Porter Ellett looked at Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, and then around the table at a slew of other NFL coaches, former and current — among them, John Harbaugh, the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, Sean McDermott, now the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, Brad Childress, former head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Ron Rivera, now the head coach of the Washington football team, and David Culley, now the head coach of the Houston Texans.
And for a fleeting moment, he thought, “What am I doing here?”
It was like that old bit on Sesame Street, where they’d show a toaster, a microwave, a dishwasher, a refrigerator and a schnauzer: “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things doesn’t belong.”
It was them and it was … him.
The dinner gathering was at a swanky steakhouse in Indianapolis, where the 2017 NFL Combine was taking place, the one where an evaluation would be made on a certain young quarterback by the name of Patrick Mahomes.
Ellett was all of 27 years old, a country kid out of Loa, Utah, who grew up feeding and tending sheep and pushing sprinkler pipe on his parents’ 180-acre farm. But he’d done more than just that. He had overcome. He worked at that juncture as Reid’s senior personal assistant.
When the slabs of choice beef arrived on piping-hot plates and were placed in front of each of the diners, Ellett’s plate arrived, too, his a nicely prepared fish dish.
Reid looked at Ellett and said, “What are you doing, ordering fish at a place like this?”
Ellett’s reply: “I was afraid I couldn’t cut the meat.”
Reid nodded, knowing the obvious, but not fully processing it in that particular second. His assistant had only one arm, one hand, his right arm and hand absent, lost to an amputation that stemmed from a childhood accident on a dirt road on Utah’s Boulder Mountain many years before.
“Here,” Reid said, “have some of mine,” as he took a fork and knife to his own steak, cutting up bite-sized pieces for Ellett. “You should have just ordered what you wanted. I would have been happy to cut it up for you.”
CHIEFS VS. BUCCANEERS
At Tampa, Fla.
When • Sunday, 4:30 p.m.
TV • Ch. 2
As Ellett remembered back on the moment, he said: “How many NFL head coaches would have offered that? But that’s the way coach Reid is. He treats people around him with …”
He paused, looking for just the right word … decency.
Andy Reid will coach his Chiefs team on Super Bowl Sunday, already having cemented himself as one of the NFL’s legendary mentors, reaching now for his second-straight Vince Lombardi Trophy. And Porter Ellett will be nearby, working as an offensive quality control coach, trying to help his boss win, again.
“Trying to keep earning coach Reid’s trust,” he said. “Trying to prove I was a good gamble.”
‘He could have died’
Ellett doesn’t remember with any exactness the specifics of that summer day 27 years ago, when he was riding in the bed on the back of his dad’s old Ford F-150 pickup with a handful of his older cousins. He remembers that there was a motorcycle strapped onto the bed and that the kids were taking turns sitting on it. What he has forgotten is what caused him to fall out the back, headfirst onto a rocky, earthen trail, a fall that cracked his skull in three places, scalping him as his head bounced off the hardpan. And worse, the impact partially severed an artery under his skull, and damaged nerves running from his head to his right shoulder, detaching nerves from his spine, causing him to lose the use of his right arm.
He was 4 years old.
“I remember this,” he said. “I didn’t want to be in the hospital. My mom says I was mean to the nurses. I was angry. My head was pretty beat up.”
That was just the beginning. He underwent surgeries on his head at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City and later was flown to Houston for an additional surgery repairing what could be fixed amid the nerve damage. But the right arm could not be restored.
“My arm was dead,” Ellett said. “I lost all feeling in it.”
Said Mary Ellett, Porter’s mom: “He could have died. The doctors showed us pictures of his brain. He had a brain bleed. A main artery might have been completely severed. We were happy that he lived. We looked at it like that.”
Still, it can break a parent’s heart, watching a toddler deal with that kind of trauma, everything from seeing little Porter struggle to learn to tie a shoe with just one hand, looping the string around the bottom, applying pressure, pulling it tight, to hearing cruel remarks from other children and adults alike, as they stared at the kid who eventually had the arm removed because it not only was of no use, it was a nuisance, just hanging from the shoulder, getting in the way.
Before having it amputated, Ellett broke the arm six different times and dislocated it on three occasions. After the last one, the decision was made by the boy himself to have it cut off.
Thereafter, he became, in the eyes of too many, an anomaly and in the eyes of some, he said, “a freak.”
“He had to battle through a lot,” Mary said. “He had to fight. He got tired of people staring at him. But he decided that if they were going to stare at him, he wanted them to see something good. … He didn’t want people feeling sorry for him.”
Through only short, scattered periods did he feel sorry for himself.
“There were things I knew I couldn’t do,” Ellett said. “I wanted to do the things I could.”
Not long after the accident, he started playing baseball and basketball, attempting to play them. On the field he learned to catch the ball with his glove, drop the mitt, flipping the ball into his hand and throwing it. On the court, he learned to catch and shoot with his left hand.
“I was a good hitter and I could pitch,” he said, underselling the point a bit. Ellett went on to become a 1A All-State selection at Wayne High School in baseball and basketball. He also ran track and cross country. “I loved to compete.”
His parents did not coddle him, resisting the temptation to come running to their son’s aid at every turn. If he had a job to do or a fence to mend or climb or a lamb to feed, he was left to do it on his own.
Life on the farm
When Porter was 10, he was charged by his father, Jan, on a buzzard-hot summer morning with moving sprinkler lines, lines that had 18 separate joints, each of which had to be moved individually across an alfalfa field.
“I got through 10 of them and I was tired,” he said. “I fell to the ground, looked up at the sky and said to myself, ‘I can’t do this.’ I hoped my dad would come help me, but when he didn’t, I realized I had to finish it on my own. I had to push through it.”
He did and he did. The one-armed pusher.
A few years later, when Ellett spent an entire day driving a tractor, preparing a field for crops, he wondered again if anyone would come help him. Eventually his father, who had work of his own to finish, came out to hand him a cold beverage, not to take the helm and rob Porter of his duties. And the son told his dad, “I hate this.”
Jan Ellett’s rugged-love response was: “Good. Get an education so you can do something else.”
Porter went through a stage in his teenage years when he disliked and distrusted people because of the way they looked and pointed at him: “They weren’t nice points,” he said. “So … I hated everyone. I was pretty bitter for a couple of years.”
As time passed, he learned and relearned that he couldn’t control the actions of others and if he tried, he’d only disappoint himself. He was more at ease just powering on.
“You have to survive,” he said. “I told myself to be happy.”
He played his sports. Lived his life. Found his victories, big and small.
“I learned I could thrive. I could play.”
There was a most unfortunate stretch when and after he broke his good arm while sliding into home plate during a high school game and for that time, he was armless. But that passed, too.
He gained friends among his teammates and coaches, who respected him, but, more importantly, treated him as though he were “normal.” They accepted him.
There also were humorous moments. Like the time he was riding a motorcycle, and he turned without signaling and another motorist circled back to scold him. When Ellett revealed to the driver that his arm was missing, they both laughed and went on their ways.
During and after high school, from which he graduated in 2008, he continued to labor on the family farm, until he went on a church mission, and thereafter he enrolled at BYU. He read the book “Moneyball,” and decided he wanted to work in sports. What he wanted and what he did diverged, though, instead, upon earning his degree in economics, he got a job as a tax analyst for Goldman Sachs in Salt Lake City.
After a year of that, his keenly discerning wife, Carlie, asked him if he was happy in his career. No, he was not.
Finding his passion
He said he’d prefer to pursue his original love — sports. He had worked for a semester as a student equipment grunt for BYU football, and he loved being around those players and that game, and wanted to coach it one day, some day, although he had never played it. Next thing, he enrolled in a sports management graduate program at Baylor. As he neared completion of that, he was invited to come to a Kansas City Chiefs game by a friend, Devin Woodhouse, who happened to be the husband of Andy Reid’s daughter, Drew.
After the game, Ellett found himself at Reid’s house, where he met the coach and briefly chatted with him, informing him of his future dreams.
Reid, apparently, was impressed.
A short time later, while studying back at Baylor, Ellett got a voice message from the Chiefs coach, letting him know that Reid was interested in hiring him in a full-time position as his personal assistant.
When he returned Reid’s call, so eager to accept, the coach said he needed a right-hand man. He asked, “Can you be that?” Ellett answered back, “I can be your left-hand man.”
“Good enough,” Reid said. “Be here on Monday.”
That was in 2017, and over the next few years, Ellett wrote out schedules, created call sheets for games, and sat in on offensive meetings, absorbing everything he could. He matriculated to his position now, putting the Chiefs’ playbook together, working with tight ends and quarterbacks. He’s watched and advised a bit here and there as Mahomes transformed himself from a promising college QB into an NFL and Super Bowl MVP.
“Patrick is such a solid person,” he said. “I’m amazed by him. He works hard, he’s smart and he’s disciplined. He hasn’t changed from when he was first drafted until now.”
Regarding his boss, Ellett said Reid is a good soul, a perceptive one, concerned about people’s best interests, and a great coach who submerges himself in football’s deepest end. Already, he is the sixth-winningest coach in NFL history and he ranks fourth in all-time postseason victories. At 62, if Reid sticks around for the foreseeable future, as Mahomes has said he will, imagine what the two of them might achieve moving forward.
“With him, it’s all about the football,” Ellett said. “It’s not about being a prima donna or rah-rah speeches. He just tells everyone what they need to know and that’s it. He believes in people. He treats them well. He believes in their abilities. He believed in me and mine. It was a gutsy move for him to bring me in the way he did. I didn’t have any experience as a coach.
“I’m most grateful to learn what I’m learning. I love the team, the guys, the game. But I know when I sit next to him, I have a lot more to learn. He’s brilliant. And he loves BYU, so he loves having a BYU guy in the fold.”
Reid is a BYU alum.
Of Ellett, Reid said: “He’s quite a person. I can be rough on [him] a little bit in that position. He’s got a tremendous amount of responsibility. When the best of my red hairs get to me, he handles it and smoothes it out and just kind of calms the storm.”
Now, as an offensive assistant at 31, Porter Ellett is a Reid confidant, much more than just the head coach’s version of Colonel Potter’s Radar O’Reilly, and an aspiring NFL head coach.
A confidant and an aspirant for whom Reid, a certain future Hall of Fame inductee, willingly and happily leans over and cuts his own Porterhouse for him to sample.
As for Sunday’s Super Bowl, the game his parents will for the second year in a row be attending and cheering full-throttle at — “Although,” said Mary, “I’m a big Tom Brady fan” — Ellett was asked who will win. He chuckled, thought on it for a few moments, and said, “Hopefully, we will.”
The Left-Hand Man from Loa already has.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.