No Big Deal, Lions' Bruce Ellington Is Playing With One Hamstring

He talks about it casually, as if it's any old injury.

Will Burchfield
November 27, 2018 - 10:24 am

© Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

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As far as Bruce Ellington is concerned, his left hamstring is good. Whether or not it's completely healed after surgery in 2016 and a couple setbacks since, he can't be so sure. 

"I don't know if it’s fully recovered because they removed it, so I don’t have it anymore," Ellington said on Monday. 

Wait, what? He doesn't have his left hamstring? And he's still playing in the NFL? 

"It’s the semitendinosus," Ellington explained, referring to the smaller of three muscles that comprises the hamstring. "That muscle they took away. I’ll be alright, though. I still can jump, I can still dunk."

Wait, what? He's 5'9? And he can still dunk, one hamstring and all?

"Yes sir. All vert. I got a video on my phone, I’ll show it to you later," Ellington grinned. 

The scrum around Ellington's locker dissipated, and the veteran wide receiver pulled out his phone and began scrolling through his camera roll. At the same time, he recounted to a couple reporters who stuck around just how he came to be missing a muscle that would seem to be essential to playing sports, much less playing in the NFL. 

In the third game of the 2016 preseason when he was still with the 49ers, the team that took him in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, Ellington fielded a punt, shed a tackle and turned up field. 

"When I went to plant and go I just felt something in my leg, and when I looked down I just saw, like, a ball right there," Ellington said, pointing to the inside of the back of his knee. "The ball was the hamstring that popped." 

Trying to educate a pair of baffled reporters, Ellington explained they could probably identify the muscle if they felt toward the back of the knee. So both reporters began doing so. Then they nodded as if they understood and looked up toward him for confirmation. 

"I can’t feel it anymore. I don't have it," Ellington said with a laugh. 

Right. Of course. 

Ellington was diagnosed with a torn hamstring, and the 49ers placed him on season-ending IR. When he consulted with team doctors, they told him, hey, it's probably best if we remove the muscle altogether. If he kept it, they explained, it would only build up scar tissue and keep giving him problems.

So let's just take it out. 

"At first I was like, 'What?'" Ellington said. “It freaked me out.”

To assure him it was a viable option, the 49ers called then-Cowboys head physician Dr. Daniel Cooper, who had performed the operation on a few players in the past, including a couple baseball players. They all came back fine, Cooper told Ellington.

He also told him that Texans great Andre Johnson had the surgery done in 2011, then made the Pro Bowl each of the next two seasons. For a fellow receiver trying to hack it in the NFL, that was good enough. So Ellington went under the knife.

He recovered well, but was released by the 49ers and new head coach Kyle Shanahan in the 2017 preseason. He signed the next day with the Jets, who released him two days after that. The Jets team doctors, Ellington said, were incredulous when he told them part of his hamstring had been removed. So Ellington found a team that could relate, the same team and training staff that had dealt with Johnson’s recovery several year prior: the Texans.

As luck would have it, Johnson was in the building when Ellington visited with Houston, hanging around practice in his first year of retirement. Naturally, Ellington asked him for advice. Johnson gave him the name of a local doctor he used to go to for needling and massages, and told him to just stay on top of treatment. Ellington began seeing that doctor twice a week.

He was hesitant at first on the field – one leg muscle short, and all -- but his speed and explosiveness returned pretty quickly. He went on to have a strong season in Houston, carving out a role as a slot receiver and a punt returner. Until Week 13, when he re-aggravated the hamstring. The same thing happened this season, only in Week 3. The Texans placed him on IR, with the understanding he’d be sidelined at least four weeks.

Two weeks later, Ellington said he was good to go. He holds out his phone as proof -- he’s finally found that video. Sure enough, Ellington rises up from a standstill and flushes the ball through the hoop. 

“I was trying to tell them, ‘I’m good,’ but you know how that process works,” he said. “They want to make sure you’re good. I’m like, ‘I’m really good.’ I’m sending them videos of me running routes, me dunking, going to the gym. I’m showing them videos, but they were like, ‘Nah,’ and then finally after I got done with (rehab) they finally released me.”

At the time, the Lions were looking for someone to replace the recently-traded Golden Tate. Ellington was a natural fit. They signed him to a one-year deal worth the veteran minimum. The receiver corps was further depleted that week when Marvin Jones went down with a knee injury that would end his season. Ellington suddenly had a golden opportunity.

He debuted for the Lions in Week 11 and caught six passes for 52 yards in a win over the Panthers. He added six more catches in last week’s loss to the Bears. He was second on the team in targets to Kenny Golladay in each game. In an offense with very few weapons left, Ellington’s emerging as one of Matthew Stafford’s go-to guys. And the only guy among them with one hamstring.

He knows what people are saying about the Lions’ patchwork receiving core. He knows no one’s giving them a chance this week against the high-flying Rams. He smiled and said that only increases his hunger to make plays. He's always been the underdog. As for being released three times in the past three seasons, most recently by the team that helped him revive his career, well, that’s the NFL.

“I always had strong faith, so I knew I would be picked up by somebody. It’s all about me just staying healthy,” Ellington said. “I think once I can do that -- I’m going to do that -- I feel like I can play anywhere against anybody.”

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