Nelson Ellis devoted 35 years to students and student-athletes in the DeKalb County and Fort Payne school systems.
He served tenures as head football coach at Fyffe (1966-69), Fort Payne (1970-72), Sylvania (1973-74) and Geraldine (1975-77).
His 1977 Geraldine team finished with an 8-3 record, won the Class 2A, Area 16 championship and made the program’s first state playoff appearance.
The DeKalb County Sports Hall of Fame inducted Ellis in its class of 2010.
Ellis, 85, died May 31 at his home in Rainsville. Funeral services were June 2 at Wilson Funeral Home in Fort Payne, with burial following in Valley Head Cemetery.
He is survived by his wife of 66 years, Elizabeth H. Ellis; sons Robert Ellis and wife, Marla, and Paul Ellis and wife, Kelly; and four grandchildren.
The Rev. Chris Andrews, who lives in Geraldine, officiated Ellis’ funeral services. Andrews grew up with Paul Ellis, who followed in his father’s footsteps and became a teacher and football coach.
Paul Ellis is the winningest coach in Fort Payne history. He compiled a 109-48 record from 2004-17.
“Coach Ellis left a wonderful legacy in his teaching career, his coaching career and his administrative career,” Andrews said. “Yet I will always remember the family man that Coach Ellis was.
“I was welcomed many times into the home of Nelson and Elizabeth Ellis, and they treated me like a third son every time I was there. Paul and I were able to develop a lasting friendship that was based on the humble Christ-like love that he saw in his father. It was easy for me to see it as well.”
Andrews said “integrity” is the word that sticks in his mind when he thinks of Ellis.
“Yes, he was a taskmaster on the football field,” Andrews said. “Anyone who saw what happened at the sawdust pile during a football practice can attest to that. But he was fair to each player he coached, whether they were a starter or second string. That is why he is so revered by his former players.”
Geraldine faculty member Mark Hale was a member of Ellis’ 1977 Bulldog team. The Dogs recorded five shutouts and allowed only 83 points.
“Playing for Coach Ellis was tough,” Hale said. “Everything had to be done just right, no excuses.
“I respected him so much and was just in awe of him. Years later the respect is still there.
“To me, his legacy is not about how many wins he had. His legacy is love for his wife of 66 years. Look at his two sons and the men they have become, the husbands and dads they are. Look at the impact he had on them and his grandchildren. Wow, what a legacy, and the people that know them would agree.”
Ellis played three years of football at Valley Head and was the starting halfback on a team that closed 9-1 and finished with a top 10 state ranking.
Ellis, who graduated from the University of Chattanooga (now UT-Chattanooga), began his career as an assistant at Fort Payne on the staff of Vernon Wells, who led the Wildcats to a state championship in 1964.
Richard “Butch” Ferguson, a retired educator and a member of the Marshall County Sports Hall of Fame, was one of Ellis’ students at Fort Payne.
In the 1980s, Ferguson became principal at Douglas High School while Ellis served as principal at Fyffe High School.
“Coach Ellis was a consummate professional in everything that he did,” Ferguson said.
“He was a very good, tough football coach at FPHS when I was in the ninth grade. As a science teacher, he made everyone do a group project long before cooperative learning became a required part of teaching, and a term paper. He wanted all of his students ready for college.
“He also had a wooden baseball bat that was shaved off with a flat side. He told us that this was his paddle to be used for any misbehavior. He never had to use it.”
Ellis left Fort Payne after Ferguson’s freshman year for a job on Robert Harris’ staff at Jones Valley High School in Birmingham. Harris was a former Wells’ assistant coach.
“I got to play against him two years, and they were very tough,” Ferguson said.
Harris and several of his Jones Valley players visited with Ellis during the Oxford at Fort Payne game in the 2017 season. One of those players, Jack Traffanstedt, invited Ferguson to join them. Ferguson described the reunion as a great experience.
“After Coach Ellis became the principal at Fyffe, he asked me to help with his school accreditation and I was honored to do that,” Ferguson said. “He was every bit as committed to having a great school as he was on the football field or in the classroom.
“Above all else, Coach Ellis was committed to his family. They were really the most important thing to him.”