Ken Ellis had knack for making big plays at right times

Defensive back and return man starred for early ‘70s Packers

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Former Packers CB Ken Ellis

Team historian Cliff Christl has been writing the official biographies of the members of the Packers Hall of Fame. Those bios will be posted periodically on packers.com.

Ken Ellis

  • Inducted: 1998
  • Cornerback: 1970-75
  • Height: 5-10; Weight: 190
  • College: Southern, 1966-69

Honors:

  • Associated Press All-Pro Team (chosen since 1940): 1972
  • Pro Bowl selection (played since 1950): 1973, '74

In 1972, when the Packers won their only division title over what turned out to be a 28-year drought, no player produced more big plays in big moments than cornerback and punt returner Ken Ellis.

In the 12th game of a 14-game schedule – a showdown against Detroit for first place – Ellis intercepted two passes, both of which led to touchdowns, and also recovered a fumble on a play where Detroit gained 47 yards, as the Packers crushed the Lions, 33-7, to take a one-game lead in the NFC Central Division. Even more impressive in the eyes of his teammates, Ellis played despite separating his right shoulder the week before and being all but ruled out of the Lions game.

"He's the really big story of this great game," future Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Robinson said in the locker room that day. "He said from the first day out that he was going to play today and nobody believed him. And not only did he play but he starred." Defensive tackle Bob Brown gushed, "He inspired us all." Added safety Al Matthews, "He sacrificed his personal health for the ball team. And he made the kind of plays you could hardly expect from a healthy player let alone one who is hurting." Middle linebacker Jim Carter chimed in: "I want you to know that kid's got guts. He's a mighty tough little son of a gun."

Four weeks earlier, with the Packers clinging to a three-point lead in the final minute of a game against eventual NFC Western Division champion San Francisco, Ellis intercepted a pass and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown to secure a 34-24 victory. Earlier, he returned a punt 33 yards in the closing minutes of the first half to set up a touchdown and give the Packers a 14-7 halftime lead. Then in the Packers' title-clinching victory over Minnesota a week after the Detroit game – they were 8-4; the Lions and Vikings, 7-5, at that point – Ellis intercepted a pass and returned it 23 yards in the closing minutes to set up a final field goal and preserve a 23-7 victory. He also returned a punt 27 yards in that game.

Drafted in the fourth round in 1970, Ellis was moved from flanker to defense early in camp when veterans were briefly locked out over a pension dispute, and he wound up taking over as the starting left cornerback when disgruntled future Pro Football Hall of Famer Herb Adderley announced his retirement and was subsequently traded to Dallas. "Ellis is blessed with real acceleration," coach Phil Bengtson said of the position change. "This allows him to make up for mistakes."

While Ellis played well his first two years and intercepted a team-high six passes in 1971, he benefited from a second move to right cornerback in 1972 when the Packers drafted Willie Buchanon. Having played offense in college, Ellis had struggled at left corner taking on strongside blockers and, in turn, had been exploited in the running game.

In his first year at right corner, Ellis made AP All-Pro, shared the team lead with four interceptions and led the NFL in punt returns with a 15.4 average. In both 1973 and '74, Ellis was selected to the Pro Bowl. And it was after the second of those two seasons when an NFL scout ranked him and Buchanon as the best and third-best corners in the game, respectively. "I guess he hasn't tackled quite that well," the scout said of Ellis. "I'm rating him strictly on his ability to cover a guy man-to-man, and he's hard to beat." The scout also praised Ellis for his knack of making big plays at critical times.

In 1975, when Bart Starr took over as coach, his defensive backs coach Jim Colbert viewed Ellis through the same lens. "At covering the pass there's none any better," Colbert said. "… We're going to try and find a way to improve his tackling."

By then, Ellis was immersed in a contract dispute that began with him playing out his option in 1973 while Dan Devine was coach and had only escalated under Starr. The first standoff ended when Ellis signed a two-year contract five days before the end of the '73 season. But two years later, Ellis briefly walked out of camp and played out his option again. This time, the end result was a trade. On April 2, 1976, the Packers announced they had shipped Ellis to the Houston Oilers as partial payment for quarterback Lynn Dickey. Ellis played three more seasons with five different teams: Houston, Miami, Cleveland, Detroit and the Los Angeles Rams. Ellis' career ended when he was cut by the Rams in training camp in 1980.

In 83 games with the Packers, including 82 starts, Ellis intercepted 20 passes, and averaged 6.8 yards on 63 punt returns and 22.3 yards on 36 kickoff returns.

Born Sept. 27, 1947. Given name Kenneth Alfonzo Ellis.

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