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

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.

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.

On a sunny March Sunday in Marquette Park, the Rowdies are battling the Sunday Morning Rugby Football Club of south St. Louis. The team has dedicated its season to Stephen Ellis' recovery. Right in the center of the scrum, as usual, is Russ Ellis, the oldest man in the union, nicknamed "Webb" in honor of the game's creator. The barrel-chested, bald-headed veteran relentlessly churns his mud-caked, Fred Flintstone legs, forcing men half his age to backpedal.

Opponents and teammates alike tease Russ Ellis for having played rugby "alongside Jesus and Moses"; he joined the Rowdies in 1986, at a time when a few of his teammates hadn't been born, back when the sport's entire scoring system was different — when tries (the rugby version of touchdowns) were four points instead of five.

"We call him Grandfather Rugby," says Tim Hammer, a member of the Sunday Morning club. "Every time I step out on the field, I think: 'Man, this guy is twice my age. I better step my shit up because he plays like a twenty-year-old.'"

This afternoon's tilt is a must-win situation for the Rowdies. Mired in second place, the squad needs to win its three remaining regular-season matches in order to force a one-game playoff on April 16 in Kansas. A win there would catapult the Rowdies into the Division 3 regional tournament in Texas — a competition that pits together the best eight teams in this swath of the nation, stretching as far west as Colorado. But the road to Kansas is steep, culminating with an April 9 season finale against the St. Louis Royals, a team that advanced all the way to the national championship match last year.

The Rowdies formed in 1978, when U.S. Air Force Col. Dick Battock decided Scott Air Base needed a rugby team. The original Scott Rowdies, composed of enlisted and retired airmen, flourished during a time when the sport was gaining popularity across all branches of the U.S. military. In 1995 the squad hosted a tourney that brought together military-based clubs across the nation, and in 1998 the team advanced to the Division 2 Western tournament. During the Nineties, Russ Ellis was twice named to the Air Force national all-star team; in 1994 he was recruited onto the U.S. All-Forces Selects, a team that comprised the best ruggers throughout the military.

In the wake of 9/11, rising deployments hit the team hard, and increased national security made it difficult for foreign nationals to enter the base. A few years ago, the team, which increasingly brought aboard civilian members, moved away from Scott and took a new name: the Belleville Rowdies.

During the seven weeks Stephen was kept in a coma, Russ Ellis, the man of few words, was by his son's side, speaking to him, knowing there'd be no response. Russ rose each morning at 5:30 to speed through his computer-tech duties at Scott and drive to the hospital. He was there when the doctors intubated Stephen's chest, throat, nose and bladder. He was there when the surgeon wrote in his report that Stephen was "at significant risk for morbidity and even mortality given the extensive nature of his burn." He was there when one of Stephen's lungs filled with fluid and burst, prompting a nurse to instruct him, "Do not leave this hospital." He was there through the respiratory failure, the talk of amputation, the gout, the anemia, the pain. He was there when doctors resorted to slicing the healthy skin off Stephen's legs like gyro meat and stapling it on top of his wounds.

But at his wife's insistence, the legend of the Missouri Rugby Union — a St. Louis regional organization — continued to play, missing only one Rowdies match during the five months Stephen was hospitalized. And on this day, when the final whistle blows in Marquette Park, the Rowdies have downed the Sunday Morning club 24-5.

Before the fire Stephen Ellis had two tattoos. Now he has eleven. Most of his grafts came from his unburned thigh, which was covered by a dragon tattoo; dragon parts now decorate his torso and arms.

St. John's moved Ellis to its rehab center in December, and a month later he was transferred to the St. Louis VA Medical Center at Jefferson Barracks. On this March morning, clad in only a pair of mesh shorts, he receives an oily rubdown from his occupational therapist, who uses a vibrator to apply lotion to his scars in order to keep them from breaking apart.

The tender-faced teen in the photograph is now streaked with long red tracks of leathery scars. "They're pronounced," he concedes. "Kinda like a Braille road map."

His upper body is sheathed in a thin scaly layer, a remnant of the skin grafts doctors laid down over his wounds like strips of fresh sod. His right hand, burned down to the tendon, looks as if it was just pulled from a vat of lava. His fingers, once surgically webbed together at the base in order to preserve them, have since been sliced back into individual digits. His ears look like termites have gnawed at them and his upper jaw resembles melted wax. His skull, once covered with thick brown locks, is mostly bald, just a few tufts of sprouting fuzz and an open gash. It's his fifth layer of replacement skin to the cranium, this time borrowed from his buttocks.

"Yeah," he says. "I'm officially a butthead now."

Jonathan Pollack, associate director of St. John's burn unit and Ellis' lead surgeon, confirms the obvious: "He was a pretty sick puppy," Pollack says. "His lungs were like a balloon that popped."

The cause of the fire that nearly killed Ellis remains unknown, as do the circumstances that led to him being trapped inside his Carbondale home. He cannot remember anything from that entire day. The Carbondale Fire Department's report, prepared a day after the blaze, states that the flames originated in the stove area of the kitchen but lists the cause, and Ellis' location at the time of the incident, as "undetermined." Carbondale police filed a short report that ruled out arson but otherwise offered no conclusions.

"We can't really make a determination, because Stephen Ellis doesn't remember anything," says Carbondale police detective Brian Gleason, who reclassified the case as "inactive" on March 3. Stacy Hancock, the witness who helped Ellis out of his burning clothes, says Ellis told her he'd been in the basement before the fire erupted. A neighbor, Marcus Coleman, who arrived after the fire crew did, says the driver's-side door of Ellis' truck was open, though he's not sure who opened it, or when. Adam Ellis later retrieved his brother's wallet and cell phone from the passenger seat. Stephen thinks he may have been in the truck, about to head out to St. Libory, when the blaze broke out, and that he made the almost-fatal mistake of running back inside to save his cherished pet, a ferret. (Matt Wright, Ellis' landlord, did not return several calls requesting comment for this story.)

Now the gentle giant of the Carbondale campus, the quiet, respectful dude who'd good-naturedly anchor his beer-chugging team at parties, the kid his soldier buddies called "Cornbread" — "because I was a corn-bred motherfucker from the country" — is slowly relearning life's basic chores. How to use the toilet, the toothbrush, the TV remote. Dressing changes still bring tears. Having made the transition from bed to wheelchair to walker to cane, he now fears the next step: going out in public, where people will stare. "I'm worried about people judging me," he says. "I'm worried they'll think less of me."

He's on an array of meds — for pain, numbness, anxiety — "He does express some sadness pertaining to his pet ferret which died in the fire," a hospital psychologist wrote in one report. He passes the time praying, reading fly-fishing manuals, tossing a rugby ball with his therapist and playing cards with a Vietnam vet named Jimmy who bunks down the hall. Friends stop by; teammates from the Rowdies and SIU have given him autographed rugby balls wishing him well: "Come back soon, Steve." "Get some hospital ass!" "Fuck a nurse!" "Fuck a newborn."

Profane they may be, but the sentiments from Ellis' rugby buddies carry a basic truth: Beating the odds simply by surviving can't sustain a man indefinitely.

Ellis, too, knows this well. He is dead set on finishing college, on completing his ROTC obligations, on rejoining the army. He hopes to one day become the first commissioned officer in his family and intends to train as a military psychologist.

And one other thing: He vows to play rugby again with his father.

"The bonds between rugby and the military are both natural and obvious.... Above all else, rugby and the military foster both a sense of camaraderie and fellowship that is seldom found elsewhere." — Lt. Col. Steve Nally, from the program of the first Military Cup, held at Fort Benning, Georgia, 1979

Perhaps it's the brotherhood. The tight physical quarters, in the trenches with your mates; the fact that your squad is only as strong as its weakest link, and that there are no timeouts. Whatever the reason, Russ and Stephen Ellis embody a deeply rooted worldwide tradition.

"Rugby is a cult sport — the biggest worldwide fraternity that no one knows about," says Kevin Smith, who's been deployed twice to Iraq and is now stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, which also fields a team in the Missouri Rugby Union.

The alliance between rugby and the U.S. military dates back to 1919, just after the First World War. That year a U.S. service team entered the Inter-Allied Games in Paris, shutting out Romania before falling to France. In those days rugby was an Olympic sport, dominated in 1920 and 1924 by two gold-medal U.S. teams that fielded a handful of servicemen. The 1924 games would prove to be the last hurrah for Olympic rugby, after an on-field fracas broke out among fans following America's upset win over France. (In 2016 the sport will return to the Olympics.)

By the 1970s rugby had spread across all five branches of the armed forces, and about 40 bases across the United States (not to mention Japan and Korea) had formed club teams. These squads, among them the Scott AFB Rowdies, participated in regional leagues and traveled across state lines to play on other military turf. "It was one of the most prominent sports being pushed at base level," recalls Mark Neice, a retired air force colonel and treasurer of USA Rugby, which was incorporated in 1975 as the national governing body of the sport. By the end of the decade, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Steve Nally, a player from Georgia, had launched an inaugural USA Rugby military tournament, which is still played nearly every year.

In 1980, after Great Britain's combined-services team entered a tournament in Boston and pummeled its opponents, a Rugby Magazine journalist publicly questioned why the U.S. couldn't put up a joint military team. The prickly article spurred air force lieutenant colonel and rugby player Harry Laws, who was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, at the time, to send a letter to USA Rugby requesting to form a military rugby committee. "I knew the talent was there — we were spread out across the globe," recalls Laws, now a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana School of Medicine.

Laws, along with Maj. Cliff Kolson of the Marines, secured the blessing of several commanding generals to create what's now known as the U.S. Armed Forces Selects team — a veritable military all-star squad. The team soon began traveling overseas to challenge other military powerhouses and eventually earned full support from the Department of Defense. Now the Selects squad is so talented it receives an automatic berth into the eight-team national tournament held each December. Many of these players also participate in the Armed Forces Championship, which brings together five individual all-star teams representing each branch of the military. In recent years that tournament has been dominated by the air force, whose team is coached by Lt. Col. Dan Lockert, who is stationed at Scott.

In October the Selects might face their toughest challenge yet on the international stage when the team travels to Australia — home of the best ruggers in the world — to take part in the International Defence Rugby Competition. The final two rounds of that tournament will be contested in New Zealand, as a curtain-raising showcase for the final match of the Rugby World Cup.

Perhaps the biggest growth of U.S. military rugby over the past three decades has been its development on bases across the world, where deployed servicemen challenge members of coalition forces to friendly matches, sometimes after long days of engaging the enemy.

"People come out of the woodwork — Aussies, Brits, you name it," says Fort Leonard Wood's Kevin Smith. "In Iraq we played every day at eighteen-hundred hours."

Earlier this month on a field in Forest Park, the team once known as the Scott Air Base Rowdies took on the first-place Royals in both clubs' regular-season finale. Russ Ellis and his teammates had reeled off four wins in a row; one more would earn them a trip to Kansas and the chance to reach the Western tournament in the name of Stephen Ellis.

But the Rowdies failed to overcome a slow start and were never really in the match, which they lost 27-10. A few days later, the Rowdies announced they were withdrawing from the Missouri union owing to a lack of confidence in the board's leadership. The Rowdies have applied to play in the Illinois union next year.

In late March Stephen Ellis left the VA to return to his parents' home.

He remains unable to tilt his feet upward at the ankles, and he needs a cane to walk. His legs are outfitted with braces that extend from foot to knee. ("You gonna do a Forrest Gump and break out of them, son?" his father teases.) But he has gained back 15 of the 50 pounds he lost after the fire and has started doing pushups again.

"The results of this evaluation suggest that the patient is coping amazingly well," Ellis' psychologist wrote in a report. "[Patient] is doing surprisingly well after having his burn accident back in October '10," agreed the occupational therapist. "[Patient's] goal: "get back to playing rugby."

"He's doing so well, it's incredible," says Linda Hansen, who, along with her husband, runs a once-a-month recovery group for burn survivors. She calls Ellis a role model.

Even the scars on his head seem less noticeable. His girlfriend, Stacy Conn, a college classmate who got weak-kneed at the sight of Ellis in his military uniform, doesn't notice them anymore. "When I look at him, they don't even register," she says. "To me he's still the most gorgeous man I've ever known."

Ellis says he isn't ready to jump back into the relationship with Conn just now, but she's having none of that. After all, she says, Ellis has seen her through her own low points. Like the time she bombed at a job interview.

"I was devastated and he simply told me, 'Worry not. As long as you're yourself, you'll be fine — you always do fine,'" recalls Conn, who eventually landed a second interview and got the job. "I'll always remember that: Worry not."

Ellis, however, has reason to worry. Having maxed out the lifetime benefit on his health insurance through SIU within the first few weeks in the burn unit, he has had to apply for Medicaid. He says the unpaid balance amounts to about $1.5 million, and the possibility of bankruptcy looms.

Making it back to the rugby pitch remains a steep uphill battle. Ellis' grafts are still loose and prone to bleeding; they will never be as resilient as the skin he was born with. Doctors tell him he must carefully regulate his body temperature in order to avoid sweating. Some of his teammates privately question whether he'll be able to play.

Ellis, though, pushes aside the doubts. He is determined to play rugby by 2013 — and hopes his father's knees can hold up for two more years.

He has re-registered at SIU and committed to coaching the school's rugby squad this fall. In the meantime, he might attempt in June to complete an ROTC fitness test. If he flunks, he says, he'll just enter officer-training school a little later on.

"I always knew I'd survive," he says with a self-deprecating shrug. "Come too far not to."

Surgeon Jonathan Pollack isn't sure what Ellis might be capable of doing. "If he wills it," Pollack says of his patient's plan to retake the rugby pitch, "it's possible. If anyone can do it, it's Stephen."

Minutes before his departure from the VA, Ellis flirts with the nurses (two of whom have already given him their phone numbers) and offers handshakes and goodbyes to the receptionists, janitors and food vendors he has befriended during his stay. He playfully challenges a fat man in a wheelchair to a race down the hallway.

At eleven o'clock in the morning, five months and nine days after the fire that brought him here, former Spc. Stephen Ryan Ellis marches proudly out of the VA and into the sunlight.

Midway through his hobbled journey across the parking lot to the car, he pauses, turns to his mother, hands over his cane and marches on.

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