Football star, professional athlete, animal lover, history buff, music and art lover, packrat, and genuine friend.
Those are some of the words friends use to describe Roger Ellis, a former University of Maine star lineman who went on to play pro football before starting a second career as a U.S. Secret Service agent.
Ellis, 70, died May 14 after a long battle with urological cancer, according to lifelong friend Ken Everts, who grew up with Ellis in Westwood, Mass.
Perhaps the New York Jets Web site sums it up best when, three months after the death of fellow UMaine and New York Titans player Thurlow Cooper, it refers to the deaths of both as “The Passing of Two Titans.”
Both men played for the New York Giants as well as the New York Titans.
Everts is also executor of Ellis’ estate, which is proving to be a very demanding job for a friend with so many wide-ranging connections, friends, and employment experiences.
“The phone never stops ringing,” said Everts, who used to deliver Sunday papers and work a summer job at the local historic cemetery with Ellis. “I’ve been calling the Giants, the Jets, Secret Service people, plus all his friends. I’m up to my ears. Fortunately, he was well-organized.”
That’s a common refrain from Ellis’ friends, along with his affinity for throwing almost nothing away.
“Roger was a packrat. He saved everything,” Everts said. “He didn’t have one of something. He’d have two or four of everything.”
Well, everything except computers, cell phones, and other advances of the digital age. Ellis had little use for those, but he did have a gift for organization and attention to detail.
“He had great attention to detail and an ability to plan and see things in such a thorough manner,” said Barrymore Ivers, a Rangeley native who met Ellis when Ellis was a Secret Service agent stationed in San Francisco. “He studied things to the point where there was nothing left unturned.”
Ivers, who ran a combination gas station, garage and car rental company in Mill Valley, quickly became friends with Ellis and Bill Norris, a mutual funds broker who also hailed from Ellis’ home state. Even after Ellis moved back east, the two remained friends.
“We did a lot of things together over the years. We stayed in touch and we’d visit each other now and then,” said Ivers, who said their friendship lasted 30 years. “I even saw him in a couple instances when he had to make arrests.
“He was quite a guy. He was very straightforward and as honest as they come.”
Not to mention hungry…
“Roger loved to eat and my mother was a great cook. Every time he’d come by, she’d hide the cakes or whatever in our washing machine, but he could sniff out anything,” Everts recalled. “One day he discovered this big cake and practically ate the whole thing.”
Longtime UMaine coach Walter Abbott, Ellis’ Black Bears teammate in the 1950s, isn’t surprised to hear a tale like that. He has a few of his own.
“Boy he could eat,” Abbott said of his 6-foot-3, 233-pound linemate and Phi Mu Delta fraternity brother. “We’re on this canoe trip one time and I told Bobby Foster not to let Roger near any of the food. We had a big chocolate cream pie and Bobby and Frank Knight paddled across the river. When they came back, all they could see was his ears and a pie plate.
“Another time it was late at night and there were 20 brownies in a brick in foil on a canoe. I bet [former UM and current Harvard football coach] Tim Murphy $50 that they would all be gone in the morning. Murphy didn’t think so because everyone was asleep. The next morning, the only thing left was the tin foil.”
Abbott recalled Ellis as an intense and great player, an intelligent engineering student, a very caring person, a gentle giant, a unique person, and a fellow superstitious athlete.
“I was left guard and he was center so I would always make sure I was on his left side, no matter where we were… cafeteria, class, whatever,” Abbott said. “We were roommates on the road a lot, too.
“We were down at Rhode Island one time and you had to lug your equipment up to your room because the buses wouldn’t lock. We had new equipment so we figured we ought to try it on.
“Well, we started going one on one with each other right in the room and started tearing the place apart. There’s a knock at the door and coach [Jack] Butterfield and the hotel manager are there because they had some noise complaints. Since I was a senior and he was a junior, I told him he had to get the door and I dove in bed with my equipment still on. He told them he dropped his helmet a few times and, I don’t think they believed us, but they left.”
Abbott and Ellis remained in touch through the years, and talked a lot the last three weeks before Ellis’ death.
“He was a solid guy, a good friend and someone you could count on,” Abbott said.
He was also a quintessential dog lover.
“He loved his labs. He called Ace and Sammy his boys,” said Everts. “He would check them in when he stayed in hotels. When he had to leave them behind, he’d give them to friends and even leave a list of TV shows they could watch.”
In lieu of flowers Ellis, who walked dogs for a local animal orphanage, requested that donations be made in the name of “Roger Dog Walker at the Animal Orphanage of Old Town” to any animal protective organization.
Ellis, a Westwood High Hall of Fame member and two-time All-Yankee Conference pick in college, was drafted in the 15th round of the 1959 NFL Draft by the Giants. He lasted until the final cutdown day of preseason and then signed as a free agent with the American Football League’s Titans, with whom he played three seasons as an offensive starter and special teams player.
After working as a district court probation officer for three years (1966-68), Ellis became a Secret Service agent and served on details protecting Vice President Spiro Agnew and Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.
Ellis was predeceased by his parents, George and Anna, and sister Shirley. His remains will be interred with those of his family at Olde Westwood Cemetery. A graveside service will be held at a later date.