His Simon Gratz High players probably knew Bill Ellerbee had been a Marine before he became a teacher and a coach, but he didn’t make a habit of telling them the story of his life.
“Played all sports, played everything," Ellerbee said of growing up in North Philly near Temple, attending Simon Gratz. “Graduated in ‘60 from Gratz. … I had a football scholarship to Lincoln University. I was supposed to go to football camp on Aug. 12. I got a letter on Aug. 11 saying they were dropping football.”
No, a life path that included coaching Rasheed Wallace at Gratz was not a straight line. Ellerbee couldn’t have predicted his road if he’d tried.
Just his college path was winding. Calling around after Lincoln was out of the picture, other scholarship offers were long gone. Ellerbee thought maybe he could go to Temple, went to a tryout, and "they had no scholarships [left], and I was a poor boy.”
He picked up a job at Western Union. His father was a chef at Hahnemann Hospital, so he then got a job there, “working in the kitchen, cleaning those big pots out, everything.”
There were a couple of other football possibilities, but his mother was having medical problems. So Ellerbee forgot about sports, and he commuted to Cheyney State, keeping the Hahnemann job. He graduated, but not until later.
“I went in the military, the Marine Corps," Ellerbee said, ticking off stops starting with boot camp at Parris Island.
“I ended up in Vietnam," Ellerbee said. “I was one of the first guys. They did a lottery, so I won the lottery.”
A full tour, 13 months. And 13 months minus a day staying healthy.
“Got wounded on the last day of the tour," Ellerbee said. “All the time over there, we had never sprung an ambush. We sprung an ambush.”
You’re supposed to move in such a situation, he said, and headquarters wanted them back in. He’d be on the first transport out, tour over. Cpl. William Ellerbee was a squad leader, which surprises nobody who ever met William Ellerbee.
“We were coming back, some of the guys got on the tank trail," Ellerbee said. “They couldn’t hear. I told them to get off the tank trail because they routinely got booby-trapped. So trying to get them off, I got a little careless, and there was a landmine.”
Next thing Ellerbee knew, he was on a chopper.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,’’ Ellerbee said of that ride.
“Hey, man, you don’t got to BS me, I ain’t got no legs," Ellerbee remembers saying to the medic on the copter.
“Yeah, you do, you do, you’ve got legs!”
“Nah, you’re trying to stop me from going into shock. I know the deal.”
“No, you’ve got legs, you’ve got legs.”
They sat him up to see his legs.
“I was chopped up, but they were still there," Ellerbee said.
There was surgery and recovery and stops in Japan and Wake Island and Seattle and Washington, D.C. and eventually the Navy Yard in South Philly. There, blood poisoning set in, Ellerbee said. “They were going to amputate my left leg, just after I got back.”
A major making medical rounds walked past his bed in the amputee ward, Ellerbee said. Walked past, then came back.
“He looked at my chart," Ellerbee said. “He said, ‘You don’t look too happy, soldier.’ I said, ‘Marine, sir.’ I was a little salty.”
There were a bunch of doctors there on that round and the major asked about the antibiotic protocol. At that point, amputation was the full plan.
“Anybody ask the patient?’’ the major asked, as Ellerbee remembers it.
“No, nobody asked me,’’ Ellerbee said.
“You’ve got any problems with taking a chance?’’
In his mind, that saved his leg, after that major turned around for no real reason at all. Ellerbee ended up being in charge of recreation at the Navy Yard, and recovered enough to play basketball, and coach the team, all the way to the final national military tournament.
No, the guys didn’t mess with him much at Gratz, Wallace included. They usually came to work, he said. And if Ellerbee was known for never giving up on a kid, he’s got his reasons.