Mark of a champion
Heavyweight Mark Ellis wrestles life's obstacles en route to a national title
After not finishing as an All American in his two previous NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Mark Ellis was undefeated at the '09 tournament. Ellis will return as a senior to defend his national title while also trying out for the Mizzou football team as a defensive end.
“I always tell our wrestlers, ‘Make me a good banquet story,’” says Smith, Mizzou’s wrestling coach and a frequent banquet-goer. “This one — about a great kid who’s overcome a lot, who was overshadowed most of the season, who won a national championship — it’s an awesome thing.”
Though he’d been wrestling since age 6, Ellis imagined donning shoulder pads instead of a singlet when he started his college-athletics career at Mizzou. He turned down a scholarship offer from Mizzou’s wrestling program and tried to walk onto the football team. After about a week and a half, though, he concluded that football wasn’t right for him at the time.
“Some of the football players were talking about how crazy the wrestlers were because of how hard they train,” Ellis says. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m one of those crazies. I miss that.’”
Ellis hiked over to Smith’s fourth-floor office in the Hearnes Center and told the coach he wanted to accept the scholarship offer. He started training with the team, but it would be inaccurate to say things started off well.
“To put it nicely, he was screwing up after his first year,” Smith says. “He was going to leave school, and we just kind of sat him down and told him, ‘No. You can’t quit. You’ve got talent and have to stick with this.’”
Ellis started to straighten out when Ben Askren, Mizzou’s first national-champion wrestler and a 2008 Olympian, took Ellis under his wing. As an assistant wrestling coach, Askren told Ellis that he saw great qualities in the young wrestler and that they were going to be brought forth. The two became roommates, and the changes came quickly.
“I saw how he lived and how much he enjoyed life and how you could do all that and still train and work hard,” Ellis says. “I’m incredibly lucky God put people like him in my path.”
Man of faith
Ellis wears his faith on his sleeve. Literally. Adorning his developed deltoid are tattoos of a cross and the Bible passage I Corinthians 16:13: “Be on your guard; stand strong in your faith; be a man of courage.”
Ellis got the cross on a spring-training trip to Arizona with Askren during his sophomore year. His explanation for the tattoo is simple: “Make the right choices when struggles come. No matter what happens, God’s still God, my parents still love me, and my friends are still my friends.”
The Corinthians tattoo was an addition during the preseason last fall. The scripture came in an e-mail from his mom. To Ellis, the passage is a reminder of his source of strength: “Like Coach Smith is with wrestling, my parents are my life coaches.”
Ellis spends his free time attending Bible studies with some of his teammates. He recently showed up to sign autographs and shake hands at a youth wrestling tournament on the tail end of spring break. He says words are meaningless unless you back them up with your actions.
“There’s a lot I could say that I’m proud of him for,” Smith says, “but I’m probably most proud of how he’s matured from Day 1.”
Going to the mat
Despite just missing out on becoming a 2008 All American (one of the top eight finishers in the national tournament), Ellis had to battle just to gain a spot on the team before the 2008-09 season began.
Freshman Dom Bradley came in as one of the top-rated heavyweights in the country, so Ellis squared off against him in a series of wrestle-off matches to determine who would complete the roster. The early matches were more or less split, so it came down to a final bout. By then, a fear of losing had crept in. Ellis needed a pep talk from Askren.
“Ben sat me down and talked about how you can’t be fearful, whether it’s with wrestling or girls or life,” Ellis says. “I was fearful of trying to shoot, but I attacked, and it seemed like good things happened from then on.”
Ellis won and then focused on validating his spot on the team. Late at night he would run lap after lap on the track or lift weights until he was exhausted. “I didn’t do it so people could see me train,” Ellis says. “I did it so I’d know that I did all I could.”
The work paid off, and slowly but surely Ellis ascended to the No. 1 ranking in his weight class. That wasn’t enough for him, though. He had to prove himself in the national tournament.
As he advanced in the bracket, Smith, Askren and All-American wrestler Michael Chandler kept telling him he was the best.
“You start believing these things, and all of a sudden I realized it had become a reality over the last couple of years. It was something I strived for my whole life,” says Ellis. “Winning the championship was the most incredible feeling.”
Ellis had to learn to keep his emotions in check early in training and to channel them into becoming a stronger athlete. Once he’d won, he didn’t try to hide them any longer.
“After the finals, he was in tears, just crying for two hours after it was done — this big, giant heavyweight,” Smith says. “His emotion is what he put into the sport. He was going to give everything to it, and that’s why he succeeded.”
Under Smith’s tutelage, Mizzou has become a national powerhouse in wrestling. This season the team ranked seventh in the nation and boasted five All Americans, tied for tops in the country. A respectable No. 17 ranking eight years ago was the lowest under Smith. With continued success like this, recruiting the best to Mizzou becomes a bit easier.
“We announced Ellis and [Michael] Chandler in front of a peewee crowd of 7,000 the other day, and they got a standing ovation, which shows how proud people in the state are of our program and that we’re producing these homegrown kids,” Smith says. “Having national champs, having All Americans — even an Olympian — is something I can point to. I can point to these top teams and these top academic programs at the university and say, ‘You can do anything here. You really can achieve anything.’”
Ellis hasn’t given up on his dream of playing Division I football. This spring he worked to walk onto Mizzou’s team. Now inescapably branded as one of the “wrestling crazies” he yearned to be four years ago, he relishes every chance he gets.
“If I hadn’t won the national title, there’s no way I was going to do this,” Ellis says. “I accomplished my ultimate goal in wrestling, and I look at it as I’m freed up to see what other things God has for me out there. I already miss the mat, but I know I’ll be back when the time is right.”