Defensive Tackle Justin "Jelly" Ellis
Justin Ellis is Louisiana through and through.
The imposing defensive tackle grew up in Monroe, a city of about 50,000 people just over four hours northwest of New Orleans. Growing up, he enjoyed classic Louisiana fare like étouffée and gumbo, and earned All-District honors twice at Neville High School, before heading 30 miles west and playing his college football at Louisiana Tech.
His life – as well as his location – changed dramatically in 2014 when the Oakland Raiders selected him in the fourth round (No. 107 overall) of the NFL Draft, and for the first time, the Louisiana native moved west.
For "Jelly," moving out of his home state was a big transition, never mind the fact that there are few similarities between Northern Louisiana the Bay Area.
"We're more outdoorsy," said Ellis. "We do stuff like ride dirt bikes, and fish, and hunt, we do stuff like that – in North Louisiana anyway. South Louisiana is different. I'm from North Louisiana. Monroe is in North Louisiana, but football is big at home."
Entering his third season in the NFL, Ellis has now grown accustomed to life in Northern California, but this weekend he'll get the chance to return to his roots, and not only will the Louisiana boy go home, he'll get to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as a professional football player.
Growing up, Ellis played in the Superdome just once – a game during his pee wee football days – but Sunday's visit figures to be much more meaningful for the Raiders starting defensive tackle.
"That's like a dream come true," Ellis said. "You hope and wish, but [now] it's actually going to happen; it's crazy. I'm just trying to take it one day at a time, not get too excited, and just focus on the work and the game plan."
Ellis and the Raiders defense will certainly have their hands full, starting off the regular season on the road against Drew Brees and a New Orleans Saints offense that led the league with 310.6 passing yards per game in 2015. Couple that with the fact that the Silver and Black are a trendy pick to earn a postseason berth, and Ellis knows that while it will be nice to be back in his home state, there is certainly a job that needs to be done.
"We have high expectations," Ellis said. "I'm trying to start this year off on a good foot, on a good note. I'm trying to stay consistent this year, mostly, so I'm just going to try to set the tone, set the bar high, and then go from there."
The Week 1 matchup with the Saints is just the first chapter in what Ellis and the Raiders hope will be a fruitful and productive 2016, and while the towering defensive tackle knows what's on the line Sunday, he's also aware of the significance of being able to start that journey back in his home state.
"I'm going to soak it all in first of all," Ellis said. "I'm going to enjoy riding up to [the Superdome], going in, get my emotions up, but then I'll calm back down, and soak it, then play ball."
As of now Ellis has 70 people and counting confirmed to attend Sunday's game, and although they'll be rooting for their favorite Raider to succeed, Ellis knows there won't be any love lost over the final score.
"That's the whole goal of the whole trip, is to win, is to come home with the win, because out of the 70 people, probably like 61 of them are Saints fans," Ellis explained. "They support me, but they talk trash to me. They're going to have a "Jelly" jersey on with a Saints hat."
Ellis has a few places in mind where he'd like to grab some classic Louisiana food during his quick visit back home, so how much better will that étouffée and gumbo taste if he's able to fly back to California with a win under his belt?
"Great," Ellis said with a big smile. "It's going to taste great then. It's going to be a good experience then. It's going to top it off."