Of the 35 Fresno State players selected in the NFL draft during Bulldogs coach Jim Sweeney tenure, receiver Henry Ellard arguably might have had the most prosperous pro career.
And Ellard, who ranks 10th in career receiving yards in NFL history, said he owes much of his success from lessons he while playing for Sweeney.
So when Ellard learned of Sweeney’s passing at 83 years old last week and of the ceremony scheduled at 1 p.m. today at Bulldog Stadium, he made sure to rearrange his schedule to attend the event.
“He always knew how to get the best of his players,” said Ellard, who played at Fresno State from 1979-1982 and is currently the receivers coach for the New Orleans Saints. “Coach Sweeney had great knowledge of the game. He was great at teaching you the little things. It stuck with me.”
Ellard recalled during one summer training camp of having difficult catching zipping passes from his quarterbacks.
“They were fastballs – I mean fast balls!” Ellard said. “I couldn’t catch them.”
Sweeney pulled Ellard aside and reminded him how fast-thrown footballs, like in fastballs in baseball, tend to rise. So Ellard adjusted his hands and always anticipated footballs sailing higher than expected.
“Just teaching you what seems like little things but it’s the little things that can go a long ways,” Ellard said. “Coach Sweeney, he was great at identifying the problems and helping fix them.”
Ellard went on to set almost every Fresno State receiving record in 1982 and led the nation with 1,510 receiving yards and became a second-team All-American.
Ellard then got drafted in the second round by the Los Angeles Rams and spent 15 years in the NFL. When Ellard retired 1998, the three-time Pro Bowler ranked third in career receiving yards. Ellard, who is not in the Hall of Fame, was known for using his jumping ability to reel in high passes, along with superior skills as a route runner.
Still, some of Ellard’s most fondest memories came while playing for Sweeney (Ellard did spend his first season playing for ex-coach Bob Padilla for one season).
“First time I watched a Fresno State practice, I was a nobody, like on the JV team at Hoover,” Ellard said. “But Coach Sweeney saw me there and told me ‘Maybe one day you can become a Bulldog.’ That stuck in my head.
“And truth me told, I was a hometown boy and a Mama’s boy. I wasn’t going to go anywhere. I wanted to play in front of my family and friends.
“Another memory I have of Coach Sweeney was when he benched me my junior year. I wasn’t playing my best and he benched me so I could refocus myself.
“I don’t remember exactly how many games it was, but it seemed like a lifetime,” Ellard added. “When I came back, I was focused more than ever. And I had that big senior year the next season. He was a great motivator and knew how to light a fire in a player.
“I’m thankful I got to play for him.”