Alex Hoffman-Ellis, a standout senior linebacker at Washington State, had to transfer high schools and play one season at a junior college before finding the right path.
PULLMAN — Even as a baby, Alex Hoffman-Ellis was strong. He’d hoist himself out of his crib, and soon, his parents would hear a thump.
Twenty-two years later, Pac-12 football coaches will vote in a few days on the all-conference teams, and there might just be a place somewhere in there for the Washington State senior linebacker.
Some journey it’s been. It includes the midwinter day of 2008-09 when his “Cali car” got stuck on a little hill in snow-strapped Pullman. He got out, called his mom in L.A. and said he wanted out.
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“She obviously talked me out of it,” Hoffman-Ellis said this week. “She said it would grow on me, and this place obviously grew on me. I feel really comfortable here now.”
He’s been there for most of the whole grim ascent in the Paul Wulff regime, but he doesn’t have a lot of regrets, other than scant victories. But he had never programmed out this whole football thing, so in a sense, everything’s a bonus.
“For all of us,” says his father Jeff, “it’s just been pretty phenomenal.”
Hoffman-Ellis averages 7.3 tackles a game, sixth in the Pac-12, a reflection of his progress in a sport foreign to him as a kid.
Growing up in Los Angeles, his sports were baseball and basketball. His dad remembers him as a “phenomenal” baseball player, and some people thought he had a future there.
But that passion faded, and then came a couple of problematic years at Santa Monica High School, where he recalls compiling a 1.7 grade-point average and getting embroiled in a mess bigger than he was.
Santa Monica High had a history of racial turmoil, much of it between blacks and Latinos, and although he’s white, Hoffman-Ellis didn’t shrink from the conflict.
Blacks were easily outnumbered, and his dad says Hoffman-Ellis took on a role as their defender.
“I think Alex got on some people’s bad sides,” says Jeff Hoffman-Ellis. “There were some threats against him. He wasn’t getting into regular fights, but when the fights broke out on campus, he was ready to step in.
“At Santa Monica, his counselor said it was best for him to transfer to another school.”
“It took getting waist-deep in trouble to basically say, this is not the path for me,” Hoffman-Ellis says of his time at Santa Monica.
His grades had rendered him ineligible, but his life began to change when he transferred to nearby Hamilton High and got recruited by the football coach to join the team.
“He tried out, made the team, and we went 9-1, best record in school history,” says Kelvin Moore, the coach. “He was the captain.”
Hoffman-Ellis was enchanted by football — when he wasn’t turning in a variety of quality track and field marks — but recruiting revolves around early high-school performance, so he was unheralded.
“You do one year of JC,” Moore told him, “and I guarantee you’ll have offers.”
Hoffman-Ellis went to nearby Moorpark JC, although at Hamilton, he had bumped his GPA to about a 2.5 and scored a healthy 1,770 (of 2,400) on the SAT.
“It was never a matter of not getting stuff,” Hoffman-Ellis says, thinking back to Santa Monica days. “It was just a matter of going to class, paying attention and participating. More respect for authority, I suppose.”
Unbeknown to him, Hoffman-Ellis was a “qualifier” — he didn’t need to earn a JC degree to enroll in a four-year school. Meanwhile, former WSU assistant coach Malik Roberson, making a spring recruiting sweep in 2008, discovered Hoffman-Ellis would be immediately eligible, after one year at Moorpark, and when the Cougars had scholarship room in August, they invited him up for a visit.
“I spent a lot of time with him,” says Wulff. “It was not a normal visit, to be honest. I asked him if he had an anger-management issue. What I liked so much was, I think he was 100 percent honest in his assessment of himself and what his issues were. I just felt, ‘This kid has a clue; he’s not clueless.’ He just made the decision (in high school) to be different and change.”
Of course, the story doesn’t continue with New Year’s Day bowl games. Hoffman-Ellis committed, redshirted that year and was often aghast at what he saw.
“Just being on the sideline for blowout after blowout, witnessing the tension between, really, the seniors and underclassmen and new coaching staff, it was almost like, ‘What did I get myself into?’ ” Hoffman-Ellis says. “We’ve come a long way from that, to say the least.
“I can remember an instance where a guy just dressed up at halftime (into his street clothes). He just said, ‘I’m not going to play anyway.’ It was that bad.”
It’s different now, not where WSU seniors hoped it would be, but still, different. After the aggravation of the Utah loss, though, Hoffman-Ellis surprised some when he declined to talk about the future of the program.
This week, he explained, “I’m trying to stay in the present. With that said, I absolutely do feel this program is on the upswing and guys are really going to be ready next year to take this thing to the next level.”
However you assess the level now, Hoffman-Ellis helped put it there.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org