Against all odds - UM’s Bryan Ellis overcomes life’s circumstances to chase his dreams
Against all odds - UM’s Bryan Ellis overcomes life’s circumstances to chase his dreams

The tattoo on the left arm of Bryan Ellis is simple and moving: a set of praying hands with the words "RIP Mom and Dad."

Ellis, a senior on the Montana men's basketball team, never really knew his parents. His father, Amasa "Lamont" Vontress, died when Ellis was an infant, a victim of AIDS who contracted the disease by sharing needles with fellow drug users on Detroit's Eastside.

His mother, Mattie Ellis, was ill from the day Bryan was born and also died from AIDS by the time Bryan was in third grade.

"I think he was a miracle child," said Ellis' grandfather, Clemmont Vontress, referring to the fact that Mattie Ellis was likely already infected with HIV when Bryan was born, yet the infant was free of the disease.

But don't feel sorry for Bryan Ellis. He wouldn't want you to. Adopted by his aunt and uncle, inspired by his college-professor grandfather, Ellis has gone from a marginal student in high school to the Dean's List at the University of Montana. And he's not finished.

"I don't think I could ask for a better life," Ellis says.

That Ellis should have so many blessings to count on Thanksgiving Day is a testament to the love and guidance of his extended family and to his own hard work and perseverance against all odds.

Ellis never even went home from the hospital with his ailing mother, avoiding foster care through the generosity of his aunt and uncle.

"My sister was sick and kind of mentally ill," said Rosie Franklin, who, along with her husband Morris, brought Ellis home from the hospital. "They were going to put him in a home."

Instead, the Franklins opened their home and hearts, raising the boy as their own.

"I couldn't ask for any better parents," Ellis said. "What the both of them gave me, I don't know if even my birth parents could've given me. That's how much they mean to me."

Rosie and Morris Franklin are both employed by the state of Michigan; Morris works in youth homes and Rosie for the welfare department. Morris had been a youth sports coach over the years and put a basketball "in my crib," Ellis said.

Getting involved in sports is one of the best options for kids growing up on Detroit's Eastside, where drug use and crime run rampant.

"The Eastside of Detroit?" Ellis says with a laugh. "I love it, but the Eastside of Detroit is a heavy crime area with drug houses and stuff."

The Franklins had children of their own, including Duran, who was the older brother Ellis idolized while growing up.

"My brother pushed me to be who I am today," said Ellis, who has a tattoo on his right arm that reads "I am my brother's keeper," pictured with a cross.

"One of the reasons I first started playing basketball was that my brother was so good and I wanted the approval of my father, so I had to work twice as hard to be better than my brother."

Both Bryan and Duran excelled in sports.

"In my house, I have awards all over my wall," said Rosie Franklin. "Bryan and Duran, they ran track and got so many awards."

Ellis played basketball at the Boys & Girls Clubs and in the Police Athletic League. Combined with pick-up games in his own backyard, it helped keep him out of trouble.

"None of my boys were any trouble," Rosie says. "My husband used to be a coach and he did a tremendous job with him."

But his involvement in sports became something of a double-edged sword when Ellis reached high school at Denby Tech. Basketball came first, school second.

By the time Ellis graduated from Denby, he couldn't have figured his own scoring average, as he hadn't yet mastered division. Ellis blames himself, in part, for his academic shortcomings at Denby. But a Detroit Public Schools system where resources are so scarce that books couldn't be taken home at night and where "kids are cussing out teachers" makes learning a challenge.

"I tell people all the time that I may not have learned a lot book-wise, but I learned a lot survival-wise," Ellis said. "I mean you have shootouts and stuff. It's more of a survival thing than education. I didn't see it as necessary because I was going to play basketball."

Ellis' graduation from high school marked a turning point in his life - in basketball, the classroom and his own self-awareness.

A couple of years before he graduated, Rosie thought Ellis should know more about his birth father's side of the family, the Vontresses.

"I felt like I came into this world on my own, even though I did have parents there who were loving," Ellis said. "I felt like there was something missing."

Rosie and Morris Franklin took Ellis to a Vontress family reunion in Ohio, where he met his grandfather Clemmont Vontress, the first African-American professor emeritus in the history of George Washington University. Rosie had kept Vontress up to date on the goings-on in Ellis' life, but the two had never really spent any meaningful time together.

"My mother knew that was a big thing missing from my life, knowing the other side of my family," Ellis said. "Just basic things, like my (adoptive) father on the Franklin side is a lot darker than me. It took for me to see my grandfather's side of the family to see where my lighter skin color, my features and even my personality came from. It was something missing and my grandfather filled a big hole for me when we finally reunited."

His grandfather promised him a trip for his graduation present and made good on it by taking Ellis to Paris that summer. The two bonded instantly.

"My grandfather said we had a spiritual connection," Ellis said. "We hit it off right away. I saw so much of myself in him, and I think he sees himself in me. It wasn't awkward at all."

Ellis toured Paris and met friends of his grandfather.

"That's when I think his world view opened up," Vontress said.

Vontress is regarded as the "father of cross-cultural counseling," according to one Web site. After retiring from George Washington University in 1997, he was coaxed out of retirement to teach graduate courses in counseling psychology as a visiting professor at Howard University, also in Washington, D.C.

Just spending time with Vontress whetted Ellis' appetite for education.

"When I sit there and look at my grandfather, I see a well-off professor who did great things," Ellis said. "When you come from the inner city where I come from, you don't see anybody like that so you don't think you can ever do something like that. The only thing there is is basketball or sports. Everything else around you can have a negative impact on you. You don't think, 'Oh, I can be a professor.' "

After that first summer with his grandfather, Ellis went to Butler Community College in Kansas to play basketball. He sat out his first season there with a broken hand and concentrated on taking remedial classes.

"From there, I just tried to pull my way up," Ellis said.

Ellis played at Butler the following season, then transferred to Salt Lake Community College as a redshirt sophomore. Each summer, he spent time with his grandfather in Washington. His thirst for knowledge grew.

"When I started to see him, I was astounded by his brilliance, his presence, his education and the knowledge he had," Ellis said. "I was like, 'Man, I want something like that.' I wanted to impress my grandfather because I look up to him."

He has. Ellis has gone from taking remedial classes at Butler to the Dean's List at Montana. Ellis said his cumulative grade point average is 3.7 at UM. He had a 3.85 last semester and says he has a shot at a 4.0 this semester. He's on track to earn his degree in sociology in the spring and will soon take the Graduate Record Exam so he can continue on to grad school, hopefully at Maryland so he can be close to his grandfather.

"I'm amazed at the transformation that I've seen in him," Vontress said. "I encouraged him to start keeping a journal of his thoughts last summer and he would share some of what he wrote with me. I'm amazed at the depth of his thinking. He seems to have an understanding of life. I wish I had had his depth of understanding of life at his age. His thinking is very much deeper than most of my doctoral students."

Once accepted to grad school, Ellis wants to go straight through to earn his doctorate in sociology. Then he wants to put that to use by helping kids in the inner cities, like the one he survived.

"I want to try to give kids from the inner cities a more positive outlook," Ellis said. "Try to get more of them into college, doing more positive things with their lives. I think the reason so many kids do so many negative things in the inner city is because they're impacted with so much negativity. There's no real positivity there, no real hope."

Exactly how Ellis will achieve that goal is unclear to him. Maybe as a consultant, perhaps as a politician, his grandfather said.

"That will become more clear to him as he gets more education," Vontress said. "I'm trying to encourage him to get a job on the Hill this summer, maybe in the office of one of the congressmen from Detroit. He could get a perspective on how he could help, a better view of how he could make the greatest contribution."

It should come as no surprise that Ellis is accomplished at overcoming obstacles on the basketball court as well. At just 5-foot-8 - don't believe the program that lists him at 5-10 - Ellis has excelled at a big man's game.

He first burst into the consciousness of Griz fans in a game last season on the biggest stage short of the NCAA tournament - the Griz-Cat game in Bozeman. Ellis twice stripped Montana State point guard Casey Durham of the ball and scored six points in a span of 15 seconds to spark the Grizzlies' 80-64 win.

"It was his point of arrival in his own mind," said Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, who recruited Ellis out of Salt Lake CC. "I spent a lot of time in the preseason telling him to stay positive, it will pay off. You never want a guy to get down on himself, then when he's called upon not be in the right mind to contribute. It was fortunate that when he was called upon, he made an instant impact."

Ellis was always the smallest guy on the court, particularly since he always played against older kids.

"They always made him the captain of the team," his Aunt Rosie said. "He can do a lot of tricks with the ball."

His deft ball handling stems in part from playing in his small backyard.

"We had a gate on one side … and to get to the hole you have to be pretty crafty with the ball," Ellis said.

As crafty as he is, Tinkle said the Griz coaching staff still wondered whether someone so short could make an impact on the Division I level.

"The more we watched him, the more we knew he had the intangibles we were missing," Tinkle said. "As we kept recruiting him, we knew he was what we were looking for. He led his team in steals and assists; he's the consummate point guard."

Ellis is a capable shooter and can blow past a defender if his opponent relaxes for even a moment. But his strength is distributing the ball.

"I had to find my niche and my niche was beating people off the dribble and making other people better," Ellis said. "The main thing is I get scorers the ball."

Ellis has been battling injuries to his wheels early this season. First it was a sprained ankle, then a bone bruise in his shin. He's been going a little easy in practice the past week, hoping to get back up to full speed by the time the Griz open play in the Old Spice Classic on Thanksgiving Day in Orlando, Fla.

The Grizzlies' tournament opener against West Virginia will be televised at 7:30 p.m. Mountain Time on ESPN2. It will be a rare opportunity for the Franklins, his grandfather and his siblings to watch Ellis play.

He'll be thinking of them, the Eastside of Detroit and how far he's come.

"I'm very thankful for my family," Ellis said. "Actually, I'm thankful even for the situation I was put into. I wouldn't be who I am today if I wasn't put into that situation. I wouldn't be wanting to work in the inner cities, talking to kids, getting my degree. What's motivating me to do those things is where I came from. Even in the absence of my parents, I learned a lot. I don't think I could ask for a better life.

"Some people may think their life is what the American dream is and everything. Just for me, in my own world, that kind of was living the American dream, living the life I've had. I'm very thankful for it."

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