COLUMBIA — Whether he planned to play football or wrestle, Mark Ellis knew since his sophomore year of high school that it was going to be for the University of Missouri.
From Peculiar, Mo., Ellis was a stand-out in wrestling and football for Raymore-Peculiar High School. The then 215-pounder was heavily recruited by the MU wrestling program.
And while the MU football program attended his games to scout one of his best friends, former teammate Chase Coffman, it also took notice of Ellis, an all-conference defensive lineman.
Ellis was faced with a tough decision. He was torn between his two favorite sports.
When MU wrestling coach Brian Smith called him to ask if he was going to wrestle, Ellis informed him: “I’m not going to wrestle. I’m going to walk-on for football somewhere.”
“Where do you think you’re going to walk-on?” Smith asked.
“I think Missouri.”
“Good,” Smith replied. “Well, if you do walk on at Missouri and ever change your mind, let me know.”
Although the football program didn’t have enough scholarships for Ellis, it persuaded him to try out for the team as a preferred walk-on, meaning he could participate in all the team practices and activities.Ellis began practicing, hoping to impress the coaches enough to earn himself a scholarship, but he noticed something that began to bother him.
During the two-a-day practice period, he’d bump into members from the wrestling team everyday. Members of the football team would look up at the wrestlers running the steps in the stadium and say, “Those guys are crazy.”
Ellis began wondering if, perhaps, he had retired too early.
“I started thinking, ‘I’m one of those crazy guys,’” Ellis said.
He was merely an outsider looking in - a result of his decision to play football.
But he knew it didn’t have to be that way.
He missed the camaraderie, the friendships and the sport itself. He missed the feeling he got from hours of training on the mats and pushing himself to the point of exhaustion. He remembered how it all paid off when he’d have his arm raised in victory.
“I really started missing it a lot,” Ellis said. “It’s a privilege to be able to wrestle.”
Ellis knew that Smith had watched him wrestle in high school and liked what he saw enough to offer Ellis a scholarship.
And he remembered that Smith’s offer still stood.
A couple weeks after his trials with the MU football program, Ellis went to Smith’s office, not to say, “See you, coach,” as he now does after each practice, but for another reason.
“Come on in,” Smith said, anticipating Ellis’ next words.
“I’ve been out on the football field, and I realized I have a better opportunity in wrestling,” Ellis said.
Smith was hoping he’d say that.
Ellis was instantly accepted as a member of the MU wrestling team, and he was still what he had wanted to be since high school - a Tiger.
His redshirt season, as a 218-pound heavyweight, Ellis was more a cub than a tiger. Considered light for the weight class, he initially had some trouble facing opponents who often outweighted him by 50 pounds.
Ellis would often get thrown around during matches, and when he’d take shots, the bigger wrestlers would use their weight to squash him. He started to have his doubts not only about making the switch from football to wrestling, but also about his future.
Eventually one of the team’s leaders, two-time NCAA national champion Ben Askren, came to him with a proposition.
“You’re living with me,” Askren informed Ellis.
“I almost felt like I had to move in with him,” Ellis said.
As a result, a close friendship formed and not long after, things began to change for Ellis.
“That’s when I realized I wanted to be a national champ and could be a national champ,” Ellis said.
Conditioning has always been one of Ellis’ strongest points. During the offseasons, he runs and lifts weights about five or six times a week. He coordinates workouts with his good friends, MU tight end Chase Coffman and his younger brother, Kansas State backup quarterback Carson Coffman. Their father also runs a speed training camp during the summers.
Ellis doesn’t hold himself to a typical heavyweight’s standards during the team’s scheduled runs, and Smith said he is among the faster runners on the team.
“I’m not just trying to beat the heavyweights,” Ellis said. “I’m trying to catch the next guy in front of me.”
Last season, Ellis began developing into a legitimate heavyweight competitor, both physically and technically. He qualified for the NCAA championships and finished the year with a 16-11 record. Although it was a good learning experience, Ellis knows he has to keep putting in the work to reach his goals.
“I do realize I have stuff to work on, and I’m willing to do it,” Ellis said.
This past offseason, Ellis gained about 20 pounds. He now weighs about 240 pounds.
Although eating whatever you want sounds like a simple concept, Ellis disagrees.
“Everybody tells me, ‘Eat, eat, eat, and put on weight,’” he said. “I kind of get tired of hearing that. I’m not afraid of getting fat. I just really want to put on a good weight so I’m still able to move and feel good.”
Smith said Ellis doesn’t wrestle like a typical heavyweight. With his scrambling, agility and shot-taking ability, Ellis uses his endurance to wear heavier opponents downhelping him record a lot of falls.
So far this season, Ellis has an 11-2 record. At the Las Vegas Invitational last weekend, he won the Gorarrian Award for most falls, but he was unsatisfied with his seventh-place finish.
“I kind of thought I’d be a little bit further along than I am,” Ellis said. “That was my initial thought after this past weekend.”
Smith said Ellis will be fine if he learns to consistently stick with the gameplan.
“He made a few big mistakes at the tournament and he’s made them a few times during the year,” Smith said. “We’re trying to get him to buy into doing things a set way: Go out there with a gameplan, stick with the gameplan and he’s going to be more successful. As he buys into that more and more, as the season progresses, he’s going to get better and better and be tougher and tougher to beat.”
Since heavyweights wrestle last, Ellis is also trying to learn to not get so involved with his teammates’ matches.
“I get really excited when they do something good; I get really down when something goes wrong,” Ellis said. “So I have to try to keep a happy medium and not get too up or down, just kind of relax.”
Occasionally the tall, brown-haired heavyweight with long sideburns will glance down at the tattoo on the front half of his right thigh and read the words as if the Bible were sitting right there on his lap: “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, My God, my rock in whom I take refuge; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. Psalm 18:2”
Ellis said he reads the Bible and tries to go Church as often as he can to stay encouraged during tough times. He also occasionally attends a Bible study.
But religion is not the only thing that crosses his mind.
After his wrestling career concludes, a return to football is not an impossiblity.
“Sometimes I think: Will I play again someday?” Ellis said. “I don’t know, it’s always an option. I think if I would have decided to play football here, I think I could have done OK. I think I would’ve found a way to get out there and make something happen. But I try not to think about it too much now. I’m really enjoying this and I do love the sport of wrestling.”