The Greatest Gator Of All: Gene Ellenson

There were no strangers in Gene Ellenson's life, just friends he hadn't met yet, and you didn't just meet Gene Ellenson. You experienced him. Although this was a man's man --- a real war hero whose toughness allowed him to lead his men though the most harrowing situations on battlefields in Europe and Korea --- it wasn't in his nature to brag about his accomplishments. Instead, Gene Ellenson was always looking for ways to build you up.

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Casual contacts with him always became experiences. After an encounter with Gene Ellenson, you always felt good.

Behind the big smile, the crushing handshakes from those hands that were as big as bear paws and the hugs that totally engulfed you, Florida's defensive coordinator from 1960-69 had the heart of a lion. He survived the horrors of hand to hand combat in the bloodiest battles of two wars, yet there wasn't a day that went by the rest of his life that he didn't reflect with eyes that turned misty on the boys he led into battle whose legacy is a white cross in a green field on foreign soil. To the day he died, Gene Ellenson grieved for those boys under his command that never made it back. The fact that he won the Bronze and Silver Star, Purple Hearts and accumulated 10 other battlefield decorations paled in his eyes to the ones who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

After fighting in two wars and playing a little bit of pro football, Gene Ellenson became a football coach. The Gators were one of the top defensive teams in the nation for the decade of the 1960s with Gene serving as the defensive coordinator for Coach Ray Graves. The 1964 team finished second in the nation in total defense (194 yards per game) and allowed only 9.8 points per game. Always articulate and funny, Ellenson was a marvelous motivator. When times were the toughest or odds were the greatest against the Gators, Graves would turn the motivation completely over to Gene. He had a variety of motivational techniques and speeches, but in 1962, when times were the toughest, he told a war story.

Florida was 1-2, having lost two games in a row, a crushing 17-0 defeat at the hands of Bobby Dodd and Georgia Tech and a 28-21 loss to Duke, humiliating because the Gators had led 21-0 at the half. The state media and Florida's fans were in an uproar as the Gators were about to face a tough Texas A&M team. Ellenson was desperate to find something to bring out the best in the Gators. He decided to tell the tale of one night during the Battle of the Bulge. The old warrior sat down on Thursday night (October 11, 1962) before that Texas A&M game and he wrote a letter that would be copied and distributed to each player the next day.

Here is Gene Ellenson's letter:

Dear _____ : It's late at night. The offices are all quiet and everyone has finally gone home. Once again my thoughts turn to you all. The reason I feel I have something to say to you is because what need now more than anything else are a little guidance and maybe a little starch for your backbone. You are still youngsters and unknowingly, you have not steeled yourselves for the demanding task of 60 full minutes of exertion required to master a determined opponent. This sort of exertion takes two kinds of hardness. Physical, which is why you are pushed hard in practice-and mental, which comes only from having to meet adversity and whipping it. Now all of us have adversity-different kinds maybe-but adversity. Just how we meet these troubles determines how solid a foundation we are building our life on; and just how many of you stand together to face our team adversity will determine how solid a foundation our team has built for the rest of the season.

No one cruises along without problems. It isn't easy to earn your way through college on football scholarship. It isn't easy to do what is expected of you by the academic and the athletic. It isn't easy to remain fighting when others are curling around you or when your opponent seems to be getting stronger while you seem to be getting weaker. It isn't easy to continue good work when others don't appreciate what you're doing. It isn't easy to go hard when bedeviled by aches, pains and muscle sprains. It isn't easy to rise up when you are down. The pure facts of life are that nothing is easy. You only get what you earn and there isn't such a thing as "something for nothing." When you truly realize this-then and only then will you begin to whip your adversities.

If you'll bear with a little story, I'll try to prove my point. One midnight, January 14, l945, six pitiful American soldiers were hanging onto a small piece of high ground in a forest somewhere near Bastone, Belgium. This high ground had been the objective of an attack launched by 1,000 men that morning. Only these six made it. The others had been turned back, wounded, lost or killed in action. These grimy, cruddy six men were all that were left of a magnificent thrust of 1,000 men. They hadn't had any sleep other than catnaps for over 72 hours. The weather was cold enough to freeze the water in their canteens. They had no entrenching tools, no radio, no food-only ammunition and adversity. Twice a good-sized counter attack had been launched by the enemy, only to be beaten back because of the dark and some pretty fair grenade heaving.

The rest of the time there were incessant mortars falling in the general area and the trees made for dreaded tree bursts, which scatter shrapnel like buckshot. The attackers were beginning to sense the location of the six defenders. Then things began to happen. First, a sergeant had a chunk of shrapnel tear into his hip. Then a corporal went into shock and started sobbing. After more than six hours of the constant mortar barrage and two close counter attacks, and no food since maybe the day before yesterday, this was some first-class adversity. Then another counter attack, this one making it to the small position. Hand-to-hand fighting is a routine military expression. I have not the imagination to tell you what this is really like. A man standing up to fight with a shattered hip bone, saliva frothing at his mouth, gouging, lashing with a bayonet, even strangling with his bare hands. The lonesome five fought (the corporal was out of his mind) until the attackers quit.

Then the mortars began again. All this time the route to the rear lay open, but never did this little group take the road back. As early dawn a full company of airborne troopers relieved this tiny force. It still wasn't quite light yet. One of the group, a lieutenant, picked up the sergeant with the broken hip and carried him like a baby. The other led the incoherent corporal like a dog on a leash. The other two of the gallant six lay dead in the snow. It took hours for this strange little group to get back to where they had started from 24 hours earlier. They were like ghosts returning. The lieutenant and one remaining healthy sergeant, after 10 hours of sleep and a hot meal, were sent on a mission 12 miles behind the German lines and helped make the link that closed the Bulge.

Today, two of the faithful six lay in Belgium graves, one is a career army man, and one is a permanent resident of the army hospital for the insane in Texas, one is a stiff-legged repairman in Ohio, and one is an assistant football coach at the University of Florida. This story is no documentary or self-indulgence. It was told to you only to show you that whatever you find adverse now, others before you have had as bad or worse and still hung on to do the job. Many of you are made of exactly the same stuff as the six men in the story, yet you haven't pooled your collective guts to present a united fight for a full 60 minutes. Your egos are a little shook-so what? Nothing good can come from moping about it. Cheer up and stand up. Fight an honest fight, square off in front of your particular adversity and whip it. You'll be a better man for it, and the next adversity won't be so tough. Breaking training now is complete failure to meet your problems. Quitting the first time is the hardest-it gets easier the second time and so forth.

I'd like to see a glint in your eye Saturday about 2 p.m. with some real depth to it-not just a little lip service-not just a couple of weak hurrahs and down the drain again, but some real steel-some real backbone and 60 full fighting minutes. Then and only then will you be on the road to becoming a real man. The kind you like to see when you shave every morning.

As in most letters, I'd like to close by wishing you well and leave you with this one thought. "Self-pity is a roommate with cowardice." Stay away from feeling sorry for yourself. The wins and losses aren't nearly as important as what kind of man you become. I hope I've given you something to think about --- and remember, somebody up there still loves you.

Sincerely,

Gene Ellenson

On Saturday, the Gators played with reckless abandon, smashing Texas A&M, 42-7. A week later, they would beat nationally ranked Auburn, 22-3. Ellenson's letter was the motivating force that turned the season around for Florida. In the Gator Bowl, Florida would beat mighty Penn State, winner of the Lambert Trophy as the best team in the east, 17-7.

When Doug Dickey succeeded Coach Graves after the 1969 season, Coach Ellenson retired from coaching but he remained as the executive director of Gator Boosters. When Steve Spurrier became Florida's coach, he often brought in Coach Gene to do the motivational speeches before big games. His "Another Level" speech to the 1991 team sparked a huge win over Georgia and he fired up the defensive team before the FSU game in the Swamp a few weeks later, a tough 14-9 Florida win that may be the best defensive game ever played by a Florida team.

Gene died March 17, 1995. He is buried in the US National Cemetery at Bushnell. Those who knew him can say their lives were truly blessed because they indeed had a brush with greatness. Yet, if anyone had ever bothered to call Gene Ellenson great to his face, the old warrior would have stopped you in mid-sentence and then taken the next few minutes to talk about all the boys and young men for whom performed heroically as they stormed the beaches of Normandy or fought for inches and yards of turf at the Battle of the Bulge. Those boys who lost their lives fighting for the country they loved are the ones who deserved to be called great, he would tell you.

Well, Gene, you're not here to argue with me now, so this time I get the last word in. You were indeed a great man. If they ever write a book about the truly great Gators, Chapter One has to be about you, the greatest Gator of them all. You get that award in my book because you gave your best for your family, your school and your country. Not a lot of folks can say that.

And today, as we celebrate 230 years of independence, I hope all of you in Gator Country and beyond will offer a prayer of thanks for Gene Ellenson and countless thousands like him who truly defined greatness in our country's greatest hour of need.

(Photo courtesy of Florida Photographic Collection)


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