It’s been a long time since Henry Ellard was this tired, this dirty, this happy or this crowded after a game.
“I’m going to sleep very well tonight,” he said, his teeth flashing in the hot glare of television lights as he tried to find enough space in the media mob to pull on his pants.
It will be a late-'80s sort of slumber, the kind of night when visions of diving touchdown catches danced in his head. Ellard almost always had pleasant dreams in those days. And opposing defensive coordinators tossed and turned with nightmares, variations of the same theme.
Ellard had nine catches for 127 yards Sunday as the Rams defeated Pittsburgh, 27-0. He had 120 of those yards in the first half when the Rams--a team on the verge of a total confidence collapse after an embarrassing opening-season loss to Green Bay--really needed a lift.
“Henry Ellard stepped up to the plate and had a great game, no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Coach Chuck Knox said. “He made some big plays, made some catches, and got us out of trouble. I was very happy to see that.”
Probably not as happy as Ellard, who just couldn’t stop grinning Sunday.
“Without a doubt, it felt like old times,” Ellard said. “It’s been a long time since I got nine balls or 100 yards. It’s been a long time since they threw me nine balls. It’s nice to be involved again.”
It had been 23 games since Ellard had a 100-yard performance. He had averaged 1,364 receiving yards and 77 catches a season for three years from 1988-1990. But last year, he was little more than an after-thought with 47 receptions for 727 yards.
Once the quintessential possession receiver, the guy who always seemed to come up with the perfect route and the sensational grab on third and long, Ellard had lost a step, they said. He was no longer willing to extend himself over the middle, they said.
A go-to guy? If you listened to the radio talk shows, he was a go-away guy, nothing more than a link to a more-glorious past.
But Ellard, who had injured his hamstring at the 1992 Olympic trials while attempting to make the team as a triple-jumper, wasn’t contemplating retirement.
For the first time, he was beginning to understand the need for speed. So he went back to the track, running sprint after sprint after sprint for two hours, four days a week. Ellard hired Randy Huntington, a long-time coach of long-jumper Mike Powell, to help him put the fleet back in his feet.
“Last year was last year and I try not to think about last year,” Ellard said, “But of course it was disappointing. And I made sure it wasn’t going to happen again this year.”
Which is to say he hadn’t thought about much else besides last year.
“I came into training camp in shape this summer,” he said. “I always come in in shape, but this time I was in track-meet shape rather than just football shape. Ever since I pulled my hamstring, I was lacking that speed.
“I knew I needed it. I didn’t have to hear people saying I had lost a step. But I knew I once had it, and it was just a matter of getting it back.”
Ram coaches said during training camp that Ellard appeared quicker and stronger and now both Jim Everett and the Steeler secondary are believers, too.
“I haven’t seen Henry run like that in a long time,” Everett said. “He was really going for it. I don’t know about comparisons to the old days, but he did a tremendous job today. He went after the ball. He was aggressive. And that kind of stuff is contagious.”
After it was 7-0, the once-feared Everett-to-Ellard combo hooked up four times during a 12-play, 77- yard touchdown drive that put the Rams ahead, 14-0.
The highlight was a 33-yard Oh-Henry-of-old catch of a pass that couldn’t have been more accurate if Everett had been using smart-bomb laser technology. The spiral sailed into Ellard’s hands just as three Steelers converged on him at the Pittsburgh 13-yard-line.