The call crackled over the California Highway Patrol scanner as darkness enveloped Interstate 5 in the San Fernando Valley.
“I have a male wearing a red sweater and jeans walking in the slow lane,” the dispatcher said at 10:59 p.m. on Oct. 4.
The man wandered back and forth over the freeway’s four northbound lanes near San Fernando Mission Boulevard.
“He’s walking in lanes and waving his arms,” the dispatcher said.
Six minutes later, a blue minivan braked, but couldn’t avoid striking the man.
“Can you advise his status?” the dispatcher asked.
“1144,” an officer replied in a soft voice, using the code for a possible fatality.
The man died on the freeway a half-hour after being struck. He didn’t carry identification. Three words were tattooed on his left arm: “Be the best.” He had a bus pass and wore a USC sweatshirt.
His name was Kevin Ellison.
They loved Kevin.
The safety from Redondo Union High wasn’t the biggest or fastest player on the USC football roster from 2005 to 2008. But he was the ideal, the three-year starter and two-time All-Pac-10 selection they all hoped to become.
“He’s the type of guy you wanted your daughter to marry,” said Rocky Seto, USC’s secondary coach for most of Ellison’s career.
The wide smile that took over a room. The smarts to earn an economics degree. The all-encompassing hugs. The toughness to return from three knee surgeries. The work ethic to spend late nights studying film after the coaching staff departed. The almost-telepathic knack for identifying the play an offense would run. The discreet trips back to the weight room for an extra workout after teammates left. The ferocious hits that almost hurt to watch.
“He really just gave it all he had in every hit,” said Cary Harris, who played defensive back and roomed with Ellison at USC.
The hits seemed to transform Ellison’s body into a weapon.
“He was a throwback, an old-time thumper,” said Jerome Stanley, his agent.
Every collision made his mother cringe. Judy Reisner once convinced a security guard to let her onto the Coliseum sideline during a game to check on her son. He was mortified.
The hits made Ellison a favorite of USC supporters, none more than the bone-jarring collision with California receiver DeSean Jackson in 2006. Six days after Ellison’s death, the USC athletic department Twitter feed posted a 14-second video celebrating the hit.
“Man,” the commentator said as the helmets smacked into each other, “DeSean Jackson almost got beheaded by Kevin Ellison.”
The San Diego Chargers picked Ellison in the sixth round of the 2009 NFL draft and general manager A.J. Smith lauded his ability to “rattle your teeth.”
Ellison started nine games as a rookie, but during the offseason police stopped him for speeding in Redondo Beach. Officers searched his car and found 100 Vicodin pills. He bought the powerful prescription painkillers on the street as part of an effort to hide a knee injury from the Chargers, according to his brother Chris.
The team cut Ellison. He was picked up by the Seattle Seahawks, led by former USC coach Pete Carroll, but dropped just before the regular season. Ellison eventually caught on with the Arena Football League’s Spokane Shock, on the edge of professional football.
“He started to struggle a little bit,” Harris said.
That struggle became apparent in the early hours of June 14, 2012. Ellison set the bed in his apartment in Liberty Lake, Wash., on fire with a marijuana-filled cigar, according to court records. He jumped out a third-story window. While hospitalized, Ellison told authorities he watched the fire burn before escaping and “God told me to do it.” The fire did more than $50,000 in damage. He was charged with arson in U.S. District Court in Spokane.
During a hearing, the Spokane Spokesman-Review reported, the prosecutor said Ellison repeatedly claimed to be Jesus Christ — to a patient at the hospital, the Shock’s general manager and in a text message to a woman who worked as a dancer for the team.
The revelations stunned Ellison’s family. He told his mother he had suffered several concussions playing football. But the bizarre behavior emerged without warning. This wasn’t the kid who used to joke about making the NFL along with his brothers, Chris and Keith, then buying a mansion in Florida.
Ellison was transferred from jail to a psychiatric care facility and diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He agreed to a deal to pay about $100,000 in restitution to resolve the arson charge. The larger problem remained.
Some days, Ellison seemed normal. He watched movies, went out to eat or visited the beach. He randomly hugged family members.
Ellison lived in a studio apartment behind his mother’s home in Inglewood. He cycled through jobs: drugstore, personal training, helping disabled adults, coaching, nonprofits that operated after-school programs. He stopped driving and instead relied on a bus pass because he didn’t have to concentrate as much.
“He’s always been very self-motivated, the high-testosterone football guy who is really smart,” Chris Ellison said. “To tell someone you like that you can’t control your mind by yourself ... he wouldn’t accept that he needed medication, that he needed help.”
Kevin Ellison went on and off medication. It made him gain weight, feel lethargic, struggle to work more than four hours a day.
“He did tell me, ‘Mom, even when I take the medicine, the hardest thing I’ve had to do is control my mind. You have no idea how difficult this is to do,’” Reisner said. “He said, ‘I would never kill myself, so you never have to worry about that.’”
Ellison spent hours walking the neighborhood, often accompanied by his sister Camille Ellison, a real estate agent. The movement calmed his mind. He walked so much he wore through the soles of a pair of shoes.
Other times, he started to fidget. His eyes wandered. He talked to the sky. He thought his jaw was clicking. He heard voices. He couldn’t sleep. That meant the darkness was returning.
“It just took over his personality at times,” Reisner said. “There were times when he was a totally different person.
“There’s not enough help out there for these guys unless you have a whole lot of money. There’s not much available. They’re just giving out medications at these clinics as stopgap measures.”
Ellison bounced in and out of hospitals on psychiatric holds. During those stays, his sister rubbed his back, held his hand and reminded him he was loved.
He wanted to be independent again. Get a good job. Maybe have a wife and kids.
Several weeks ago, Ellison stopped taking his medication. Reisner said he smoked marijuana regularly, used pain relievers and drank. They seemed to be attempts to self-medicate. She believed the voices had returned. They brought intense paranoia.
“We can look at our kids and see in their eyes and know something is wrong,” Reisner said. “I could see something was wrong. I felt like I was back in Spokane where it all started.”
On Oct. 2, the family tried to take Ellison, 31, to a hospital for another 72-hour psychiatric hold. He ran off, telling a neighbor someone was trying to kill him.
The family never saw him again.
Three days later, Chris and Keith Ellison prepared to coach Redondo Union’s football game at Leuzinger High. The brothers both played in college; Keith spent five seasons with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. Five minutes before kickoff, Chris noticed his mother and sister walking toward the brothers on the field. They had filed a missing persons report and called hospitals and police stations. The L.A. County coroner identified Kevin by his fingerprints.
Chris managed to coach the first half before leaving; Keith, the defensive coordinator, stayed for the entire game.
The family puzzled over why Kevin Ellison ended up in the Valley. He didn’t have any family members or known connections there. They believed he was disoriented, trying to find his way home.
He was terrified of police after the arrests in Redondo Beach and Spokane. Chris Ellison wondered if he mistook the lights of passing cars on the highway for police cruisers and kept raising his arms in surrender.
“No matter what I’ve done, I couldn’t save him,” said Chris, an attorney. “I’ve always taken care of my brothers, always been there for them. Not being there that night eats me up.”
The family donated Kevin’s brain to researchers at Boston University who study repetitive head trauma in athletes and military personnel. A study earlier this year showed 133 of 136 brains from former professional football players had the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE. Results of the tests, which can only be conducted after death, aren’t expected to be known for several months.
“I think it’s just a raging, screaming case of CTE,” Stanley, the agent, said. “It took his life over completely.”
Ellison’s autopsy is complete, but the corner hasn’t released a cause of death while waiting for toxicology results.
“I truly believe he probably had some kind of CTE and schizophrenia, too,” Reisner said. “I would love to see football take away the chances for these major concussions. My boys all had concussions. I don’t know if he got hit the hardest or if his brain just couldn’t take it.”
She broke down.
“You just say, of all the people out there, why him? Why him?”
The last job Ellison had involved teaching astronomy to children in an after-school program. He stopped working about a month ago.
One of the final assignments Ellison gave the children was to draw a picture of how they imagined the universe looked. He filled the walls of his studio apartment with the glimpses of eternity.
Services for Kevin Ellison
Viewing & Visitation
Friday, Oct. 26, 3-4:30 p.m. at Chapel of Chimes, Inglewood Park Cemetery, 720 E. Florence Ave., Inglewood, 90301.