Story Links

Oct. 8, 1999

For the seven years spanning his high school and college career, Percy Ellsworth experienced nothing but success. As a senior in high school, he was selected as a Super Prep All-American, a McDonald’s All-American team nominee, and was voted as the All-District and All-Region Player of the Year. Ranked by Super Prep magazine as the No. 2 prospect in the state of Virginia, Ellsworth came to UVa as a highly touted recruit with good natural talent and a great deal of promise. The expectations were high for Ellsworth, and it would not take the Drewryville Va., native long to prove he could also excel at the college level.

As a true freshman, Ellsworth started three times at safety and played in six total games as part of the Cavalier secondary. His sophomore year he worked his way into the starting line-up for the season’s first four games and played in a total of ten games that year. During his final two seasons at Virginia, Ellsworth manned the starting safety position and helped lead the Cavaliers to nine-win seasons in ’94 and ’95. As a senior he proved to be one of the country’s premiere college safeties. That year he turned in a stellar game against national powerhouse Florida State that few Virginia fans will soon forget. In one of the Cavaliers’ most thrilling victories, Ellsworth recorded seven tackles and two interceptions, including a touchdown-saving catch deep in Virginia territory. For his outstanding performance, he earned national Defensive Player of the Week honors by the The Sporting News. At end of the year, he led all Cavalier defensive backs with 68 total tackles and was tied for the team lead with six interceptions and 12 pass breakups. In addition, Ellsworth received first team All-ACC recognition and became the first UVa defensive back to receive first team All-America honors. After receiving some of football’s top honors at both the high school and collegiate levels, it only seemed fitting that Percy Ellsworth was destined for success in the NFL.

Despite all the accolades and distinctions, Ellsworth began his professional career as an undrafted, rookie free agent. Many pro coaches questioned his speed and criticized his tackling ability. Prior to the 1996 season, Ellsworth attended the New York Giants’ training camp and earned himself a spot on the team. An unlikely situation for any former All-American, Ellsworth received a 1,000 dollar signing bonus and the league’s minimum salary. Up to this point no one had ever doubted his ability, and he was always expected to do well. Now, for the first time in his football career, Ellsworth faced the daunting challenge of proving he could achieve success at the next level.

Though a virtual nobody entering the ’96 season, Ellsworth stuck true to form, and as usual, it took the former Cavalier little time to make an impact. He played in 14 games his rookie season and made four starts for the Giants. He finished the year with three interceptions and tied for second on the team in passes defensed. It took Ellsworth only one season to prove he possessed the talent to become an NFL caliber player. Oddly enough, it was life in “The Big Apple” that provided one of his greatest challenges. “One of the biggest adjustments was being six hours from my family and being on my own,” said Ellsworth. “Even in college, it’s still structured to a certain point. As a pro you have to make your decisions for yourself.”

Ellsworth entered the 1997 season with expectations of increased playing time and the chance to solidify a more significant role on the team’s defense. After a solid rookie year, it only seemed natural he would undertake more responsibility, yet his situation changed very little. Though he played in all 16 games that season, he only made one start and continued to play only in certain defensive situations. Suffering through a disappointing season, he found support from teammates Charles Way and Tiki Barber. All three played football together at Virginia, and during difficult times Ellsworth looks to his fellow Cavaliers for advice. “We are really close because we have that bond from UVa,” said the former All-American. “There is nothing like that college bond when you are out there sweating, working hard, and just playing for the love of the game. It is always great to come into the locker room and see those guys. Bottom line is I know that if I have a problem I can sit down and talk to them about it.”

With the help of Barber and Way, Percy Ellsworth bounced back in 1998 to post his most productive NFL season to date. He started nine games, brought down five interceptions, and chalked up 69 tackles. By season’s end, it was obvious he had completed the maturing process and settled into his role as a professional football player. Though he now feels he has successfully made the transition to the NFL, Ellsworth knows he always has room to improve. “I think you always have a lot to learn,” said Ellsworth. “Right now I am comfortable in my athletic ability and comfortable in the defense we are running. I’m not afraid, scared, or nervous when I am out there–I just need to take it to the next level and know what the other team is doing before they even do it.”

Ellsworth entered this season as a player determined to elevate his game to new heights and establish himself as the starting free safety. After three seasons in the NFL, he had totaled 12 interceptions despite making only 14 career starts. During this past off-season, he vowed to break Dick “Night Train” Lane’s record of 14 interceptions in a single-season if given the chance to be an every-down free safety. With the release of last season’s primary free safety Tito Wooten, Ellsworth is finally getting his chance to tackle a NFL record that has stood since 1952. So far, the former Cavalier has kept his end of the promise. In the season opener against Tampa Bay, he made two interceptions, one of which set up the game-winning field goal. His week one performance put him atop the NFC as the conferernce’s sole interception leader. Even the fans and media critics who once doubted his ability now wonder if he could truly break Lane’s record. “I’m the same person everybody was writing about that needs to be replaced,” said Ellsworth. “Nothing has changed, just one good game. I just want everybody to remember everything that was said about me. I’m determined that at the end of the year, I’m going to change everyone’s opinion about me.”

The past three seasons have been the most difficult years in Percy Ellsworth’s entire football career. With the help of two former Cavalier teammates and a strong belief in himself, he has worked his way from the ranks of an unheralded rookie to NFL starter. Through it all, Ellsworth has managed to once again find his way to the top, yet he knows his journey is far from complete—-there still remains a 47 year-old NFL interception record that needs to be broken.

Print Friendly Version