State High junior Keaton Ellis can still remember standing near his father, reaching just above his waist, as giant athletes in white jerseys whizzed by during warm-ups at the 2009 Rose Bowl.
Ellis, now a defensive back for the Little Lions, was about 7 years old when he watched the Nittany Lions take on USC that game. But he never forgot. He still remembers the desire back then to be one of those players.
And, after Friday, now he can be.
Two days after receiving a scholarship football offer from Penn State — the first Little Lion to receive an offer since Alex Kenney, who graduated from State College in 2007 — the excitement in Ellis’ voice was still palpable.
Never miss a local story.
“It’s amazing,” he said Sunday, while on vacation in San Francisco. “I’ve been growing up around this program my whole life. I’ve gone to most of the home games — some of the away — so it’s been a part of my family life since I was a little kid. And, now, just to have to the opportunity to attend the school and play football there, it’s a dream come true.”
Ellis hasn’t committed and nothing will be official sooner than December of 2018, when recruits have a three-day window to sign early. But, for obvious reasons, this was a special moment for Ellis, who has received similar scholarship offers from Buffalo and Syracuse.
The rising junior’s father, Bruce, was a walk-on receiver for Penn State and currently works for the university as an assistant athletic director for compliance. State College’s Memorial Field is less than a 3-mile walk to Beaver Stadium. And Ellis grew up wearing Penn State T-shirts and no-name jerseys.
The 6-foot, 165-pound defensive back went into the Nittany Lions’ Friday camp hoping to come away with an offer. And after registering a 4.39-second 40-yard dash, he knew his chances were good.
“It was hand-timed — but I think they ended up having 10 guys with stopwatches trying to get the right time on me,” Ellis said with a laugh, adding he ran a 4.45 a few weeks ago.
When coach James Franklin pulled him aside and said he wanted to speak with Ellis in his office, Ellis said he could feel his pulse quicken. He didn’t want to get his hopes up — but he knew an offer was possible.
When he sat across from Franklin at his office table, with the rolling hills of Happy Valley just outside the second-floor window, he waited for those words to come. We love your size at cornerback. We know you can grow into your frame. And your testing numbers were in the top 1 percent in the country; you’re going to be a high-praised recruit.
That’s when the offer was extended. Ellis — a triple threat for State College on offense, defense and special teams — covered his eyes before thanking the staff and embracing his mother and others in the room.
“I was holding back some tears; it was very emotional with my mom there,” he said. “I wasn’t crying, but I was just so happy. There was a lot of emotion. ... I had no words, honestly. I was just saying thank you because, coming from (Franklin), that was huge for me.”
For now, Ellis remains an under-the-radar recruit who is not yet ranked by the national scouting sites. That’s sure to change soon and, Ellis said, he plans to take his time with the recruiting process. It’s still very early, and he’s still uncertain what he’s even looking for in a school or what he wants to major in.
He could choose to head elsewhere — he recently camped at Pitt — but this is still something he won’t forget anytime soon. Eight years ago, he dreamt about putting on one of those white no-name jerseys. Two days ago, he learned that was finally possible.
“I’m going to keep my options open,” he said. “But, definitely, Penn State is at the top of my list at this point — and probably will stay there throughout the process.”
Keaton Ellis’ 2016 stats
Defense: 32 tackles, 9 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery, 1 tackle for loss
Offense: 19 carries for 186 yards; two catches for 16 yards
Special teams: 8 punt returns for 111 yards; 1 kick return for 15 yards