Hawaii is paradise.

Warm sandy beaches, all the pineapple juice you could drink and cool breezes that kiss your cheek and make the palm trees dance. The sun always shines and life is perfect, Ellis Henderson thought.

So why was he so unhappy?

Ever since his first visit to the islands growing up, Ellis had made Hawaii his target destination. He'd been back a handful of times before crossing the ocean in 2011 to attend the University of Hawaii with the hopes of playing football.

That's the first time he remembers it getting really bad.

"I'd wanted to be there my whole life," he said. "It's supposed to be happy all the time. But again I felt bad, I felt sad, and I didn't know why."

He wouldn't know why for almost three more years. Not when he transferred to Montana in search of a change in 2012. Not when his anxiety grew so strong it prohibited sleep and started to decimate his schoolwork. Not even when it began to ravage his once-fit body.

The Grizzly wide receiver missed most of last season because of an ailment diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome, that much is true. But illness is never so simple and what manifested physically, what brought him to the brink of suicide in the spring of 2014, originated mentally.

Chronic depression is the most powerful foe Ellis has ever had to face.


Ellis couldn't sleep. At the same time, sleep is all he wanted to do.

The college junior hadn't emerged from his bedroom in more than two weeks in the house he shared with fellow wide receiver Jamaal Jones. The room was dark. It smelled awful. He felt awful.

When things started near the beginning of spring semester 2014, he'd call or email his professors to let them know he wasn't feeling well. Most obliged his request for absence, sending work along so he could keep up. The papers and readings quickly piled high. The quantity was overwhelming.

Ellis couldn't get out of bed. He'd try to sleep all day but nothing was working. His mind swirled in the darkness. It took him places a 21-year-old college athlete, one surpassed in fan admiration perhaps only by that of his teammates, should never have to go. He didn't recognize himself.

"My first thought I'd have was thinking of ways to end my life," Henderson told the Missoulian this week in a candid sit-down interview. "I kept thinking of reasons I shouldn't, why I should, what would be different."

Jamaal was Ellis's only roommate. The two bonded almost immediately upon their arrival in Missoula. Like Ellis, Jamaal had transferred to UM from a larger school, joining the Griz from the University of Washington before the 2013 season. They began living together Jamaal's first year.

Together they were expected to be among the top pass-catching duos in the Big Sky Conference for the 2014 campaign.

That hardly mattered now. Jamaal could see his best friend was sick. Ellis couldn't keep down food. The weight was disappearing by the day. Even his hair was beginning to fall out in patches.

"It was just bad coming home every day and seeing him the way he was," Jamaal remembered. "He just wasn't who I had known him to be."

Ellis had struggled with bouts of deep sadness at times in the past -- the rainy, gloomy winters that dampen the Pacific Northwest and his hometown of Vancouver, Washington, are infamous for such effects -- but nothing like this.

Without sustenance, malnutrition set in. The worse he felt, the more his thoughts frayed under the stress. He'd get more sick, vomiting or worse in his room, and in turn the stress would amplify.

"It's a vicious cycle and you beat up on yourself," he said. "I think a lot of times when you have depression or anxiety, if something bad happens, it's the end of the world."


During his days at Skyview High School, when a younger Ellis was tearing up the Greater St. Helen's League as an all-district pick at four positions, two friends took their own lives.

When news reached the teenage Ellis, a smiling and amicable young man even then, his reaction was not one of sympathy or even grief. He felt angry -- and angry at them.

"I didn't understand why someone would do that," he said.

Depression and anxiety disorders affect 40 million adult Americans each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In a 2012 study, another 2.2 million adolescents ages 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode that year.

Suicide Awareness Voices of Education reported in 2013 that depression is the cause of more than two-thirds of all suicides, which is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Among younger Americans (15-24), it ranks second.

Still, depression isn't always regarded with the same severity that physical ailments are. People still don't really understand the disease, Ellis said. That's as frustrating to someone suffering as it is to those closest to him or her.

"I still think depression is just a word to a lot of people," he said. "It's hard for people -- it was hard for me to understand it until it affected me personally."

Ellis didn't know what he was fighting. And he was too weak to fight it alone.

Jamaal was there every day in spring 2014, doing what he could to help, but his friend guarded him from the truth. Ellis couldn't talk about it. He didn't know how -- until sadness turned into fear.

Torrey Myers, then the receivers coach for the Griz, monitored his wideouts' academics with class checks, making sure their grades were up to snuff to remain eligible. When Ellis came in to discuss his long list of missed classes before spring practices began, it all came out.

The depression. The sickness. The suicidal thoughts. The fear.

"As a coach, you like to think you know your guys inside and out, and then when he tells you something like that you realize you don't," said Myers of the emotional meeting. "That was a wake-up call for me."

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Ellis failed as many classes as he passed that semester before heading home to Vancouver for the summer to seek further help. He'd been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders that March in Missoula after talking with Coach Myers. In Washington, Ellis continued to see doctors for his stomach -- a long-lasting bacterial infection triggered IBS -- and psychiatrists for what was harder to figure out.

He improved, but his physicality never returned. While visiting his father, Ron Henderson, in May 2014, Ellis remembered a striking moment as he descended the home's stairs one morning without a shirt. His once-sculpted arms hanging loosely across suddenly pronounced ribs, Ron's face told the whole story.

Ellis wasn't better. By late July, more than 20 pounds had been sapped from his body.


Fall football camp opened in 2014 with Ellis determined to regain his form with the team. A few pounds had clung back to his 6-foot-1 frame, though he wasn't up much from rock bottom: 168 pounds.

A week later beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams was found dead of suicide. After his death, Williams's family revealed the actor had struggled with depression for years.

One of Ellis's favorite films to watch with his mother, Maggie Mohammadi, was Williams' 1993 comedy "Mrs. Doubtfire." His own depression again seemed very, very real.

The college football season began with Montana playing at Wyoming on Aug. 30. Though academically ineligible initially, Ellis was able to start the opener after filing for an academic waiver with the NCAA, citing his mental and physical illness from that spring.

The preseason all-America candidate, a 1,000-yard receiver the year before, caught five balls for a modest 48 yards against the Cowboys.

After 14 receiving TDs in 2013, he'd manage just 12 total catches in 2014.

His health continued to decline. His latest anti-depressant medication wasn't effective and the stress of school on top of the football season sent Ellis spiraling once more. He appeared in only three more games before withdrawing from school in October. Few knew the full depth of his struggle, even among the Grizzlies.

"I didn't want him to feel like when he went home that we had given up on him," said Myers, now a coaching intern with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens working with the running backs. "Knowing what he was going through, 99 percent of the world is gonna go home and never come back in that situation."


The thing about mental illness is it affects everyone a little differently, Ellis explained. He went through eight medications before finding the one that worked for him. And each took four to six weeks to kick in. That's a lot of time spent firing into the dark.

"We know more about space and the depths of the ocean than we know about our own brain chemistry," he said.

But Ellis's other medication, one just as crucial to his return to the Grizzlies this year, was conversation. He'd met with a behavioral therapist and psychiatrist in Vancouver, trying to find a path out of the darkness.

A path that he honestly wasn't sure even existed.

"When you're in that mode and you don't even know you have something, you don't know that it could be better," he said.

But it got better. Little by little every day. And it seems easier to discuss each time he talks about it now, too. When the doctors weren't around, he found he could finally talk to his support system -- his parents and five younger siblings, his girlfriend of four years, his best friend Jamaal.

"It took for me getting to that point, thinking I might as well stop now," Ellis said of the final push that sent him toward healing. "Again, I might not have done it if I didn't have the love and support of my family, my girlfriend and Jamaal."

Talking still helps. The hardest thing to comprehend when Ellis was buried by his own mind is his biggest recognition now. There's no way to get better without it, because depression is too deep to tackle on your own, he said, even if that first step feels impossible.

"It's hard to be out in the open. As a man especially, if you talk about it, you're a wuss or you're soft or there could be something wrong with you," Ellis said. "It doesn't make you a bad person. It doesn't make you a weak person."


Weak was the last descriptor Ellis ever pictured for himself. He loves competition, especially physical competition. Always has. He loves talking smack, loves being aggressive, loves burning by a defender on his way to the end zone.

He's sitting in the bleachers in the northwest corner of Washington-Grizzly Stadium after a practice this week, his shoulder pads and maroon No. 7 jersey freshly peeled from his once-again athletic body. He's up to 195 pounds now, a goal accomplished behind a revamped diet -- no lactose and very little gluten -- and Montana's strength and conditioning regime.

The only visual reminder of his battle, of the worst year of his 23 on this Earth, is hidden below a white bandanna head wrap he wears under his helmet. His close-cropped hair still has islands of alopecia -- bald spots.

He smiles, playing with his receivers gloves. It's the little things that he keeps noticing since re-enrolling at UM in January and joining the Grizzlies for spring practices in March. Even filling out preseason paperwork and the minutiae of equipment checkouts feel gratifying.

"When something like this gets taken away, you appreciate every little thing that you do," he says. "The fact that I'm here and back on the field, I couldn't be more thankful."

The Big Sky has already returned Ellis a year of eligibility after he left school last fall -- he'll remain a redshirt junior -- but his academics are once again out of order. His withdrawal leaves him behind on the NCAA's mandated five-year road to graduate. He's filed a second academic waiver, complete with a personal letter telling his story. He hopes to hear a ruling next week.

And if the NCAA says no?

"Part of my new attitude is not to stress out about things, 'cause I already do," he responds. "My big thing now is love yourself. I think happiness is the most fleeting emotion."

Montana's coaching staff is happy to see him back in maroon and silver, too. The Griz are just as anxious as Ellis to hear the NCAA's ruling.

"We're a better team with Ellis, but we want Ellis to be OK," said running backs coach Justin Green, one of the few staff carryovers from last season's team after a head coaching change. "We want Ellis to be Ellis again."

For the first time in a long time, Ellis wants that, too.

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