by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

One sack. One stinking sack. One strong push through the monster in front of you, one mad dash to the quarterback, one wrap him up before he throws the ball and smash him to the ground. Not so hard, right? One lousy sack? Heck, if you’re out there every game, starting on the defensive line, you might get a couple just by accident, no? Sixteen games? One little notch in your belt? Is that too much to ask?

Too much or not, Luther Elliss had the request denied. He was hired to bring down the quarterback, and he went all last season without doing it once. No sacks. The big goose egg. Zero. Zippo. Nothing but air.

“All summer long, people would come up to me at churches or golf events, and they’d say, ‘How many sacks did you have last year?’ ” Elliss said Wednesday.

And how did you respond?

“I bit the bullet. I said, ‘Well, I didn’t have any.’ “

Did they believe you?

“Most of the time they said, ‘Oh, come on, you had to have one.’ “

No sacks, no glory.

Oh, Luther came close several times as a Lions rookie. In last year’s opener against Pittsburgh, he and Tracy Scroggins chased the quarterback into submission. Scroggins got the credit; Elliss got his uniform dirty.

Later in the year, against Green Bay, Elliss thought he had Brett Favre wrapped up, sack No. 1, but at the last instant, Favre pitched it out. Sometimes you get a whistle in that situation, the referee says, “Too late, quarterback, you’re down” — like a wrestling official declaring that a guy has been pinned.

Didn’t happen. Favre got the escape; Elliss got his uniform dirty.

Does the word “obsession” begin to enter the picture?

Fans saw this story before

It did for Elliss. It got so bad, he was dreaming about sacks, flailing around in the middle of the night. “Sometimes I accidentally hit my wife,” he said. “I’d wake up sweating. I kept trying to see myself doing it.”

The season became a Chinese water torture. Drip. No sacks against Atlanta. Drip. No sacks against Chicago. Drip. No sacks against Houston or Jacksonville. Finally, Elliss found himself in the last regular-season game, against Tampa Bay. It was two days before Christmas, for Santa’s sake. How many more omens did he need?

No sacks. A few close calls, a few near-misses. No sacks. It was like getting a lump of coal in your stocking.

“Tampa was the most frustrating game of all,” he said. “I knew when I walked off the field that no matter what happened, there would always be a zero next to my name for my rookie season.”

What made it worse was that Elliss, 23, was so celebrated when he arrived in Detroit. A No. 1 pick. The 20th player taken in the whole draft. “I felt like everyone was watching me because of that,” he admitted.

What he didn’t know was the history that preceded him. Why, every other year, it seems, the Lions trot out a big hulk as “the guy who’s going to sack the quarterback.” In 1987, Darryl Rogers plucked Reggie Rogers as his No. 1 pick and said, “This guy can get to the quarterback.” In 1990, Wayne Fontes used the No. 2 pick for defensive end Dan Owens and said he could get to the quarterback. Two years later, Fontes used the first pick on Robert Porcher, a guy who could get to the quarterback. In 1993, Fontes traded the top pick for linebacker Pat Swilling, a guy “who can get to the quarterback.”

Of those four, only Porcher is still with the team. So it’s not like Elliss lacked precedent.

Which didn’t make him feel any better.

Opening day: What a relief!

In fact, Luther Elliss felt nothing but bad. So the 6- foot-5, 290-pounder actually got stronger. He worked out during the summer. Got involved in martial arts classes — for stamina as well as strength — and he made himself a promise. He would not do any talking about his goals this year.

“Maybe last year was God’s way of getting back at me for talking too much,” he said. “I talked about how I wanted to be All-Pro. How I wanted to win rookie of the year. I thought I was supposed to, being the No. 1 pick.

“I learned my lesson. Don’t try to rule the world right away.”

You know the end of this story. Elliss started Sunday against Minnesota — as a tackle, which he prefers over end — and sure enough, in the second quarter, he swarmed Warren Moon and wrapped him like a bear wraps a hiker.

Down went Moon. Elliss looked up. No shared credit. No mistake. It was his sack. He screamed as if someone had turned on a hose inside his vocal cords.

“I don’t remember what I yelled,” he said. “I think it was just noise.”

Or relief. The first sack is the first bicycle, the first kiss; there will be others, but they’ll never mean as much. From this weekend on, Elliss does not worry about notches in his belt. He comes only to play football.

Compared to the demons he has been wrestling, it should seem easy.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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