CLEVELAND — Brian Ellis only planned to be gone for a few minutes.
The then-Delta State assistant basketball coach left his six-month pregnant wife, Courtney, at home while he went to let Phil Turner inside the gym.
“I came home and my wife was in labor,” recollected Ellis, who was recently named an assistant coach at Mississippi Valley State.
Ellis then drove his wife 35 miles to Clarksdale, where her doctor was on call.
“I drove 115 (mph) the whole way there,” remembered Ellis.
They originally thought it was just a false alarm, but it turned out, Courtney was in full-blown labor on only the first day of her third trimester.
The doctor didn’t know why Courtney, who was projected to give birth Dec. 15, was in labor three months early. She was taken to a hospital in Jackson by ambulance while coach Ellis followed suit.
The former West Florida standout, now known for his recruiting skills, couldn’t fix this situation with words.
“At that point,” said coach Ellis, “there’s nothing you can say. You can’t talk good enough (to fix the situation).”
An emergency C-section was performed, and 2-pound, 4-ounce Payton Ellis entered the world on Sept. 22, 2010.
The Ellis’ lives changed dramatically afterwards. But not just because it was their first child.
Payton was forced to stay hospitalized in Jackson while doctors monitored her improvement. And what began as a short route to let a player in the gym, resulted in a three-month stint over two hours away from home.
“We had to move to Jackson,” said coach Ellis. “It was extremely tough for my wife.....having a baby, and her not being there.
“There’d be moments where I’d wake up at 2:30 in the morning in a panic just to make sure she was ok.”
Newborn Payton was on a feeding tube surrounded by hundreds of other babies. Brian Ellis said he got a chance to know one family, whose child sat next to Payton in the neonatal intensive care unit. But just hours after speaking with them, he realized just how lucky he was.
“I was talking with them,” he remembered, “and came back four hours later and their baby had died right next to (Payton).”
To make matters worse, DSU’s season-opening basketball game was just over a month away. Ellis was committed to his family, but said he had a job to be done in Cleveland as well.
“I would drive from Jackson to Cleveland about four times a week and for every game,” reminisced Ellis, who added that he met the team in Cleveland for road games.
“It seemed like the first semester took five years.”
But those in and around the DSU athletic department, Ellis said, were right by his side. Several players along with Athletic Director Jeremy McClain made trips to Jackson to check on them.
“That’s the kind of thing that really makes it a family,” Ellis said. “It never felt like we were fighting it by ourselves.”
Some made trips to Jackson, others made phone calls. The entire time Payton was in the hospital, the DSU family stayed in contact, Ellis said.
“We wanted to be able to support them,” said McClain. “....Let them see some familiar faces.”
Ellis remembers the time he drove back to Cleveland for Alumni Day, a week after Payton’s birth. When he walked in the building, everyone stopped what they were doing and embraced him.
“It’s something strong here, and not just in the Athletic Department, but on campus,” said McClain. “And I think that’s the way it should be.”
Said DSU head basketball coach Jason Conner, “When the Lord puts us through things, there’s a reason behind it.”
Three months after entering the world three months early, Payton Ellis came home completely healthy. The family moved back to Cleveland.
“She’s now above the weight of a normal six-month-old,” Ellis said of the nine-month-old child. “She has a big time personality. The only reason I have to be scared now is because she hadn’t met a person she hasn’t liked yet.”
Now seven months after coming home, the Ellis family is making another move. This time to Greenwood for Ellis’ new job at MVSU, where he’ll get a chance to work with former DSU assistant coach Chico Potts. Ellis took over for Dylan Howard, who was named the head coach at North Park University, a Division-III school in Illinois.
“(Division-I) has been his dream,” said Conner. “I’m happy for him that he got that opportunity. I told (MVSU coach Sean) Woods that he would do a fine job there.”
Elllis’ final year at DSU allowed him to put a lot of things in perspective, he said.
“Basketball is important,” said Ellis, “but nothing can replace family.
“I can’t relate to a lot of things, but I can relate to on the verge of losing your child.”
Courtney, a massage therapist who played volleyball at West Florida, will drive back to Cleveland three times a week for work. Other than that, everything is back to normal.
After officially starting his new position July 1, Ellis is back doing what he does best: recruiting.
So how does the Crestview, Fla. native like his new stumping grounds? Well, that answer will have to wait.
“(I’m) on the road already,” Ellis wrote in a text message. “I’ll let you know in August.”