ESCANABA - Area football fans had a chance to visit with former Detroit Lions defensive tackle Luther Elliss Friday during the Upper Peninsula State Fair.
Elliss, whose visit was sponsored by Jilbert's Dairy of Marquette and the United Dairy Industry of Michigan, was promoting dairy products at the Ruth Butler Exhibition Building.
"I love it up here," said Elliss, who was autographing a variety of items. "We have many hard-working, blue-collared people up here who are loyal fans. The people up here are very friendly. They're down-to-earth people who have tremendous family values."
Former Detroit Lions defensive lineman Luther Elliss autographs a photo for Dylan Couillard of Escanaba Friday at the Jilbert’s Dairy Booth at the U.P. State Fair. (Daily Press photo by Holly Richer)
Elliss is no stranger to the U.P., having previously done charity work in the at Stambaugh Elementary School (near Iron River) this spring.
"I try to be a role model for the youth," said Elliss. "I also try to encourage them to reach their full potential by making good choices and following their dreams. I want them to understand that even if they make bad choices, they can still turn things around."
Elliss, a Pro Bowl selection in 1999 and 2000, played for the Lions from 1995-2003. He recorded 27 of his 29 career sacks, prior to his final season at Denver in 2004.
"Playing for the Lions was a lot of fun," said Elliss, who grew up in Colorado. "That gave me a chance to experience life outside of the west. I also had an opportunity to experience a different culture in the Motor City."
Among his teammates was explosive running back Barry Sanders, the club's all-time career rushing leader who collected 15,269 yards through 10 seasons prior to retiring in 1998.
"Barry was a very down to earth guy who led by example," said Elliss, a first-round draft pick from Utah in 1995. "Getting to see him in practice every day and what he did was amazing. Not many people get to experience something like that. Yet, the biggest highlight was being involved and serving the community. The fans are what really made it (enjoyable)."
Detroit reached the playoffs three times during Ellliss's career, then came the hard times. The Lions, under then general manager Matt Millen, finished 2-14 in 2001. That was followed by 3-13 and 5-11 campaigns in 2002 and 2003.
"Multiple things led to that," said Elliss. "It came down to not being on the same page throughout the organization. That was hard, but it was also a character and life builder. The fans want us to win, and you want to make sure you explain to them we are working hard. Only, it's not coming together."
The tough times continued, with the Lions hitting their lowest point during an 0-16 season in 2008.
A season-ending four-game winning streak at the end of a 6-10 campaign in 2010, however, has Lion fans a bit more optimistic about this season.
"I'm completely excited," said Elliss. "I think they have a legitimate team that's going to be pretty good. Our guys up front (on defense) are doing real well. I think the strength of this team will be in all three phases (offense, defense and special teams). I think (general manager) Mark Mayhew and coach (Jim Schwartz) have this team heading in the right direction. I honestly think the Super Bowl champ will come out of our (NFC North) division."
Elliss, who also enjoyed his final year as a player in Denver, retired as a Lion by siging a one-day contract.
"Playing in Denver was great because I grew up a Broncos' fan, and my dad was a diehard Broncos' fan," he added. "That also made it easier for our family members to make it to the games. Yet, I wanted to retire as a Detroit Lion, which is the reason for signing the one-day contract."