When one thinks of the Los Angeles sports scene of the 1980s, one will likely first think of the Los Angeles Lakers, who won five NBA world championships behind the excellence of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and numerous others.
There were the Los Angeles Dodgers, winners of two World Series in that decade thanks to the laser-like pitching of Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson’s heroic home run in the 1988 Series.
One may also think of the Raiders team that won the Super Bowl behind University of Southern California standout Marcus Allen.
The Los Angeles Rams weren’t one of the National Football League’s elite teams of that era, but Henry Ellard made his name as one of their biggest franchise pillars for a decade.
His talent and skills helped make them a consistently respectable and competitive team during his tenure with them.
Henry Austin Ellard was born on July 21, 1961 in Fresno, Calif., a medium-sized city located in inland California in the heart of what is known as the Central Valley.
He became a star at Hoover High School, not just in football but also in track and field. In fact, he won the 1979 CIF California State Championship in the triple jump.
Ellard then remained very close to home by matriculating to Fresno State University. Although Fresno State isn’t exactly an NCAA football powerhouse, he would stand out and begin to draw attention to himself while there.
His early days at Fresno State were very quiet, as is the case for plenty of future NFL stars. As a freshman in the fall of 1979, he had just nine receptions for 136 yards and three touchdowns.
That year, he was used chiefly as a kick returner. In that department, he registered 18 kick returns for 402 yards.
His sophomore season was only marginally more productive, yielding 493 yards and three touchdowns on 28 catches.
But in 1981, Ellard began to find himself. That year he contributed 808 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 39 receptions, plus 441 yards on 20 kick returns.
His senior season was when people, especially pro scouts, started to take notice in earnest. He caught 62 passes for 1,510 yards, which was a new NCAA record, and 15 touchdowns, and in his spare time, he even added 100 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown.
Thanks to Ellard’s production, the Fresno State Bulldogs went 11-1 and advanced to the California Bowl versus Bowling Green State. After falling behind 21-0, the Bulldogs fought back for a last-minute 29-28 win.
Ellard’s big senior season helped raise his national visibility, and with that, he entered the 1983 NFL Draft.
Los Angeles Bound
The 1983 NFL Draft is considered one of the most talent-laden drafts in league history. It yielded the likes of quarterbacks Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and John Elway, running backs Eric Dickerson, Curt Warner and Roger Craig and defensive back Darrell Green.
Ellard wasn’t one of the biggest names of that draft, but he was certainly on the radar.
The Los Angeles Rams were in remodel mode after coming minutes away from defeating the dynastic Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV. They had finished a dismal 2-7 in the strike-shortened 1982 season, and to make matters worse, the Oakland Raiders moved to L.A. the same year, cutting deeply into the Rams’ longtime fan base.
New head coach John Robinson, formerly the head man at USC, was looking to quickly turn things around. After taking Dickerson with the second overall pick, the Rams nabbed Ellard with the 32nd overall pick in the second round.
At 5-foot-11, he didn’t have elite height, but in that era it would be enough to allow him to hold his own against opposing cornerbacks. What Ellard did have in spades was jumping ability, as evidenced by his track and field success in high school.
He was also a strong route runner and had a solid ability to block and open things up for his teammates.
The biggest problem for the Rams at the time was the QB position. Their starter, Vince Ferragamo, wasn’t Pro Bowl-caliber, and there would be a revolving door at that spot for some time to come.
As far as Ellard was concerned, he would have to pay his dues. He appeared in 12 games in ’83, but he started none of them, and he would only catch 16 passes for 268 yards and no touchdowns.
Just like in his early years at Fresno State, he was used more as a kick and punt returner. He took 15 kickoffs for 314 yards and fielded 16 punts for 217 yards.
Still, he had his moments. In Week 1 against Phil Simms and the New York Giants, Ellard caught three passes for 91 yards, giving the football world a sign of things to come.
In the final game of the season, the Rams needed a win in order to claim a wild card playoff spot. To help his team’s cause, Ellard returned a punt 72 yards and scored a touchdown as L.A. squeaked by the New Orleans Saints by two points.
The Rams finished the season with a 9-7 record, sending them to the playoffs for the first time in three years. The biggest reason was Dickerson, who had a whale of a rookie year with 1,808 yards and 18 touchdowns.
In the wild card round, they would play the Dallas Cowboys, who won 12 games and boasted superstar running back Tony Dorsett. Although Ellard didn’t play a big role, the Rams won 24-17, despite being heavy underdogs.
In the divisional round, L.A. was rolled by the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins 51-7. But for the first time in a while, there was some real optimism surrounding the team.
Ellard became a full-time starter in 1984, and although he wasn’t close to the team’s top option on offense, as the Rams were a run-heavy team, he did increase his numbers to 622 receiving yards and six touchdowns, as well as 403 yards and two touchdowns on punt returns.
Even though Ellard didn’t have the most attractive numbers, he got high recognition by being selected to the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro First-Team, mostly thanks to his excellence in returning punts.
Henry Ellard was a terrific punt returner for the Rams during the 80s. In 1984 he took this one against the New York Giants for a 84 yard touchdown pic.twitter.com/RWwdpq2AfW
— RAMS ON FILM (@RamsOnFilm) October 13, 2021
The Rams won 10 games and were again participants in the playoffs. But in the wild card round against the Giants, they fell behind 10-0, and although they pulled to within three points in the fourth quarter, their offense went cold, and they fell short by the final score of 16-13.
In 1985, the Rams continued to improve, especially on the defensive side of the ball. So did Ellard, who would post 811 yards and five touchdowns on 54 catches, plus 501 yards and a touchdown on punt returns.
Henry Ellard didn't catch the punt cleanly.
The Eagles didn't catch him at all.
(Sept. 15, 1985) @RamsNFL #PHIvsLA #SNFonNBC pic.twitter.com/jfC6zBgZKR
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) December 17, 2018
Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons saw his first 100-yard game, as he tallied 123 yards and a touchdown in a 17-6 win. He would repeat the feat again in Week 8 when he gained 120 yards and scored a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers.
In Week 14, Ellard again shone brightly against the Niners, this time with 98 yards and a touchdown to help the Rams win and clinch a playoff spot.
🗓️ OTD in 1985: The Rams clinched a playoff spot with their 27-20 win over the 49ers on MNF! SF led 20-13 w/5:38 left, but the Rams fought back as Henry Ellard grabbed a 39 yd TD to tie & Gary Green supplied the game winning pick 6 immediately following that…#RamsHouse #MNF pic.twitter.com/X7FaCw279H
— 80s Football Cards (@80sFootballCard) December 10, 2021
With an 11-5 record, the Rams finished first in the NFC West for the first time since their Super Bowl season of 1979. They blew past the Cowboys 20-0 in the divisional round to advance to the NFC Championship game against the Chicago Bears.
The Bears, coached by Mike Ditka, had put together a dream season, winning 15 games and boasting perhaps the greatest defense in the history of the game. Ellard was held to one catch for five yards and just six yards on one punt return, and L.A. was frozen by the eventual world champs, 24-0.
After a carousel of quarterbacks, the Rams finally found a reliable one in Jim Everett during the 1986 season. Although Ellard missed the first seven games of the campaign due to a contract dispute, he did well afterward, putting up 447 yards and four touchdowns in nine games with the help of Everett.
Once again, he went over the 100-yard mark in two games that season.
After posting a 10-6 record, the Rams got shut down in the wild card game by the Redskins, 19-7, as Ellard was held to 14 yards on just one catch.
The 1987 season was marred by a player’s strike, which cost the NFL one week of games and resulted in teams having to field replacement players for another three weeks. But afterward, Ellard shined bright, recording 799 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games.
Unfortunately, the Rams finished just 6-9 and missed the playoffs. It was a time of change for them, as Dickerson was traded following a contract dispute, and it would effectively make Ellard the team’s top threat moving forward.
With the Rams needing more from Ellard, he would respond by taking his game to a higher level.
He would be aided by the recent signing of new offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese. Zampese had previously been on the coaching staff of the San Diego Chargers under head coach Don Coryell, and he would bring some of the elements that gave the Chargers a feared, high-powered offense to L.A.
Under these conditions, Ellard exploded in 1988 for 1,414 receiving yards, which led the league, and 10 touchdowns. He played his best ball in December with 298 yards and three touchdowns to help the Rams end the season with a three-game winning streak, which included a 38-16 thrashing of the San Francisco 49ers in the final game.
Ellard’s efforts that month earned him the NFC Offensive Player of the Month award. For the season, he also earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro First-Team honors.
🎂 Happy Birthday Henry Ellard!
🏈 1988 Season
🥇 NFL best 1,414 yards receiving
🥇 NFL best 88.4 yards/game
🥈 NFL 2nd best 86 receptions
🥉 NFL 3rd best 10 TD receptions
🐏 Set Rams single season reception record
🏆 NFC 1st Team All-Pro Selection#LARams pic.twitter.com/2YRSjLpaGa
— 80s Football Cards (@80sFootballCard) July 21, 2020
Thanks to him, the Rams surged to a 10-6 record and returned to the playoffs. Although Ellard had perhaps his best playoff game to date with 54 yards on four catches, L.A. lost in the wild card round to the Minnesota Vikings, 28-17.
Despite missing two games in 1989, Ellard continued his stellar production with 1,382 yards and eight touchdowns, sending him to the Pro Bowl for the third time. By now, the team had one of the NFL’s best offenses, as it ranked second in points scored in fourth in total yards.
Here's the game that Henry Ellard mentioned as his favorite. pic.twitter.com/g2djdy4fPo
— Christopher (@Heypally78rpms) December 6, 2017
The Rams finished 11-5 that year, which was certainly a strong record, but they had the misfortune of peaking at the same time as the 49ers, who tallied a 15-1 record with arguably the greatest team in pro football history.
Ellard did well come playoff time, posting 87 yards and a touchdown in L.A.’s wild card victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. He then turned it up with 125 yards on eight catches to help L.A. upset the Giants in overtime to advance to the NFC Championship Game.
Once there, the Rams proved to be no match for Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and the stratospheric Niners. They held Ellard to just two receptions and 18 yards en route to a 30-3 destruction of the Rams.
As the 1990s dawned, the Rams’ fortunes would decline. But Ellard’s game would not, as he put up 1,294 yards in the 1990 campaign, then followed it up with 1,052 yards in 1991.
Ellard had now entered his 30s, and he appeared to be in decline over the next couple of years, only posting 727 yards in 1992 and 945 yards in 1993.
The 1989 season was the last time the Rams would make the playoffs for a while. For numerous reasons, they failed to reach seven wins in a single season over the next several years, and fan interest in Southern California was way down.
After the 1993 campaign, Ellard decided to move on and join the Washington Redskins.
Mr. Ellard Goes To Washington
The Redskins had been one of the NFL’s premier teams in the 1980s and early 1990s, winning three Super Bowls during that span. But by 1994 they had become subpar, and they were hoping Ellard would take them back to the level they had enjoyed not too long ago.
At age 33, Ellard would continue to produce big-time. Most NFL players are in serious decline by that age, but he would age more like a fine wine.
The Fresno State product put up 1,397 yards in ’94, to go along with six touchdowns. His total yardage was second in the league, behind only Rice.
However, it didn’t translate into wins. Due to poor quarterbacking and defense, Washington won just three games that season.
They improved slightly to a 6-10 record in 1995, as Ellard contributed 1,005 yards and five touchdowns. The following season, the 35-year-old wideout posted 1,014 yards and led the NFL with 19.5 yards per catch.
Washington improved again, winning nine games, but the Minnesota Vikings, who had the same record, held the tiebreaker, and thus the Redskins were forced to watch the playoffs on television again.
Finally, in 1997, Ellard would fall off a cliff. Although he still averaged a decent 15.2 yards per reception, head coach Norv Turner went to him less often, and Ellard had just 485 yards and four touchdowns, his lowest output since 1986.
Yet again, the Redskins missed the playoffs by a narrow margin.
After playing two games for the Redskins in 1998, Ellard left and joined the New England Patriots. He played in five contests for New England, but his production was scant, as he had just 86 yards.
The 1998 season would be Ellard’s final as a player, as he retired shortly afterward.
Ellard retired with 13,777 receiving yards, which, at the time of his retirement, was third in NFL history. His 814 career receptions also rank pretty high on the all-time list.
Still, he has never gotten any serious consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Perhaps it was because he played for some teams that were good, but not great.
Ellard’s career production is similar to that of Andre Reed, the longtime wideout for the Buffalo Bills. Both their careers overlapped, but Reed played on a team that went to the Super Bowl four consecutive times, giving him more exposure and helping him eventually reach Canton.
Ellard himself has some ideas.
“I proved the point that I could still play at a high level even though it was with a different team,” he said many years after retiring. “I think really what hurt more than anything else is that, once I left the Rams, the Rams left L.A. and moved to St. Louis. So I think you kind of get lost there in that move, more than anything else. You don’t have the coverage in L.A. where I had the majority of my career.”
Ellard also had the misfortune of never really playing with a great QB, unlike Reed, who got to play with Jim Kelly, a Hall of Fame signal-caller.
“When I compare myself to guys who are already there,” he said of the Hall, “the only question … and something I have always asked .. is (what would have happened) if I would have had the opportunity to play with some of the quarterbacks these Hall of Famers have played with — compared to my career where I played with 10 different quarterbacks? And yet the body of work still speaks for itself.”
When the Rams moved back to L.A. in 2016, they were welcomed back with open arms, but it could be argued that they didn’t have as robust a fan base as they had enjoyed decades earlier. As a result, perhaps the memories of Ellard have faded more so than comparable wideouts from his era.
After his NFL career ended, Ellard quickly went into coaching, landing an assistant coaching job at Southern California Christian High School, and he was later named the assistant track-and-field coach at Villa Park High School in Orange County, Calif.
By 2000, he had become a coach at his alma mater of Fresno State when the Rams, now based in St. Louis, made him their receivers coach. There, he had the good fortune of getting to guide Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, two of the better wideouts in the league.
With his help, the Rams went to the Super Bowl in 2001, his first season as their receivers coach. Despite being heavily favored against the Patriots, they fell in the final seconds when Adam Vinatieri hit the game-winning field goal.
After seven years with the Rams, which included a full-blown rebuilding process, Ellard became the wide receivers coach of the New York Jets. Upon arriving there in 2009, the Jets went to back-to-back AFC Championship Games, losing to the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively.
For the 2012 season, Ellard was hired by the New Orleans Saints, a job he held for three seasons. Afterward, he became the head coach at San Antonio Christian High School.
Away from the gridiron, Ellard is a family man. He is married to Lillian Ellard, with whom he has had three children: Christiana, Alexandria and Adriana. The former wideout also has two children, Whitney and Henry Jr., from a previous marriage.
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