He walks by the wall, slowly turning to point to the mass collection of backpacks, 12 of them in all, before opening a door to bedlam. The first to greet him is Koa, a mammoth American mastiff. Second is son Micah, who wants to tell his dad about what he learned at school after latching onto his dad’s leg.
Luther Elliss makes the rounds, finding each son or daughter, asking about his or her day, about what went right and what went wrong. The former University of Utah star defensive end and two-time Pro Bowler, drenched in sweat from a full day’s work on the football field, eventually completes the task.
Moving swiftly is Rebecca Elliss, who is in the middle of organizing 12 different dinners for her 12 kids ranging from 18 to 2. She and Luther already had three young children under 6 as he was emerging as a star in Detroit. That’s when they adopted their first child, which started the snowball. In the next 13 years, they had eight more kids.
Five are biological, seven are adopted, but the couple doesn’t publicly identify which children are adopted and which aren’t.
They all are Ellisses. All their children; Kaden, Olivia, Christian, Noah, Isaiah, Isabelle, Sophia, Jonah, Micah, Elijah, Mia and Colsen.
Isabelle begs Luther for his iPad, saying she needs it for homework. Sophia approaches her father and pokes his massive bicep, hoping to show him a worksheet from school. As Luther continues to greet and entertain his family, Sophia playfully rolls her eyes and moves on with her business.
Focus isn’t something that can be spared in the Elliss household, and Luther knows it. While he’s in the process of obtaining his licenses to become a financial advisor as well as acting a spokesman for the NFL, he is in his first year coaching the offensive and defensive lines at Judge Memorial High School, where Kaden stars as the starting quarterback.
Luther is back in his comfort zone, his competitive juices flowing once again. He coaches with a thunderous voice, his patented smile and flip-flops.
It’s been too long, his family said. Luther Elliss and his relationship with football is an elaborate string of roads and roadblocks that stretches back four decades. And he knew he needed to come back.
“Winning comes second,” Luther retorts.
Return to the field
Sitting in the dining room in their home in the shadow of Mount Olympus, Luther and Rebecca Elliss pause. Rebecca met her husband 21 years ago when the two were athletes at the University of Utah. Rebecca swam for the Utes, and Luther did what Luther did. He got after the quarterback. He was a consensus All-American in 1994 and the 20th pick in the 1995 NFL draft.
They think of an appropriate answer.
What has football done for this family?
It took them to places they’d never imagined.
It made them millionaires.
It played a part in their declaring bankruptcy.
It made them unbreakable.
Two-year-old Colsen, who already has had two heart surgeries in his young life, squats on the elongated wooden dinner table. He wraps his small arms around a large football as Luther prepares his answer.
“I think football, overall, kind of helped to solidify what the Elliss name means,” Luther said. “By that I mean it helped give us somewhat of an identity. It helped us, as far as myself and my wife, identify characteristics we want associated with our family: Hard work, integrity, excellence, intensity, competitors, not just talking about sports, but life in general.”
“I kind of have mixed feelings about football,” Rebecca follows. “At the same time, it was an amazing blessing. We met great people, had great opportunities, the doors that have opened for [Luther] because of it has been awesome. We’ve been blessed.”
Football has once again been the match to the flame Luther has missed since last playing with the Broncos in 2004, the final of his 10 season in the NFL. He wanted to help coach the Bulldogs a year ago and still regrets not jumping in then. Rebecca said football, simply, is Luther. It’s how she’s always known him.
“It seemed like a piece of him was missing,” she said.
Luther paces the sidelines on a steamy Friday night in Salt Lake City. The Judge offense can’t get going against an athletic Woods Cross defensive line. Luther sees Kaden scramble under constant pressure all evening.
While Luther continuously coaches and preps his players, Kaden talks to teammates, asking them their thoughts on how to solve the issues.
They’re part of two teams, two captains leading their respective groups on the same field.
“You definitely have to keep things together and things have to run together,” Kaden said. “It’s all one machine. Each part has to do their own thing. You can’t try to go off and do someone else’s part.”
‘The every man’
Amid the constant chaos of shrieks and laughter is Kaden, a senior at Judge Memorial. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, he looks the part of a high school quarterback in his red No. 10 jersey. He has floppy hair and a reputable approach.
But he has Luther’s determination flowing in those veins. He is the product of football, of a family who approaches life with the intent on emerging victorious in anything it does.
“Kaden definitely has the drive his father does,” Judge coach James Cordova said. “There’s no such thing as a day off in the Luther vernacular. Kaden has definitely adopted that into his life.”
Cordova said Kaden is the exemplary high school student-athlete, adding that his senior quarterback is humble, contrite and is “the every man.”
On Friday nights, Rebecca sits in the stands at McCarthey Stadium and keeps her eyes on Kaden, and if they’re dressing, freshmen Noah and Christian.
Her eyes don’t move.
She describes the feeling of Friday nights as being a nervous wreck. She recalls the days in Detroit and Denver when Luther had control, when he had the moves to chase down quarterbacks and leave them indented in the turf.
Kaden turned 18 on July 10. Rebecca took her son to practice and remembers looking in the passenger seat and the onset feeling of tears filling her eyes. She couldn’t believe the oldest, the rock, her favorite babysitter, could get a tattoo or register to vote. Kaden quipped back he could get arrested for real.
On the radiating turf at Judge Memorial, Luther is coaching. He’s holding a hockey stick, testing the timing and reactions of his defensive linemen. As Luther’s voice echoes in the empty stadium, Kaden jokes with friends in his green quarterback jersey.
Back at home, Kaden sits where Luther sat, carrying the same heir of confidence “Big Daddy” does.
When he’s not in the classroom or under center, Kaden is the next adult. He solves the riffs and breaks up the quarrels. It’s how he translates home to the huddle.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said. “Pluses and minuses.”
Luther shakes his head, rubbing his massive palms together as he finds the appropriate description of his oldest son.
“He is just so much farther along than I was,” he said. “The way he carries himself just makes me proud as a dad. I consider him to be a real man.”