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Turning Back the Clock : Henry Ellard Has Spent the Off-Season Searching for the Step He Had Lost, and He Is Showing the Rams That He Has Found It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Age had crept up on wide receiver Henry Ellard, a hamstring had betrayed him and a new Ram coaching staff had dismissed him as an unconditioned John Robinson holdover.

The string of consecutive games in which he had caught a pass had come to an improbable end at 81 last season against the defenseless New England Patriots. His 47 receptions were his fewest since 1986, when he missed seven games. After four consecutive years of gaining more than 1,000 yards, the only player in the NFL to have done so in that time, other than Jerry Rice, he had finished the season with 727.

Henry Ellard, 32, was obviously finished.

“I couldn’t even catch 50 balls last year,” Ellard said.

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When the 1992 season ended, the Rams went looking for a free agent to replace Ellard. He began looking for the step he had lost.

The Rams failed in their quest, but to the amazement of those who thought it too late for an old receiver to learn new tricks, Ellard succeeded.

“He’s quicker, he’s faster, he can accelerate better, he’s stronger,” said Milt Jackson, the

Rams’ receiver coach. “It’s very noticeable to me.

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“He looks like a younger guy playing, and that’s the impression of all the other coaches here, too. Whatever work he did in the off-season, thus far it’s worked.”

Ellard’s rejuvenation began when he enlisted the help of track and field coach Randy Huntington, who has been working with Mike Powell, world-record long jumper, since 1987.

Huntington immediately placed Ellard with a physical therapist to solve a chronic hamstring problem. Ellard had injured his hamstring in last summer’s Olympic trials while trying to make it as a triple jumper, and in hindsight, it sabotaged his 1992 campaign.

“I could see I was getting a real good athlete who hadn’t spent a whole lot of time conditioning himself properly,” said Huntington, who has worked the last two off-seasons with Wayne Gretzky. “But Henry was a man who was driven to improve. His career was on the line.

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“Between him and Gretzky, these are the two mentally strongest athletes I have ever worked with. He attacked it, and let me tell you, he’s going to be hard to stop this season. I was out at training camp the other day and he’s as fast as Flipper (Anderson), and Flipper’s pretty fast.”

For five months of workouts at Fresno State, Ellard belonged to Huntington. In the mornings, Ellard worked on a rowing machine, lifted weights for hip development and then exercised in a pool.

After a break, he returned for work on the track. He ran 20s, 40s, 60s and then ran some more. Another break followed, and in the evening Huntington and Ellard continued the training in the weight room.

“This was a reclamation project,” Huntington said. “He couldn’t even do the warm-ups we do. In the beginning, I had him working with the women.”

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For the last decade, Ellard had prepared himself for each season with long-distance work to improve his endurance. Huntington, however, pulled in the reins.

“He didn’t run anything over 150 meters, and he did that only once or twice,” Huntington said. “Football is a game played basically within 40 yards. He may run one or two routes beyond 20 yards, so why run 200 meters?

“Our goal was to get him to have the same speed he had as a rookie--4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He got damn close, and then I began to wonder how Jim Everett was going to react to Henry. Henry was so much faster now, and Everett was going to have to compensate.”

Sound ridiculous? The Rams have worked on an end-around in training camp the last few days, and they have had Ellard running with the ball.

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“It’s a real pleasant surprise to see Henry just the way he is now,” Jackson said. “He’s a new person, and let me tell you, this is very important for this team.”

The Rams remain needy at wide receiver. Beyond Anderson and Ellard, there is no sure-fire candidate. Running back Cleveland Gary, the team’s leading receiver last season, remains unsigned, and probably will be replaced by two rookie backs. Somebody has to catch the ball.

“It’s critical for us to get a good year from Henry,” said Ernie Zampese, the Rams’ offensive coordinator. “The thing is, I think he came in here this year with it in his mind that he’s going to have a big year. You can see the confidence in him.”

Ellard has one other incentive. He will become a free agent at the end of the season.

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“I know people think I’ve lost a step and are wondering if I can still play,” Ellard said. “But tell them this: Henry’s back.”


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