Rhett Ellison following in his dad's NFL footsteps

MATT RICHENS
Last updated 05:00 05/05/2012

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As a rugby player, Rhett Ellison says he was OK at best. He had the size but didn't really comprehend the game as well as he might have and drifted away from the sport.

Worry not, the now-23-year-old, who spent three years studying and playing rugby and cricket at Christchurch's St Andrew's College, has landed well and truly on his feet.

Ellison was this week picked up in the NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings, becoming the third New Zealander to play in the competition.

While he may not have ever made it as an All Black, he's now earning the same as the most senior players in the world champion rugby side.

"I was too tempted to pass the ball forward when I played rugby," Ellison joked, speaking from Washington DC.

The minimum contract for a rookie in the NFL is US$355,000 (NZ$439,000) a year, and Ellison, like all rookies, has signed for four.

After four years of playing college football, where he wasn't allowed to be paid, his first purchase would be warm clothes for the freezing Minnesota winter and a new car, he said.

"It's been a pretty crazy week.

"It kind of does not feel real; it was pretty stressful, then exciting. It's been an amazing week."

Ellison played for, and in his senior year captained, the University of Southern California Trojans football side in Los Angeles, and with most of the NFL teams based in considerably cooler towns, the climate change was something he was at least expecting.

For all other tips, he only has to call father Riki, the first Kiwi to play in the NFL who famously won two Super Bowls with the Joe Montana-led San Francisco 49ers.

Ellison Jr – who picked up his dad's size – was a fourth-round pick in the draft and his new Vikings side is the team Dave Dixon, the last Kiwi in the competition, played for.

Ellison stands at 1.96m, weighs 114kg and can play both tight end and fullback.

He said he was picked a lot earlier than he had expected and wasn't even at his house when the phone call came.

Tight ends don't normally get picked in the first two rounds of the draft because other positions are more sought after.

"I was so stressed and nervous, I'd gone for a walk to clear my head," he said. "I got a call from the Vikings to tell me I was about to get picked so I ran home."

When he arrived, Ellison was lost for words, but the tears of joy gave him away.

"We knew he'd been picked as soon as we saw him," Riki said. "He was crying and just said `Vikings'.

"It was pretty special."

While the Ellisons expected Rhett to be picked a lot later, if at all, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said his opinion of Ellison was a lot higher.

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"He's very modest," Spielman told Sports Illustrated's website.

"I know that he was going to go right around there. For a fact."

A clearly proud Riki said while his son was no superstar, it was the other attributes he brought to a team that helped him get picked so early.

"It's the intangibles," Riki said.

"Rhett is a leader and is a real team man. He was named captain in his senior year at college and USC have named an ongoing award after him, the Rhett Ellison leadership award."

The USC side were an impressive one last season and Ellison is one of just three members of the side to be picked up in the 2012 draft.

First-round fourth pick, offensive tackle Matt Kalil is another and is Ellison's best mate.

The Vikings have struggled of late and haven't qualified for the post-season since 2009, but Riki Ellison suggested they were much like the Blues rugby side; lots of good players, but lacking in compatibility.

He said the side had made big changes in the last two seasons and was on the way up.

He was confident, too, that his son could help the programme and be a long-term player in the NFL.

Because he was picked so high in the draft, it is assumed by those in the know that Ellison will start and play a substantial role in the Vikings' NFC North Division title charge.

Ellison has already won the early points in the competition with his dad, getting picked in the fourth round of the draft to Riki's fifth, but he said he wasn't yet thinking about matching the two Super Bowl rings.

"That's a long way off. I just want to do what I can to play as well as possible for the Vikings."

His first regular-season outing is likely to be in September, when the Vikings take on the Jacksonville Jaguars.

- The Press

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