Commentary

Tony Elliott's life, death took tragic turns

Updated: January 4, 2008, 3:06 PM ET
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

Much of Tony Elliott's life was dominated by murders, guns and drug addiction. Because he played in the NFL for seven seasons, the images recall too many current stories about out-of-control athletes. But his 6-foot-4, 300-plus-pound frame, often draped in a mink coat, drew the immediate attention of students who met him. The stories he told left them mesmerized and reflective about choices they would make in their own lives. This was the Tony Elliott I knew well since his early days with the New Orleans Saints.

For a huge man, Tony Elliott's death resulted in only small story in the Connecticut Post when he was found dead Monday in his bed in Bridgeport at age 48. The story had fragments of his athletic life, including that he was MVP in the state of Connecticut his senior year. The Times-Picayune of New Orleans ran four paragraphs, concluding with, "Elliott was a fifth-round draft choice of the Saints in 1982 from North Texas State. He played with the Saints through 1988, while overcoming a drug addiction." The drugs, his downfall, were barely noted in the stories.

Bridgeport councilman Warren Blunt said Elliott's death was a tragedy because he had so much to offer kids, alluding to Elliott's desire to become a coach despite being confined to a wheelchair since February 2000, when he was shot by a person police believe was a drug dealer. Blunt added that Elliott had a "magnetic personality and loved to share stories with people."

[+] EnlargeTony Elliott
Ed Mahan/NFL Photos/Getty ImagesBy telling about his own troubles with drugs, former New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Tony Elliott made an impression on the lives of young people.
Blunt was right. I watched Elliott electrify high school and middle school students for nearly a decade because of that enormous personality and his incredible storytelling ability. He spoke the truth about his tragedy-filled life.

I will always have an image of Elliott in a gym full of kids. As a speaker, I know it is the worst setting to get the attention of an audience. But he commanded their attention like no one else I have seen. He was sure to enter a room wearing his full-length mink coat draped over his huge frame. Kids stared but that concentration could only last so long. He began by talking about how he stared down the barrel of a gun in search of drugs at the lowest moment of his life. Students turned in the bleachers and locked into his story.

Elliott would tell audiences about when he was 4 years old and came downstairs in his Bridgeport home after hearing his mother, Ruby Elliott, screaming. He'd say he found his father, Bobby Elliott, plunging the last of 17 stab wounds in her body as Ruby fell to the kitchen floor in a pool of blood. Tony Elliott later learned that Bobby was not only Ruth's husband, but also her pimp.

Bobby Elliott went to prison, and Tony Elliott was reared in a combination of state homes and relatives such as his uncle Wilbert who became a father figure for Tony. His father was released from prison when Tony was in middle school. By that time, Elliott was developing both as an athlete and as an alcoholic. Elliott told audiences: "I have an addictive personality. That was my seed of personal self-destruction."

By middle school, Elliott chose to get a new family by joining a gang in Bridgeport. He got their love and added their trouble to his. As he told this story, all eyes were on him. He knew he had students then. Put in a state boys home, cocaine and marijuana became part of Tony's growing arsenal of addictions.

Sports gave him a reprieve from the gangs, but not the drugs. A star player on the Harding High School football team, suddenly people were interested in Tony's future.

He warned students not to believe everyone who seems to care about them. Test them, be sure of their sincerity. Elliott called out a boy in the second row of bleachers during one speech and said: "What's your name?" The boy shyly responded, "Sam." Elliott asked more gently, "Sam do you believe everything people tell you?" Sam cowered with a "no," and Elliott said, "Good. Only trust those who earn your trust."

Elliott went on with the story while Sam slunk back into the bleachers, relieved he was off stage.

"So everyone around me thought my life was great. Harding won the Connecticut championship and I was an all-state and All-American selection. MVP in the state. I was still using cocaine and drinking a lot, but I was being called a role model by the staff at the boys' home and by my classmates at Harding High. Even I began to believe life was good and then my father shot and killed uncle Wilbert after an argument. I had to get away. Colleges wanted me. I was gone."

He spoke to Sam again: "Are you a good student?" "Yes, Sir!" "Good, stay that way. My teachers thought all I needed was football and did not ask me to be a student. I was not ready for a real college."

The students absorbed his every word.

He flunked out of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. But as with all talented athletes, there was almost always a next stop. He enrolled at Pratt Junior College in Kansas where he played well enough to get a scholarship to North Texas State. He called out for a student who played football. Several hands went up. "Listen to me and then be yourself and make good choices. For me, I was being given chances because of my God-given athletic talents. For me, I had three loves: football, cocaine and booze. My college professors were like the ones at Harding. They thought if they passed me, I would play in the NFL and be OK. I never had to study."

In his mind, it suddenly seemed like the professors were all right and he signed for a lot of money with the Saints. He took his $14,000 signing bonus and went back to take care of his friends in Bridgeport. It was a two week cocaine binge. By mid-season, his addiction was tearing him up. He agreed to be sent to the Timberlawn Rehabilitation Center in Dallas for 30 days and returned to the team for the end of the season.

Back to Sam: "Can you believe I dropped the cocaine but smoked marijuana and thought it was somehow OK? It wasn't.

"The season was over and I thought no one was watching. I returned to the streets and the coke. The Saints forced me into rehab again. They were watching. Then my brother was murdered. I was so angry with the world and coke was all I could rely on to blunt the pain. I spent all my money, sold my car, and everything else I owned to get the coke."

I watched the school's staff looking around at the students focus on Tony Elliott and what he was saying. There were no distractions in the gym.

"I lost any moral compass I had because of the drugs. I began to write bad checks. The police were looking for me. I stole a good friend's income tax refund check. I was so out of it that I went to my drug dealer's house to rob him to feed my needs. I was shaken as never before after the dealer opened the door and pointed his Magnum at my face. I hit rock bottom and thought I was going to die. This time I went for help and got it at the Depaul Drug Treatment Center. I was there for three months."

He went into the community to help others, speaking in schools throughout New Orleans. He had learned the importance of honesty at Depaul and disclosed deep personal truths about himself. It was part of his therapy.

The courts placed him on three years probation. Suspended by the NFL, he appealed for reinstatement. Commissioner Pete Rozelle let him rejoin the Saints. That's when I heard Elliott's story. We agreed to meet after the 1985 season.

It was Elliott's first drug-free season and he started every game at nose guard. I hired him at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society in Boston after hearing him speak in the school setting I described earlier. He engrossed audiences across New England. Teachers praised him and the impact he was having. They told us that his was a personal scared-straight experience for the students. He continued to spend his offseasons with us until his playing career ended.

He went into a series of businesses in New Orleans, seemingly removed at last from the streets; he was showcased as one of football's positive role models on the drug issue on "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," "CBS Sunday Morning" and in many of the nation's leading newspapers.

When he was shot in 2000 he became a prisoner of his own body, but he seemed to escape death's grip over and over again including the shooting that immobilized him. I wanted to believe he had escaped the drug culture, but ultimately it did not matter whether he was personally involved with drugs leading up to the shooting. The streets caught up to him, whether or not he was still part of them. Now he is gone.

But his story taught many children. Because Tony Elliott had used drugs to numb the pain of his life, he felt and comprehended the pain of so many children. They flocked to him. Councilman Blunt was right that Tony had a "magnetic personality and loved to share stories with people." I hope his personality and his stories helped short-circuit the pain that many children who heard him may have faced if Tony Elliott had not scared them straight.

Richard Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 13 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He is a regular commentator on issues of diversity and ethics in sport for ESPN.com.

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com