Patriots’ Green-Ellis has secret to not fumbling
The man behind the player who never fumbles is shouting now.
“I do believe this, 90 percent of it is mental!” LSU running backs coach Frank Wilson cries into his phone. “You can make yourself not fumble the ball!”
He is on a crusade to keep players from fumbling footballs. It’s something he has been screaming about since he coached high schools on dusty New Orleans fields and became consumed with perfecting an adage mumbled by coaches for as long as he had known: “You must protect the football.” He devised his own philosophy about fumbling, invented drills to prevent it and makes the players he coaches repeat his mantra: “It’s all about the ball!”
And now, with the world preparing to watch Super Bowl XLVI next Sunday, Wilson has an Exhibit A in New England Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Wilson’s former back at the University of Mississippi has never fumbled in four NFL seasons. That is a streak of 536 catches and carries, an NFL record for the start of a career, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“Fortunately he’s somebody who embraced it,” Wilson says of Green-Ellis, who fumbled three times at Ole Miss after coughing it up seven times while playing for Indiana University.
It is a hard thing to imagine, teaching a player not to fumble. Fumbles seem like such random events, as dependent upon luck and the determination of a defensive player running up from behind with a fist cocked and 250 pounds of force coming down on the ballcarrier’s forearm. Asked about his fumbles record last week, Green-Ellis appeared to agree.
“I’ve been blessed to hold onto the ball,” says Green-Ellis, who rushed for 667 yards on 181 carries in the regular season. “I’ve been fortunate that God has looked down on me.”
He talks about a division-round playoff game in which Baltimore’s 330-pound defensive tackle Haloti Ngata stripped the ball from Houston running back Arian Foster. “There’s nothing Arian Foster could do in that situation,” says Green-Ellis, who is apparently 150 touches short of the longest fumble-less streak ever by an NFL running back.
But as he talks more about fumbles and a childhood spent in New Orleans and the coach he’s known since junior high school – the one who brought him to Ole Miss and who taught him to hold the ball high and hard against his chest – he sounds less like a player who believes his lack of fumbles are not a result fortune and more like a disciple of the mad man obsessed with fumbling.
“He was always on me about ball security,” Green-Ellis says of Wilson. “I didn’t appreciate it back then.”
Told this, Wilson laughs. He is in his car, visiting high schools for LSU, where he is also the school’s recruiting coordinator. But he remembers well the hours he spent lecturing Green-Ellis on the principles of holding onto the ball. He’s done the same with every running back he’s coached at Mississippi, Southern Miss and now LSU. The talks never change. The lessons are always the same. “Whatever you do,” he screams at them. “Don’t let go of the ball!”
Far too often, he has seen players fumble and then heard the coach afterward demand that his players protect the ball by not carrying it carelessly into traffic. This always struck him as backward. Why talk about ball security after a fumble? Why not before? “What are the preventative measures?” he asks. When Ole Miss made him its running backs coach in 2005, he took his thoughts and put them into a program.
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“It’s a state of mind,” he says. “You’ve got to live it. You’ve got to put running backs in a position where they can eliminate fumbles. For instance, when they are in traffic or off-balance when they are being tackled, their natural instinct is to reach for the ground, and that’s when the ball gets knocked away. If you are on the street and you fall, you put your arms out to stop the fall. It’s the same thing in football. When you are being tackled, you try to break your fall. We have to retrain the muscle memory.”
To do this, Wilson developed a series of drills he ran over and over at Mississippi. He taught the players to hold the ball differently. Rather than clutch it with one arm near the waistline as they ran, he demanded they instead tuck it in their right arm up against their chest and wrapping their left arm across the right, making it nearly impossible for a defender to wrest the ball away.
But simply holding the ball high against the chest isn’t enough, Wilson says. Old habits are hard to break when running in games. So Wilson made fumble drills a prominent part of Mississippi’s practices. Several times he’d stop the running backs and insist they work on falling without dropping their hands or practice running with the ball pressed against their chests. Eventually, he says, the lessons started to stick.
He invented new drills, like one to force players to keep the ball pressed against their bodies. Since a natural inclination for a player, when cutting to the side, is to let the arm and the ball fly away from the side, he had them run endlessly, making cuts while holding the ball tight to their shoulder pads. He also attached a leather strap to one ball, calling the device “the slingshot,” then had his players run while he trailed a few yards behind holding the strap, trying to yank the ball from the players’ arms. This, he said, was to teach them to guard against defenders’ hands chopping from behind their backs.
“It’s a learned behavior to keep the ball against your body,” he says. “It’s all about the ball!”
And lest Wilson’s running backs tire of hearing this phrase in practice, it follows them into the meeting rooms where Wilson utters it repeatedly. He demands his players reply to his daily “Good Morning” greeting with “Good Morning Coach, it’s all about the ball!” During film sessions, he’ll stop the camera and the running backs on cue will cry: “It’s all about the ball!”
“I tell these guys, ‘Now that I’ve taught it to you, let’s talk about ball security,’ ” Wilson says. “When you carry that ball, you’re carrying it for not only yourself but for every teammate, every coach, every cheerleader, every student and every administrator at the school. You have to say, ‘This is my ball and nothing else matters!’ ”
Four years removed from those meetings, Green-Ellis chuckles into the phone. He is sitting just outside the Patriots’ locker room, in the days before the Super Bowl against the New York Giants. And yet even now he can recite Wilson’s lectures.
“I try to stick to the fundamentals of holding onto the ball,” Green-Ellis says.
In many ways, Wilson is Green-Ellis’ savior. It was Wilson who always kept watch over him on those dusty New Orleans fields initially as a coach and then later as the athletic director for the New Orleans Parish. When most of the big colleges ignored Green-Ellis, it was Wilson who pushed the running back toward then Indiana coach Gerry DiNardo, who recruited Green-Ellis to the Hoosiers and made him an immediate two year starter. And it was Wilson who brought Green-Ellis to Ole Miss after DiNardo was fired during Green-Ellis’s sophomore year. It was Wilson who offered a comforting hand when the floods from Hurricane Katrina destroyed all of Green-Ellis’ relatives homes.
And it was Wilson who forever told Green-Ellis never to let go of his NFL dream.
“There was something unique about him,” Wilson says. “Even as a junior high kid he was very serious about what he was trying to do.”
“He never let me take the easy road,” Green-Ellis says of Wilson.
Or drop the ball.
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