. It’s a tough pill to swallow. I miss him.”
The killing was part of a tumultuous year where Ellis gained a son, was sent packing from a job he held for more than a decade, and was hired for a new one under Bill Belichick in New England. He also had hip surgery, and his mother had quadruple bypass.
But it is his friend who stays closest to his mind.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Ellis said. “I haven’t really talked about it except to some teammates. They know. Sometimes I find myself in my locker just staring away, just thinking about my friend.”
Ellis, who was let go by the New York Jets after 11 seasons, was signed by the Patriots after the NFL lockout ended. He quickly bonded with his new teammates, who soon learned the reason he sometimes seemed deep in thought.
They did what they could to help.
“He shared his friend’s death with us,” defensive lineman Gerard Warren said. “This is a family. I think it’s a form of therapy to be able to have people that you can share things with and get it off your heart and off your mind.”
Ellis usually doesn’t answer if he doesn’t recognize the caller’s number. This time, in August, he said, “something just said, ‘answer the phone.’ ”
So he did.
“ ‘Shaun, this is Bill.’ I’m like, ‘Bill? Belichick?’ “ Ellis recalled. “He’s like, ‘yeah, yeah.’ Everything else is history.”