Ellenson’s Letter inspired Gators before game vs. Aggies

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Gene Ellenson was an assistant head football coach and defensive coordinator at the University of Florida from 1960-69. He died at 74 in 1995.

In Florida football lore, it is simply known as The Letter. It is 55 years old now, but just as relevant today as it was when Gene Ellenson wrote it on Oct. 11, 1962.

The Florida coaches need to read it this week. The Florida players should do the same. It should be required reading for all those in and around the program, especially all those disgruntled fans who seem ready to quit on this team, this season.

Fifty-five years ago, Florida football was in a place similar to where it is today.

Heading into a crucial home game against Texas A&M, those 1962 Gators were dealing with lots of adversity — angry fans, a critical media and plenty of self-doubt coming off a 28-21 loss to Duke in which UF had blown a 21-0 halftime lead.

The 1-2 Gators were clearly down. Ellenson, the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator, could sense it, and wanted to try and change it. So, the Thursday night before the A&M game he sat down and wrote The Letter.

“Our team was struggling, much like the Gators are struggling now,” said Fred Pearson, 75, a starting junior offensive and defensive tackle on the 1962 team who lives in Gainesville. “Coach Ellenson wrote a letter to the players. The point was to keep fighting, never give up, you can overcome.”

Ellenson knew a great deal about fighting and overcoming. He was a decorated World War II hero who fought in many battles in Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge. He won the Bronze and Silver Star, Purple Hearts and 10 other battlefield decorations while rising to the rank of Captain.

Head coach Ray Graves approved of Ellenson’s letter. Before the Gators boarded a bus to the team hotel Friday afternoon, Ellenson read the letter to the players in the team meeting room.

“When we got finished with the letter, every guy in the room was in tears,” Pearson said. “It was just very, very powerful. We went to bed that night thinking about that letter. Then we went out and played with a lot of emotion the next day.”

Here is The Letter:

“Dear _____ :

“It’s late at night. The offices are all quiet and everyone has finally gone home. Once again my thoughts turn to you all.

“The reason I feel I have something to say to you is because what you need now more than anything else are a little guidance and maybe a little starch for your backbone. You are still youngsters and unknowingly, you have not steeled yourselves for the demanding task of 60 full minutes of exertion required to master a determined opponent. This sort of exertion takes two kinds of hardness. Physical, which is why you are pushed hard in practice, and mental, which comes only from having to meet adversity and whipping it.

“Now all of us have adversity – different kinds maybe – but adversity. Just how we meet these troubles determines how solid a foundation we are building our life on; and just how many of you stand together to face our team adversity will determine how solid a foundation our team has built for the rest of the season.

“No one cruises along without problems. It isn’t easy to earn your way through college on football scholarship. It isn’t easy to do what is expected of you by the academic and the athletic. It isn’t easy to remain fighting when others are curling around you or when your opponent seems to be getting stronger while you seem to be getting weaker. It isn’t easy to continue good work when others don’t appreciate what you’re doing. It isn’t easy to go hard when bedeviled by aches, pains and muscle sprains. It isn’t easy to rise up when you are down. The pure facts of life are that nothing is easy. You only get what you earn and there isn’t such a thing as “something for nothing.” When you truly realize this – then and only then will you begin to whip your adversities.

“If you’ll bear with a little story, I’ll try to prove my point. On midnight, January 14, l945, six pitiful American soldiers were hanging onto a small piece of high ground in a forest somewhere near Bastogne, Belgium. This high ground had been the objective of an attack launched by 1,000 men that morning. Only these six made it. The others had been turned back, wounded, lost or killed in action. These grimy, cruddy six men were all that were left of a magnificent thrust of 1,000 men. They hadn’t had any sleep other than catnaps for over 72 hours. The weather was cold enough to freeze the water in their canteens. They had no entrenching tools, no radio, no food – only ammunition and adversity. Twice a good-sized counter attack had been launched by the enemy, only to be beaten back because of the dark and some pretty fair grenade heaving.

“The rest of the time there were incessant mortars falling in the general area and the trees made for dreaded tree bursts, which scatter shrapnel like buckshot. The attackers were beginning to sense the location of the six defenders. Then things began to happen. First, a sergeant had a chunk of shrapnel tear into his hip. Then a corporal went into shock and started sobbing.

“After more than six hours of the constant mortar barrage and two close counter attacks, and no food since maybe the day before yesterday, this was some first-class adversity. Then another counter attack, this one making it to the small position. Hand-to-hand fighting is a routine military expression. I have not the imagination to tell you what this is really like. A man standing up to fight with a shattered hip bone, saliva frothing at his mouth, gouging, lashing with a bayonet, even strangling with his bare hands. The lonesome five fought (the corporal was out of his mind) until the attackers quit.

“Then the mortars began again. All this time the route to the rear lay open, but never did this little group take the road back. As early dawn a full company of airborne troopers relieved this tiny force. It still wasn’t quite light yet. One of the group, a lieutenant, picked up the sergeant with the broken hip and carried him like a baby. The other led the incoherent corporal like a dog on a leash. The other two of the gallant six lay dead in the snow. It took hours for this strange little group to get back to where they had started from 24 hours earlier. They were like ghosts returning. The lieutenant and one remaining healthy sergeant, after 10 hours of sleep and a hot meal, were sent on a mission 12 miles behind the German lines and helped make the link that closed the Bulge.

“Today, two of the faithful six lay in Belgium graves, one is a career army man, and one is a permanent resident of the army hospital for the insane in Texas, one is a stiff-legged repairman in Ohio, and one is an assistant football coach at the University of Florida.

“This story is no documentary or self-indulgence. It was told to you only to show you that whatever you find adverse now, others before you have had as bad or worse and still hung on to do the job. Many of you are made of exactly the same stuff as the six men in the story, yet you haven’t pooled your collective guts to present a united fight for a full 60 minutes. Your egos are a little shook – so what? Nothing good can come from moping about it. Cheer up and stand up. Fight an honest fight, square off in front of your particular adversity and whip it. You’ll be a better man for it, and the next adversity won’t be so tough. Breaking training now is complete failure to meet your problems. Quitting the first time is the hardest – it gets easier the second time and so forth.

“I’d like to see a glint in your eye Saturday about 2 p.m. with some real depth to it – not just a little lip service- not just a couple of weak hurrahs and down the drain again, but some real steel – some real backbone and 60 full fighting minutes. Then and only then will you be on the road to becoming a real man. The kind you like to see when you shave every morning.

“As in most letters, I’d like to close by wishing you well and leave you with this one thought. “Self-pity is a roommate with cowardice.” Stay away from feeling sorry for yourself. The wins and losses aren’t nearly as important as what kind of man you become. I hope I’ve given you something to think about – and remember, somebody up there still loves you.

Sincerely,

Gene Ellenson”

Inspired by Ellenson’s eloquent and powerful words, the fired-up Gators went out the next day and beat a good Texas A&M team 42-6.

“We came out and played with emotion and got up early and continued to pound away,” Pearson said. “Forty-two to six. I’ll never forget that score.”

The big win turned around the Gators’ season. Two weeks later they upset fifth-ranked Auburn 22-3 and then went on to earn a bid to the Gator Bowl, where the emotional Gators downed No. 9 Penn State 17-7.

It all started with The Letter.

Maybe now is the right time for today’s Gators to sit down and read it.

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or robbie.andreu@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.

 

20 COMMENTS

  1. Robbie,

    In all 39 years of being a Gator; I have never heard of that letter. Thank you so much for sharing it with us today. Like you; I hope that Coach Mac will know of this letter and perhaps read it to the team at one of their meetings this week.

    Such a letter inspires courage and a will to succeed at whatever cost. The Gator football team “needs” to hear that message and maybe some of the coaches and fans do too.

    Thank you again for sharing it with me (us)
    Eric Nystrom
    Class of 1982

  2. Wow! This is the first time I ever cried reading a Gator sports column. I was starting to feel a little sorry for myself as a Gator fan but that snapped me of it. Thank you Robbie and GO GATORS

  3. There was quite a bit of hurt and anguish within team ranks when Coach Ellenson was not named the head coach after Coach Graves stepped down.. Doug Dickey was name head coach and really never achieved whar he was hired to do. After reading this letter I can understand why those boys were hurt.
    That letter may not have caused those Gators to execute a near perfect game of football. But I would think the inspiration it planted in their minds made a team to come together as a team. We have what it takes to do the same 50 years later, but the inspiration has to be accepted, and mesh a team of walking wounded, and play with courage.
    Losing nine players to bad behavior, poor judgement and selfishness has got to take its toll. These Gators cannot likely achieve the goals that were present at the beginning of this campaign. Losing them will not be an adopted excuse but that nail driven home will certainly hurt down the line. Let’s hope the good guys that are left bleeding the Orange and Blue can circle the wagons and prove Gator Nation proud.

  4. Coach Ellenson was a superb coach and friend. The talk he gave (The Impossible Dream) before the first game of the 1969 Gator team against #1 Houston is the finest inspirational talk I have ever personally witnessed. It is universally credited by the 1969 Gator team as one of the key factors for the success that team had against Houston and others and, more importantly, the success we have had in life. No dry eye there either. He would have been a phenomenal head coach. Football is a game of emotion as well as talent, both players and coaches. From an emotional standpoint and a leader of men, I have never seen a better coach. He is a shining example of what is best about the game. I do not know if I could have done what he did on that frozen hill in 1945, but I like to think that if he was there to lead me I would have.

  5. Wow, now there is a man worthy of a statue, so his message does not get lost in the archives once again.
    It makes you proud to be a Gator and an American.
    Thanks Robbie

  6. I particularly appreciate what Carlos (“Chico”) Alvarez posted – I so much admire the Gator team he was such an integral part of – because of John Reeves, Carlos and the Gator team that year, I became a Gator fan, and in my father’s footsteps (who graduated UF in 1958), I later graduated in 1985. I saw that Houston game and was so incredibly inspired that I knew something special was happening at the University of Florida. I did have the opportunity to speak with Carlos many years later on the phone – not sure what the circumstances were. Just know that what I saw that day changed my life forever. Thank you Carlos Alvarez, John Reeves, and Coach Ellison. GO GATORS, BEAT TEXAS A&M!!!

  7. I’ve never posted here before…but, I am a long time Gator…got to UF in 1964…Coach Ellison was my coach…I can’t tell you how many times he gave ‘talks’ to us before and during and after games….Always teaching us to be better men…I agree with Carlos….he was a fine man who would have been a great head coach…and, an even better teacher to young men growing up…Thank you for giving him some of the credit he deserves…
    Go Gators!

  8. Good time for a reminder about what’s really important about life. Coach Ellison had a perspective that few men survive to acquire. Just as important, he knew how that translated into being a Gator.

  9. Thanks Robbie. As an older Gator, one of my favorite trips down my Gator memory lane, that I never get tired of reading. Would have been interesting to see how successful Geno might have been if given the chance to be head coach back in 1970. Let’s hope Coach Mac can somehow find a way to get this inspirational message in front of this young group of Gators.

  10. This letter should be enshrined at the front of the stadium or at least in the locker room. Tim Tebow’s speech turned the 2008 season around and this letter no doubt turned the ’62 season around. Very humbling and appropriate to have posted it at this time. Thank you for sharing Robbie.

  11. I have been a Gator since 1974 (class of 78). I was proud to serve in 1969 with the 101st Airborne Division, the unit that fought that battle in the Belgian forest. When the German commander demanded their surrender, the division commander sent back a legendary one word reply — “nuts.” Though the inside story in the division says the one word was slightly edited for the sensibilities of newspapers readers of the day. Completely encircled and cut off from any resupply or relief, they held that ground and stopped the German advance in the worst conditions imaginable for over a week. Today, I am prouder still to learn that one of those men became a Gator coach who gave something important back from his experience to young Gator football players and more. Today the company I work with is facing its most adversarial time since our founding. I am going to post this letter on our bulletin board this morning. Thanks for sharing the letter. Go Gators.

  12. As a life-long Gator, this is hands-down the best Gator-related article I’ve ever read. Just a great lesson for us all, Gator or not. Thanks so much for sharing it with us, Robbie. Pretty neat to see Mr. Alvarez’s confirmation of Coach Ellenson’s character in his comment above too. #GoGators

  13. I will incorporate the memory of this letter to my business every day. Amazing how selfish we all get until an amazing story of human endurance, spirit and hope hits all of us right in the face. Thankyou God for men like this. I love this Country!

  14. I read this letter as a boy. It was in a book of Gator football history I believe written by Jack Hairston. It still gives me tingles. Sometime down the road, probably not this crew, the Gators will have the ability and will to respond to Gene Ellenson’s challenge again.

  15. Thank you for printing the Letter in full. I have considered myself a Gator since about 4 or 5 years before I actually started school at UF in the fall of 1962. I remember hearing about Coach Ellenson’s Letter, as well as a speech or two he made to Gator squads later, but I had never seen the text of the Letter until now.

    Coach Ellenson must have been quite a multi-talented, very intelligent leader of men in addition to being a very fine football coach. I only saw him once on campus, but never had the privilege of meeting him. I wish I had.

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