Conversation with Greg Ellis

Greg Ellis discussed his path from Tar Heel sack leader to Hollywood movie producer in a lengthy sit-down interview with Inside Carolina at the Kenan Football Center.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- Some of the most dominating defenses in the history of UNC Football were the squads that took the field at Kenan Stadium in the mid-to-late nineties under Mack Brown. A major factor in that success was the play of defensive end Greg Ellis. Ellis is the all-time sack leader at UNC and was a three-time All-ACC performer. In his senior season he was a consensus All-American and was selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 8th pick of the 1998 NFL Draft. He went on to play 12 seasons with the Cowboys and the Oakland Raiders that included being selected for the Pro Bowl in 2007.

His former Tar Heel coach, Mack Brown, describes Ellis as, “One of the best student-athletes I’ve ever coached. He is the whole package. He was tough as nails in football and has a kind heart off the field. I’ve never been prouder of one of our ex-players. Players like Greg were the reason we were the best defense in the country at UNC. I appreciate all he did for us as a player and a leader.”

Ellis excelled on the field, but also worked hard in the classroom to prepare for a life after football. Anybody that knows Ellis will tell you he wasn’t the kind of person who would just ride off into the sunset when his playing days were over. They would tell you that he’s too hard of a worker to do that. Instead, Ellis has found his next challenge in the film industry. He is the Founder and CEO of Play Now Enterprise and is preparing to release the company’s first major motion picture in November. The movie, “Carter High,” is a true story based on the 1988 Texas state champion football team from Dallas. Football fans will remember this team beating Billy Bob Thornton’s team in the movie “Friday Night Lights.” Ellis and Arthur Muhammad, the director and a member of that 1988 Carter High team, set out to tell the story of this team.

Inside Carolina got a chance to sit down with Ellis during a recent visit to Chapel Hill to promote the movie.

What’s it feel like for you to be back in Chapel Hill? – “It always feels great. We’re here for vacation right now. We still have a place down in Wendell. I’m going to bring my family back up to Chapel Hill on this trip so that they can really see what this place is all about. I’m trying to convince my daughter and show her how this would be a great place to go to college. This is a special place to me.”

Do they know your name and number are in the stadium’s Ring of Honor? – “They do, but you know what, I haven’t even seen it until I just looked now with you. It’s great to show them that type of stuff.”

Do you remember what brought you to UNC when you committed to play here? – “First and foremost, I felt like there was a great family atmosphere here. The second thing was that I knew I could get a great degree here. Coach Brown was always good about instilling how we needed to be prepared for life after football. He would always say, ‘All of you want to play in the NFL, but the reality is, not all of you will do that. So take advantage of your time here off the field and earn your degree.’ That’s the mentality I took into going to school here and I’m glad I did.”

Was your road to UNC an easy path? – “No, it wasn’t. I think we all have different stories of what we go through growing up in how we made it to play college football. When I was going through the recruiting process my Dad was sick and Coach Brown knew that and was just always there for me and encouraged me to go to college. Then, during my redshirt year, my Dad passed away. I went home and spent time thinking about what I should do next. My family didn’t have a lot of money so I figured it was time for me to go to work and help my family. Well, my Mom, my wife, and my uncle all encouraged to me to stay in school and I’m grateful that I did. My roommate then, Terry Billups, had also lost his brother in a car accident. We really helped each other through tough times and I think people forget that once you make it to college and get that scholarship; that doesn’t mean things are easy for you. There’s always adversity you have to overcome.”

You played on some really good defenses and UNC has had numerous successful defensive linemen. At the end of the day, you’re the one with the school’s career sack record. What does that mean to you? – “I’m honored and humbled because I strongly believe in the thought that you’re only as good as your teammates. I mean we had guys like Dre Bly and Robert Williams out in coverage, Brian Simmons and K Mays roaming the middle, and the other guys on the line applying pressure. All of that helped me be a better player and get that record. I think that record is a team accomplishment. One day the record will fall. One thing people are quick to forget is that I didn’t break Lawrence Taylor’s record. I broke Marcus Jones’s record. He was the one who broke LT’s record. So one day there will be another guy that comes here and breaks that record. But I’m honored to be that guy right now.”

Speaking of your teammates then; the success you guys had is what really made the idea of building the football building we’re sitting in now a reality. Do you guys talk about that when you look back at what you all accomplished here at UNC? – “We do. I think we knew then that we were in a special situation. When we got here Coach Brown redshirted our whole class. I remember Rick Steinbacher telling me one time that, even though we were redshirted, when we came walking through those doors and he saw how athletic we were as a class, he said, ‘I knew then I was getting out of here at the right time because you guys were taking this program to another level.’ It was all a part of Coach Brown’s vision and the staff recruited to that vision and had guys like Mad Dog (strength coach, Jeff Madden) transform us physically and then it came together on that field behind us. I’m definitely proud of what part we played in moving this program forward into a first class program with first class facilities. It feels really good to know we were a part of it.”

What are the memorable moments at UNC that stick out to you most? – “You know what, it might not be what you would expect. I mean, most of my vivid memories have more to do with great experiences or fun times with my teammates, not necessarily some SportsCenter-type play. For example, one that makes me still laugh today had to do with Ebenezer Ekuban. He was recruited to play tight end, but in his second year they switched him over to play defensive end. Ebenezer was a great athlete but he had never played defense at all. In his first game at defensive end, there was a play where he just blew right past his guy and sacked the quarterback. He gets up and comes over to me and looks me right in the eye and says, ‘Greg, was that sack?’ I’m looking at this guy and thinking, ‘Man, you’re playing major college football and just made an awesome play, and you don’t even know it’s a sack?’ We didn’t stop laughing for a while about that one. It really was just a testament to his ability and the coaches knew that. They just lined him up and said go and we’ll teach him the rest as we go. He ended up being a first round draft pick of the Cowboys and had a great career.

"Another great moment had to do with the fans. When we played at Syracuse, Chapel Hill was in the midst of recovering from a terrible hurricane. It was early in the season and Syracuse had Donovan McNabb and they were the heavy favorites. I remember Coach Brown telling us, ‘Men, you have more than just a football game to play right now. All of those people back home are really struggling now and their lives have been thrown upside down. You guys have the opportunity to give them some joy and take their minds off their problems.’ Well, we went out and played probably the best game I remember us playing in my whole career here at UNC. And when we got back in the middle of the night, the parking lot at the stadium was filled with fans welcoming us home and cheering. Some of these people didn’t have electricity or a home at that moment, but they were there to cheer us on. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. That’s why I love this whole community and how interconnected the town is with the university. It’s such a special place.”

What memories do you have about your draft day? – “It was all about family. I actually didn’t go to the draft. I rented a suite at the hotel here in town that the team always stayed at before games. My wife and I stayed there and my family was there and that’s who I wanted to experience that day with -- the people that made me who I am. I remember Jerry (Jones) called me and said, ‘How would you like to have a star on your helmet?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir, that would be great.’ (laughing). And then they picked me in eighth spot of the first round and I was a Cowboy. Jerry sent his jet to pick us up and it was just an amazing experience. I’ll tell you, though, what I really remember about that day was something that happened to me the night before. I had this vision or this overwhelming feeling that my Dad was proud of me and what I had accomplished. It was just a feeling of calm and it’s something that is so vivid in my mind like it happened yesterday. I’ll never forget that moment.”

Did you have a “Welcome to the NFL” moment? – “I did (laughing). It was my first training camp and it was a really hot and grueling camp. Well, when it was time for me to line up, I was lined up across from Larry Allen, the Hall-of-Fame lineman. Larry liked to make sure he always proved to whoever lined up against him that he was the man and that he didn’t plan on that changing any time soon. There was one camp where Larry hit this rookie linebacker and blew him up. The next day they were looking for this kid and the strength coach asked, ‘Didn’t you guys cut him?’ And the coaches said ‘No, we didn’t cut him.’ That’s how hard Larry hit this guy. He just packed up his things and left and said this isn’t for him (laughing). Larry was a beast. And so after just a few plays I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, this is going to be a problem.’ He kept knocking me right off of the ball. Nobody said anything because he knocked everybody off the ball. I called my wife that night and said I wasn’t sure if this NFL thing is for me. She said, ‘Well Greg, just give your bonus back and we’ll go back to North Carolina and get jobs and be happy.” I was like, ‘No, I’m not saying this because I’m quitting, I just needed to vent.’ The next day I went back and we went at it all through training camp like, as one teammate said, ‘a couple of bulls colliding on every play.’ The cool thing is that I gained Larry’s respect and when he gave his Hall-of-Fame induction speech I was one of the guys he mentioned as somebody that helped him get better because of those days in practice. That felt great to hear those words but it didn’t make that first hit hurt any less.”

Do you have any favorite plays from your NFL career? – “You know what, two plays stand out to me. In my second year in the league, we were playing Atlanta, and the quarterback threw a screen pass right at me and after fumbling around a bit I managed to run it back 87 yards for a touchdown. I was about to collapse after running that far. Everybody came up to congratulate me and Troy Aikman came up to me and said, ‘Man, Greg that was great. Congrats and enjoy this moment because it may never happen again in your career.’ I was thinking he was probably right because defensive linemen don’t usually get that opportunity. Well, the very next week, we’re defending our own goal line in Arizona. The ball came out and I fell on it. Darren Woodson grabs my arm and tells me to get up and run. I remember thinking, ‘Lord, why did I get up. It’s 98 yards to run to the other end zone.’ So somehow I made it to the end zone and scored again. I was dead tired, but before I went looking for the oxygen I went looking for Troy. I found him and said, ‘Troy, I thought you said it would never happen again.’ He just started laughing and to this day he laughs when he sees me because of that moment. So again, it’s more a favorite memory because of the experience with my teammates like Troy than the actual play itself or the touchdowns. I think all of my favorite memories in the NFL and at UNC have to do with experiencing life with my teammates and the stories about those times. They’re life-changing and life-long relationships.”

What character traits do you think helped allow you to have a 12-year NFL career and then follow that up by starting up your company, Play Now Enterprises? – “I think it’s the ability to endure and be persistent. I feel like it starts with God-given traits and then learned behaviors you pick up. My parents instilled in me that if you put your mind to it, anything can happen. It starts with God and then it’s up to you and your determination to make things happen. I was told when I got to UNC that I was too weak to be successful so I was determined to get stronger. When I got to the NFL I was told these guys are the best and you might not make it long in the league. I actually took up martial arts which enabled me to have great hand-eye-coordination and my ability to effectively use my hands carried me through my career and now teams have me help their guys out in learning how to use those techniques. Now, with my new career, I had to work just as hard to get to this point. That started with something Coach (Bill) Parcells told a guy once as I was listening. He said, ‘You know, when you get out of the league, you’re already behind. Your buddies from college that didn’t play in the NFL have been working in the business world for 10 years and have a head start on you. So you will have to work that much harder to be successful and catch up to those guys when football is over. You need to dive into it 100 miles per hour to get it off the ground.’ Those words stuck with me and I think that’s helped drive me to make this new career successful for me and my family.”

You’ve played on the biggest stages in your football career. Now, as the producer, in an industry where you’re the rookie again, are you nervous? – “I think my experiences have helped me. I’m big on people trusting me and doing everything I can to never let somebody down. I owe it to the actors that believed in me and in this project to do this right and make it work. That’s what I committed to them. For the actors, the last project they do can be what future producers look at on their resume. It can affect their careers moving forward. That’s important to me. So that helped drive me to live up to their trust and make this movie be a success and benefit all of us. I’ve had those pressures in Kenan, I’ve had those pressures in Texas Stadium, and now this is my new pressure. It’s on me and I know that and that’s my motivation.”

Have you had that “Welcome to Hollywood” moment yet? – “Yes, in two ways. First when big name actors like Charles Dutton and Vivica Fox agreed to do this movie was a huge deal and a great feeling. Then, recently, TMZ calling this a Hollywood movie. That is important to me because it tells me that I’m doing something right. It doesn’t mean it will be the best movie of the year, but it tells me that this movie means something and belongs in the theaters. It’s verification of a lot of hard work. I remember one of their producers calling me to see if I could stop by for an interview and I was like, ‘Are you flying me to LA?’ He couldn’t believe we got this done from Texas. He was stunned. Well, the way we got this done was hard work.”

How did getting Charles Dutton involved come about? – “I knew I wanted him from the start. I didn’t even realize how his life actually related to this story. He has been in prison before and has lived through the consequences of the choices we make. At first he was going to pass on this ‘football’ movie. Then he read the script and called us and asked, ‘What made you write something like this? Is this a true story?’ We told him yes and then he told us about going to prison and how he still goes back to prisons now and tries to help people pick themselves up and make something of their lives. This story really fit his life and his character. I wanted him from the start because I think his best roles are the ones where he’s telling people about the dos and the don’ts in life. When he plays those roles it feels like he’s not acting and really it’s because of what he experienced in his own life. I called his agent himself to try and get him on board and we were grateful he signed on to work with this movie.”

You also went through a similar thought process. You initially weren’t interested in the movie because you thought it was just another “football” movie. What changed your mind? – “That’s very true. I wasn’t sure how you could do a football movie that would be different from all of the other movies before like ‘Friday Night Lights’ and ‘Any Given Sunday.’ So I decided to research the story myself and the people involved in the story and I realized that this wasn’t a football story. It was a story about life that had football in it. It really was a story about the tragic hero you learn about in theater. There were the highest highs and then the lowest lows. These guys were one of the best high school football teams ever assembled but there were some who made choices that had tragic consequences. And now a lot of them have turned their lives around for the better and are having a positive effect on people. I realized that this was a story that needed to be told beyond football.”

In the movie world, the producer is the Jerry Jones of that particular movie. You have to make sure the director, the staff, and the actors have everything they need to make the movie work. How was that experience? – “Well, it’s still not over as we get ready to release and distribute the movie, but it was a crazy experience. I remember when we were filming it was extremely hot and the air-conditioning unit in Charles’s trailer wasn’t working. I kept trying to get the owners to fix it, but finally I ended up running to Lowes or Wal-Mart myself and bought an AC unit to use in his trailer. I had to make it work so that Charles could be comfortable and could give his best. When you’re the guy at the top there is nobody standing behind you to turn to and ask for help. You’re the one that has to make things happen. All eyes are on you.”

You felt like you owed it to the actors to make a great movie. The other group of people involved are the ones on that Carter High football team that the movie is all about. Do you feel like you owed it to them to get this story right? – “I really did. That was important to me and our director, Arthur (Muhammad), who was on that team, so yes, we were determined to get the story right. I haven’t met all of those guys, but I’ve met a lot of them. In fact, the head coach then, Freddy James, reached out to me. We met to talk about the movie. His one request was to not portray them in the way ‘Friday Night Lights’ portrayed them. He felt that movie showed them to be just a bunch of trouble-makers with a coach who didn’t care about anything but winning. In fact, one scene that stood out in that movie was when the Carter High kid kicks a helmet into the opposing quarterback’s face. One of the real Carter High assistant coaches told me, ‘Man, if one of our guys had really done that Coach James would have yanked him out and let him have it.’ So naturally I did feel like a true story needs to be true to the events that took place and the story that can be learned from that experience. In fact, on the last day of filming, one of the guys portrayed in the film got off of his last day of parole, all these years later. This was a movie, but the story was real life.”

Were there any moments that hit home for you in trying to stay true to the real life story? – “There was a moment on the bus. We actually put the real Coach James in the movie as the bus driver. Well, Coach James was known for always having a lollipop in his mouth. He actually did that to help him stop smoking but then they started winning and people considered it a good luck charm. Well, in the movie, Charles is on the bus with a lollipop in his mouth, and Coach James, the bus driver, has one in his mouth. The camera catches a shot where you can see both men in the rear view mirror with their lollipops. I thought that was a neat moment.”

What are you going to be feeling on the night of the premiere? – “I’m anxious for it. But I’m still thinking about things I have to do to make that night successful. My job isn’t done yet. And then I’m anxious to see what people think about the work that we’ve done. The early screenings and feedback have been very positive so that helps, but I’m just excited to see what people on the outside think.”

What does a “great review” sound like to you? – “A great review is one that will say that his film is ‘life-changing’ for those who see it. That’s my goal. I want an entertaining movie and we have that here, but I want this story to have a positive effect on those who see it. I had one person tell me that their son, who saw the movie, said that if he had seen a movie like this before when he was younger, that his life would have been different. It impacted him that much. That’s huge to me.” You’ve mentioned having a positive effect on those around you and teaching kids how to succeed in life. Do you hope this movie helps do that? – “Absolutely. We’re actually going to go on tour with the film to different high schools and invite all sorts of kids from different backgrounds. I want to show them that choices can help or hurt them in their lives. I want to talk to kids and show that even if you’re the best at what you do, bad choices can take it all away from you. That’s what this movie can teach them and hopefully influence those kids into thinking long and hard about the choices they make and strive to make the right choices in whatever situation they face.”

Your director said the theme of the movie is, “Destiny is not a matter of chance, but a matter of choice.” What do those words mean to you as you look back over your career at UNC and in the NFL? – “I think everybody has to understand that you have free will to make the choices in your life. My life was one that was filled with choices and thank God he allowed me to make more good choices than bad and put me on this path. I remember the ones that could have taken me down the wrong path like the kids on this Carter High team, but I chose a different path. And everybody has a chance to make the right choices in life. That’s what you can control. The choice is yours.”

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