THOMASVILLE, Ga. -- Football has become much more than a game for former Georgia running back Alphonso Ellis, who is fighting colon cancer. The game he played as a child gave him the toughness he needs to survive.
Ellis had a standout career at Thomasville High School and at Georgia, where he played from 1987 to 1990. Ellis blocked for San Francisco 49ers star Garrison Hearst and remembers running all over the Florida Gators.
But now Ellis thinks his football days were important for more than the memories. He first realized why in April 2000, when Ellis kept noticing pains in his stomach.
Doctors discovered colon cancer and said Ellis had a blockage in his large intestine.
"When I was diagnosed, I remember saying, 'OK, where do we go from here?"' Ellis told the Thomasville Times-Enterprise by phone from his home in Plano, Texas. "It didn't dawn on me that I could die."
Ellis takes chemotherapy once a week. He feels well and credits working out through high school and college for his ability to combat the disease.
Ellis, now an officer with the Dallas Police Department, said he feels so good that if someone saw him right now they would think he could return to football.
The player's determination is no surprise to Bulldogs sideline radio reporter Loran Smith.
"He was one of those guys who was a tremendous competitor," Smith said. "He wasn't big, but he was a wonderful team player. He had a great heart, and we all loved him around here."
Ellis had already made a name for himself in Thomasville as a bruising running back. As a senior in 1986, he ran for a single-season record of 1,383 yards.
Thomasville Principal Bobby Smith recalls the relentless runner who just ran over opposing defenses.
"He was a tough player and a great competitor and leader on the field and in the weight room," Bobby Smith said.
These days, Ellis says he's preoccupied with his baby, Aleigha. After he was diagnosed with cancer, his doctors told him that chemotherapy would likely leave him sterile. He hoped his wife would get pregnant before the treatment started, but it didn't happen.
Fortunately, however, Corrina Ellis became pregnant a month after her husband started chemotherapy. He gives all the credit to God for his good fortune.
"My wife is very beautiful, and Aleigha looks like my wife and acts like me," Ellis said jokingly.
His former principal expects Ellis to triumph over cancer because of his character and determination, the traits he exuded while playing for Thomasville and Georgia's Bulldogs.
"Alphonso is what I would call a true dog," Bobby Smith said.