Riki Ellison, Super Bowl Linebacker
Riki Ellison spent 10 seasons swatting down passes as a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Raiders.
Today, his interest isn’t defending against National Football League quarterbacks. Rather, it’s nuclear warheads launched at the U.S.
Ellison was finishing college at the University of Southern California in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan outlined his plan for a so-called Star Wars defense, where attacking missiles would be shot down from space before reaching the U.S. The parallel to football was obvious to him.
“Sometimes you play zone defense, other times you play man-to-man, the key is to layer your defense so you can protect your goal line no matter how they attack you,”Ellison, 48, said in an interview. “That’s essentially how a missile defense system works.”
So after a 10-year NFL career that included three Super Bowl championships, Ellison started the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a non-profit organization in Alexandria, Virginia, funded in part by defense contractors.
Ellison’s goal of deploying a system of ground-based interceptors is shared by the Obama administration. Although North Korea’s tests of missiles in recent weeks has been condemned by international leaders, Ellison said Iran — surrounded by U.S. forces on three sides of the country in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan — is still the greatest threat.
“When they get a nuclear weapon, you will have nine to 10 countries inside the Middle East that will want to nuclearize and another 20 countries outside the Middle East who will want to nuclearize,” he said. “You can have a very unstable situation.”
Such defense systems would benefit companies including Boeing Co.,Raytheon Co., Northrop Grumman Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Orbital Sciences Corp.
At his office, his football past is evident. Jerseys from his days with the 49ers and Raiders are framed and hang from a wall. He keeps pictures of his four children and grandparents on a table just inside his office. In the middle of the table is a Koran; a gift from a visit to the Middle East with the Department of Defense.
Ellison didn’t take the typical path to football stardom. He was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, the son of Dan Ellison, an economics adviser to the United Nations based in Fiji. His mother, now Judith Gray, earned a doctorate degree in modern dance at the University of Arizona.
The couple divorced in 1968, and his mother took her son to Los Angeles where she had received a scholarship from USC.
A year later, Judith remarried, and moved her son to Rimrock, Arizona, where his stepfather had been hired to run a dude ranch and boys school.
The foreman, Marvin Hayes, had been a Sherman tank commander during World War II under General George Patton and became a grandfather figure to Ellison, talking to the boy about the war and introducing him to football.
“I treasured being on the ranch where there were no fences and no one saying you can’t do anything,” Ellison said. “So you are boundless in your ability to dream.”
Some of those dreams included football. He accepted an athletic scholarship at USC, where the football team won the national championship when he was a freshman and the 1979 and 1980 Rose Bowls.
When he wasn’t playing football, he pursued his other interests: technology and diplomacy.
He had an internship at the Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona, and studied Soviet foreign policy, arms control and strategic and defensive studies under teachers such as William Van Cleave, the director of Reagan’s transition team for the Defense Department.
In his senior year, he was applying for jobs at the State Department while working out for NFL teams. He said he wasn’t getting good news: After three knee surgeries in college, NFL personnel directors were telling him to forget about pro football.
A former USC teammate intervened. Ronnie Lott, who joined the San Francisco 49ers two years earlier, told coach Bill Walsh that the team should take a chance on Ellison, bad knees and all.
“Riki had this intensity; this desire to succeed that superseded everything he ever did,” Lott, 50, said in a telephone interview.
Walsh listened to Lott, who had earned a spot in the Pro Bowl both years he had been on the team, and took Ellison in the fifth round. In seven seasons with the 49ers and three more with the Raiders, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound linebacker made or assisted on 735 tackles, had five quarterback sacks, an interception and seven fumble recoveries.
Ellison lived up to his reputation as driven, Lott said. Once, he got stuck in traffic on the way to a game.
“So he pulled over, left his car on the side of the road and jogged to the stadium to get into the locker room before it was time,”Lott said. “That was Riki.”
During his NFL career, Ellison held internships at Lockheed Martin where he met Edward Teller, who helped develop the first atomic bomb while working on the Manhattan Project and was the force behind Reagan’s missile defense initiative.
Following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, Ellison, a registered lobbyist, formed his organization to work for the deployment of a missile defense system.
It is funded by about 9,000 private donors, defense contractors and others interested in missile defense. He wouldn’t identify them.
“In football, you can’t win by building everything around your offense,” Ellison said. “In the real world, it’s imperative that you keep the opponent from reaching your end zone, even once.”