NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Alex Ellis got the thrill of a lifetime on Saturday.
The former University of Tennessee tight end caught a touchdown pass for the Titans in the fourth quarter against the Panthers, a true moment to celebrate with his teammates.
"It will definitely be one of my top football memories ever,'' said Ellis, who has three catches for 27 yards in the preseason, including the nine-yard catch from quarterback Alex Tanney. "I am just thankful I got the call and put in the situation where I could do that. I'm blessed as a whole."
Ellis, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Titans in May, got the opportunity because of his determination, and his lifelong refusal to let diabetes slow him down.
At age 4, Ellis was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin, a hormone needed to allow sugar (glucose) to enter cells to produce energy. Ellis regularly takes "5 to 6 shots a day" – usually in his stomach, leg, or the back of his arm. Any time he eats, he takes a shot, whether it's a snack or a meal. He checks his blood sugars regularly.
"Really, it is just like normal life,'' Ellis said. "For me, it is just like eating and breathing. I just have to keep it under control. It's another life task."
And that's the way Ellis has always looked at things when dealing with the disease, even though it requires constant and diligent attention. He played football, baseball, basketball lacrosse and soccer growing up in Delmar, Delaware.
"It's never slowed me down,'' Ellis said. "If it's a sport, I played it. I even swam at one time."
Ellis was a popular guy in Knoxville because of his underdog story, and likeability.
He joined the program in 2011 as a walk-on after being an option quarterback in high school. The only Division I scholarship opportunity he had was at Navy, but his diabetes would have been problematic for a military commitment.
Ellis didn't play in his first three seasons at UT, but he played as a redshirt junior and senior, and the 6-foot-4, 253-pound Ellis caught 14 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown in those two seasons. He impressed scouts with his performance at UT's Pro Day, and the Titans signed him after the draft.
"He got off on the right foot with me,'' Titans coach Mike Mularkey said of Ellis. "He was here before me most mornings when we first signed him, so I knew he was putting the time in to study. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He wants to do it right. He plays hard, he practices hard. I like the way he's competing."
Ellis has earned the respect of his teammates this offseason as well.
"I knew he was a diabetic," tight end Delanie Walker said of Ellis. "I've seen him walking around with his kit. But you can't tell when he's out there on the field, and it doesn't stop him. He gives it all he's got, and he's one of those guys who's going to work hard. If he makes a mistake, he does it full speed. And when he makes a great play, he does it full speed.
"He's a fighter. I think he is a great kid. He will have to fight to make this roster – we have some good tight ends on this roster. But I think he's promising. He has a future in the NFL."
Ellis said he's determined to keep working at his lifelong dream.
He credited the Titans for helping him make the transition to a new environment while dealing with diabetes.
"The training staff here takes great care of me, checking in on me and helping me out,'' he said. "At (the University of) Tennessee, they helped me out. So it's been a smooth transition."
These days, Ellis is doing everything he can to help himself out in his quest for a roster spot, or a spot on the team's practice squad.
He'd love to stick around Tennessee, a place he calls his "second home."
"The tight ends on this team, they are a great bunch of guys,'' Ellis said. "They've been here for a while and there's a reason for it – they do what vets do. I am just lucky to learn under them. I just have to keep working and do my best to show what I can do."
The Tennessee Titans battle the Carolina Panthers in Week 2 of the 2016 preseason at Nissan Stadium. (Photos: Donn Jones, AP)