Rugby Burn: Gravely injured in a fluke house fire, Iraq War vet Stephen Ellis is dead set on returning to the sport he loves

The young man in the photograph gazes proudly at the camera, his entire life in front of him. He wears a military uniform, like his father once did, and his grandfather and great-grandfather as well. Beneath the tugged-down brim of his patrol cap, a few pimples interrupt the smooth skin on his face, but his six-foot, six-inch frame is approaching its eventual 270-pound form. Those shoulders, which would soon batter down doors in Iraqi neighborhoods, have already delivered thousands of blows on rugby fields across Illinois and Missouri.

Ever since high school, Stephen Ellis had been a formidable player, introduced to the game by his father, Russ, a 30-year rugby veteran who some say still has the hardest skull in the St. Louis region. For a handful of seasons, father and son were known as T1 and T2, a matched set of country-bred forwards locking arms in the scrum, a 495-pound wall of muscle and bone.

At the age of two, Stephen would sit in his stroller at Scott Air Force Base and watch Russ — then the 25-year-old bruiser of the Scott Rowdies — bulldoze his way across the rugby pitch. Later young Stephen, who dreamed of being a pilot, watched the matches from a nearby tree. By age fifteen he was on the field, a boy among men, virtually joined at the hip with his father, who refused to let time rob him of a young man's game.

Stephen Ellis spent a year in Iraq, never suspecting his toughest challenge would await him at home.
Jennifer Silverberg
Stephen Ellis spent a year in Iraq, never suspecting his toughest challenge would await him at home.
Rugby is a "cult sport" in the military, says local soldier Kevin Smith: "In Iraq we played every day at eighteen-hundred hours."
Jennifer Silverberg
Rugby is a "cult sport" in the military, says local soldier Kevin Smith: "In Iraq we played every day at eighteen-hundred hours."

Now 50, Russ Ellis is the oldest active player in the Missouri Rugby Football Union, a local legend of a sport invented 150 years ago by an Englishman of the same name: William Webb Ellis.

Play like an Ellis.

That was the team's motto, still used today, as much a statement of character as of prowess.

The boy in the photo would survive unscathed a year of war and seven more playing the most brutal sport on land — right up until the day it all went up in flames.

On October 9, 2010, Stacy Hancock was grabbing a cigarette outside a friend's place in Carbondale, Illinois, when she noticed smoke billowing out of the house next door and heard cries for help coming from inside. Approaching the front of the house, she saw flames pouring from the kitchen and heard a crash of breaking glass. Around the side of the building, she saw a large man stumbling around, his T-shirt on fire. His hair was seared to his head, and shards of glass were embedded in his flesh.

"His body was melted, and he was breathing out black smoke," recalls Hancock, who helped the man out of his shirt and got him to sit down while they waited for help to arrive.

Sixty miles north in St. Libory — a town of 600 residents and no traffic lights, surrounded on all sides by cornfields — Russ Ellis had just returned home from a rugby match. His son Stephen, then a 26-year-old senior at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale, was due home for a big family dinner along with his other son, Adam, who was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in central Missouri.

Stephen had already done a tour in Iraq, where he battered down doors for the unit that took over Saddam Hussein's military complex in Najaf at the start of the war. After that he'd spent a year at West Point, playing Division I rugby. At Carbondale he was majoring in psychology and an active member of the ROTC program and the Army National Guard. His focus, though, was on his college rugby squad, on which he was a player-coach. (He'd go home every once in a while to "whore" for the Rowdies; "Whores score more," he'd joke.)

Russ Ellis had barely taken off his cleats when his wife, Mellody, got the call: There has been a fire, and Stephen's being airlifted to St. Louis.

But to which hospital? The police officer didn't say. For what seemed like forever, they waited by the phone for the promised update. Their eldest son, Russell IV, was born mentally and physically handicapped and had spent nineteen years in and out of hospitals until his lungs finally gave out. And now Stephen.

Russ Ellis tried to keep it together for the next hour and a half. He and Stephen had always been close — "If Russ played badminton, Stephen would too," says a rugby teammate. They camped together, played paintball, made trips to JCPenney, where they had to buy pants one size too large, so as to accommodate their massive thighs. But father and son also shared a reticent streak, which resulted in something of a silent partnership. "I learned from father never to show any emotion," Stephen has said.

That changed on the rugby pitch, where the curtain of stoicism lifted and T1 and T2 fed off one another — teaming up on tackling or pairing up on offense on the fly. "We talk a lot more on the field than at home," admits Russ.

When word arrived that their son was en route to the renowned burn unit at St. John's Mercy Medical Center, Russ and Mellody sped the 60 miles to Creve Coeur. By the time they arrived, doctors had put Stephen into a medically induced coma. Having suffered severe burn damage to nearly half of his body, he was now wrapped, mummylike, in bandages and tethered to a ventilator.

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