On October 16, 1994, Deion Sanders famously made his dramatic return to Atlanta as a member of the San Francisco 49ers. After a scuffle with Falcons wide receiver Andre Rison, Sanders picked off a second quarter pass by Jeff George. Eighty-three yards of jawing with the Atlanta sideline and 10 yards of high-stepping later, "Primetime" was posing in the end zone.
About 100 miles north of the Deion-show in Union, Ga., a five-year-old Dominique Ellis sat with his mother in awe of the legendary Sanders.
"I just remember sitting with my mom watching [the game] and he was in San Francisco and he picked it off and took it to the house," recalled Ellis. "He held the ball up and I looked at my mom and was like, 'This is what I want to do'."
Eighteen years later Ellis has achieved the goal he set forth as a young boy and reached the pinnacle of football: the NFL.
Undrafted out of South Carolina State in 2012, Ellis originally signed a deal with the Kansas City Chiefs but was released prior to the regular season. On Jan. 16, 2013, the Bills scooped up the young defensive back and brought him into a corps of young, talented safeties.
"Everybody's young, even our vets are young," said Ellis. "We're all working to get better in every aspect of our game. In general, everybody is trying to improve every aspect of each other's game."
After one season at North Carolina State, Ellis transferred to South Carolina State where the 5-11 195 pound defensive back was a leader and stand out with Christian Thompson of the Baltimore Ravens. Ellis was a two-time All-MEAC selection and finished his senior season with 65 tackles and three interceptions.
The 23 year old considers his intelligence and understanding of the game to be his strongest assets. Ellis believes solid knowledge of schemes, film work, and the ability to predict an offense is most vital to his on-field success.
"I'm just trying to be a great overall player," said Ellis. "I really don't try to focus on just one thing, I try to focus on the mental and the physical and being a great teammate at the same time."
In a secondary that features a bevy of young talent including rookies Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks, Ellis has found work with the second unit. The biggest challenge for the young safety might be standing out of the crowd, and Ellis knows there can be no lapses when the competition is so tight.
"Really just when the opportunity comes [you have to] make the best of your opportunities," explained Ellis. "For so many guys reps are limited, so when you're out there you have to make the best of your opportunity. You can't miss one play, so you have to treat every day like game day."
One advantage Ellis has over the rookies is a year of experience, which he believes has been the most significant factor in his improvement between seasons.
"A year of experience is the biggest thing, because that rookie year it runs across you and it's like 'Oh my God'," said Ellis. "You've got defensive ends and you've got tight ends that can run just as fast as you so it's like, 'Okay I'm here now.' It's more of a mental aspect."
Bills fans looking for an example of Ellis' play can look to a 2011 matchup with Bethune-Cookman. In the second quarter of a tight game, Ellis read the eyes of the right-rolling Bethune-Cookman quarterback, broke off his coverage, and hauled in an overthrown ball in his own end zone. In the fourth quarter, holding a one-point lead with four minutes to play, Ellis read a quick throw to the outside, jumped it, and took it 55 yards to the house à la the man who inspired him to play football so long ago.
Ellis is excited to get to work in Buffalo before a fan base that has already impressed him.
"Cool, great town," said Ellis. "The fans give us so much support. We can't really reiterate how much it means to us. It's a great feeling. I'm here to work hard every day and be the best player I can possibly be and be the best teammate and I really love their support."