Jill Ellis' moments

Jill Ellis was emotional while spending time with her assistant coaches before her final game as U.S. women's national team head coach. (USA Today Sports)
Jill Ellis was emotional while spending time with her assistant coaches before her final game as U.S. women's national team head coach. (USA Today Sports)

CHICAGO — There were no more records to break. No more agonizing decisions to make. No more players to counsel, or film to dissect, or systems to devise, or drills to oversee. At around 3:25 p.m. on Sunday, at one last news conference, there were only questions. And a few of them made Jill Ellis choke up.

She didn’t quite cry, but did trail off, her voice wobbling, drunk on emotion. It had welled inside her throughout the day, her final one as U.S. women’s national team head coach. As she delivered one last pregame address. As she peered through one last team-bus window, one last front-row seat all to herself. As she doled out one last pregame hug. She’d needed the occasional deep breath to compose herself. A scrunch of the face to fight back tears. “You kind of get in the moment, and you push through,” she said of her battle with overwhelming emotion. But as she high-fived players en route to the field, her emotions pushed back.

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Now, at her postmatch media session, they were once again forceful. Memories took control, draining her words of their strength. Memories of moments. And of the humans who conspired to conjure them.

Moments were the currency of a journey that came to an end on Sunday. A journey that took Ellis all over, to at least four continents, to dozens of cities thousands of miles from home. And to the top, twice in a row, a place no coach had ever before returned. Asked what she was most proud of from her five-plus years as boss, Ellis briefly broke from character. “I mean, two stars is not too shabby,” she said with a cheeky grin.

But asked about her status as the all-time winningest coach in the history of the all-time winningest program in women’s soccer, she reiterated a message that defined her final weekend. “It never, honestly, was about a number,” she said. “Numbers, all that, kind of fade away. It becomes about the players, and the staff, and the people, and just the memories.”

It was about, as Ellis had said a day earlier, “those moments that make you feel alive.”

The moments, and the people behind them

It is difficult to summarize in a single picture frame what Jill Ellis has meant to women’s soccer. Unless, that is, you ventured to the south side of Soldier Field on Sunday, hours after Ellis had exited stage left. There, on a mostly empty, enclosed field of matted-down grass, stood the #ThankYouJill board.

(Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
(Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

It began as two pictures and a résumé. Throughout the morning, children and parents and couples and companionless fanatics turned it into a scattershot letter of appreciation. U.S. Soccer provided markers and adhesive notecards. Fans provided gratitude. They thanked Ellis for the superficial accomplishments, the two World Cups. But also for her “dedication” and “commitment.” For, as one parent wrote, “inspiring my girls and girls throughout the world.” For “driving excellence” and “giving every young girl a role model to look up to.”

Young girls were the primary contributors to the mosaic. Two notes in the upper-left-hand corner, however, made the collage complete. “Coach,” the first one began. “Thanks for believing in this small town girl.” And the second: “Thank you for seeing something in me.” They were signed with a graduation year and jersey number, presumably by two of the first moment-creators head coach Jill Ellis ever had.

(Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
(Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

Twenty-two years ago Sunday, you see, Ellis was picking up the pieces from a fifth consecutive Big Ten loss. It was No. 6 in a row overall. In a few days, the skid would hit seven. Ellis’ first team, the 1997 Illinois Fighting Illini, would close conference play with one win and eight defeats; seven goals scored and 27 conceded; and zero knowledge that the person who oversaw the struggle would one day sit in front of a placard with a goat emoji in between her first and last names.

But Ellis learned and grew. Her team improved. After two seasons, she was poached by UCLA. Once demanding and independent, she became more encouraging and collaborative. She also gained perspective. “I remember at UCLA, all I wanted to do was to win the championship,” she explained this past summer. “Trophy, trophy, trophy.” Then she realized: “Don’t just get fixated on the trophy. You have to look at the process.”

The process ultimately yielded trophies, but also beauty. And moments. Moments that are now memories, memories that are all the more evocative and meaningful because Ellis invested herself wholeheartedly in them at the time.

When Ellis talks about moments, she is indeed referencing days like June 28, 2019. Walks like her one out onto the Parc des Princes pitch in Paris that night, in her U.S. Soccer quarter-zip and track pants, with red-white-and-blue flags – those of her adopted country, and those of a foreign one – twirling all around her. She’ll remember the roar, of 45,595 fans, unlike any roar women’s soccer had ever heard. And the battle that converted much of it to despair.

But she is also referencing dozens, perhaps hundreds, of less obvious moments, moments we never witnessed, moments whose context we couldn’t comprehend. And those, she reiterates, “come from the people.”

They came from the players, who circled up near midfield after Sunday’s match for one last round of hugs. From assistants, a few of whom posed with Ellis for a prematch selfie. From so many others who strapped in for what Ellis likes to call the “ride.” But most of all the players. Players like Rose Lavelle, whose college coach Ellis phoned in September of 2016. Lavelle, still in search of her first USWNT cap, was summoned to her coach’s office. Ellis was on speaker phone. Ellis spoke to the 21-year-old University of Wisconsin senior about training habits and nutrition and commitment. About her shortcomings. But also, most importantly, about the unparalleled qualities they were muting.

Ellis, Lavelle says, “had this belief in me, even though I didn’t necessarily have it myself. And I think when someone believes in you that much, you kind of have to start believing in yourself.”

That belief changed the course of Lavelle’s young career, which peaked on July 7 in Lyon. In another moment. The type that neither Lavelle nor Ellis will ever forget, not only because of what it achieved, but because of the arduous process behind it. The type that repaid faith and mentorship and, in a way, cemented a bond. A relationship that is now both coach-player and human-human. Saturday’s casual pre-practice chat between the two was, in all likelihood, the last of its kind. But Ellis and Lavelle will still send each other pictures of their respective dogs. They might even engage in a playful argument over whose is cuter. (Lavelle, when asked if Ellis’ pups are competition for hers: “Nobody’s competition for my dog.”)

Ellis’ coach-player relationships were not always buddy-buddy. In 2017, a group of veterans reportedly went behind her back to U.S. Soccer leadership to voice concerns about the program’s direction.

But on Sunday, and throughout the past week, all 23 players expressed their love for the outgoing matriarch. Some went out of their way for extra hugs and thank yous. All signed a ball that was presented to Ellis after the match, a memento for the road, but more so an emblem of the relationships that made Ellis’ tenure so special.

Jill Ellis watches a video tribute during a ceremony before her final game as USWNT head coach. (Getty)
Jill Ellis watches a video tribute during a ceremony before her final game as USWNT head coach. (Getty)

The people that matter most

The cultivation of those relationships, however, required sacrifice. Ellis learned to cope with many of the job’s thorns, such as the unrelenting pressure. But its travel schedule took her away from her South Florida home. Away from her wife, Betsy Stephenson, and their daughter, Lily. Away from the relationships she cherishes most.

Ellis’ family was by her side Sunday. Literally. After a pregame ceremony, she walked back to the bench hand-in-hand with her mother. She planted kisses on Lily’s head. Before accompanying the team on its lap of honor, she sought out Betsy and Lily to accompany her. And finally, when she climbed a few steps to the podium for her news conference, Lily followed. Toward the end, the high school freshman spoke.

“I would like to say thank you to all the people that make this better for my mom,” she said, her voice cracking. She mentioned a few of mom’s assistants by name. To press officer Aaron Heifetz, who himself had fought off emotions minutes earlier, she said: “You’ve been such a big part of my life.”

“And I just want to say thank you for making this journey easier for my mom,” Lily continued. “Because it’s really tough. And you’re amazing, mom. And I love you.”

Sitting in the back row, Betsy wiped away a tear.

Ellis’ job had separated her from them so often over the past five years. She estimates that on Lily’s birthday, she’s been absent more often than present. Though Ellis treasured the gig, the “most rewarding” one she’s ever had, it almost certainly wore on her. As an introvert, she recently explained to Pro Soccer USA, it essentially forced her to develop a stage persona.

It also forced her to grow. It pulled her out of her shell, into the spotlight, a position she gradually became more comfortable in with time. She became more likely to crack a one-liner or get introspective with microphones in front of her. More likely to break out a dance move with cameras on her.

But did the job change her? Has soccer, a sport she’s now been in for some 38 years, changed her?

“I think who I am internally is always going to be [who I am],” Ellis said on the eve of her sendoff. “No job should make you sacrifice your morals, your character, and I don’t think this job has done that. I think I’ve been true to who I am.”

And who she is is who she gets to be down in Palmetto Bay, the family-oriented animal lover with a passion for imparting all that she has learned to others. With no high-profile, public-facing job to carry out as of Monday, and no firm plans for what’s next, Ellis will have more time to be that person in full. She’ll have more time for her wife. More time to be a parent. More time with her four dogs, and one cat, and the 50 wild peacocks who meet her for breakfast every morning.

“It’s a story written, and a chapter closed,” Ellis said Sunday. “It’s on to other things.”

But first, one last trip back to the locker room. One last departure. One last stroll to the loading dock. One last wink and nod to a reporter. And then, with the commemorative ball under her arm and Lily at her hip, Ellis disappeared from view. She was off to create a different kind of moment.

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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