As senior assistant to the head coach for the Chiefs, Porter Ellett might as well be Andy Reid’s shadow. Maybe you’ve seen him nearby during practice or games and wondered about the guy Reid is apt to call his “left-hand man.”
The joke reflects the nature of their relationship, a little-known aspect of Reid’s own life and what makes Ellett who he is: a man who had his right arm amputated as a teen, believes he’s better off for it and is distinguished most by his intelligence, zeal for life and sense of humor.
It’s those personal traits that resonate with an admiring Reid, who calls Ellett “quite a person,” and make Ellett well-suited for his second year orbiting a coach whose brother Reggie has long-contended with an injury of a similar nature.
If Ellett doesn’t quite bunk with Reid at training camp, he’s alongside virtually every waking moment to attend to … whatever: from the clerical stuff of building playbooks and call sheets to Reid’s administrative work to miscellaneous projects behind the scenes.
“I can be rough on you a little bit in that position; he’s got a tremendous amount of responsibility,” Reid said. “And so when the best of my red hairs get to me, he handles it and smooths it out and just kind of calms the storm.”
It’s grinding work but an incredible opportunity to absorb the profession. Previously in the same capacity, Reid employed current Chiefs general manager Brett Veach and Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott; Ellett has playfully jousted with each about who has performed better, and he could follow in either direction.
There’s no way to know if his future holds those sorts of high-profile positions, but his presence here is momentous in itself: It’s testament to a special spirit forged when Ellett was 4 years old and might well have died in the accident on the family farm in Loa, Utah.
It would have been challenge enough to land this NFL job with enormous growth potential coming from a remote rural town of about 600 and a high school that didn’t have enough kids for a football team.
Making it with one arm was something else entirely, something that speaks to intense resolve and how his family navigated the aftermath of the mishap that day: In the back of a Ford F-150 with older kids after moving sheep to the summer range, Ellett crawled up on a motorcycle in the bed and was thrown out when the truck hit a bump.
His skull was cracked and his head scalped, as he put it. That wasn’t the worst of it. Extreme nerve damage, known as a brachial plexus injury, was inflicted on his right arm, rendering it what he calls dead and ultimately compelling him to have it amputated when he was 16.
By then, though, he had long since come to terms with his arm. So a day after the amputation, still bleeding some, he played pickup basketball.
“It was kind of like when you get new cleats, or a new ball,” he said. “ ‘Let’s try this out, let’s see what this is like.’ ”
That mindset reflected both his innate attitude and how his parents reacted to the trauma of the accident. His mother, Mary, remembers counting her blessings that he was simply alive with no brain damage, and they set about living what happens to be one of Reid’s mantras: roll with it.
“They taught me, ‘It’s up to you,’ ” Ellett said. “There was no victim mentality ever. This is a super-bad pun, but it’s the hand life deals you, so you do what you can with it.”
Painful as it was for them, that meant letting him struggle to find his way at times.
“No one ever expected anything different from him than anyone else his age,” his father, Jan, said.
Still bearing stitches in his head from the accident, for instance, Ellett tried in vain to climb a fence with his friends. Seeking help, he turned to his mother.
She said, “No: If you want to do it, figure it out.”
“And I got over it,” he said, later adding, “I’d say it was real love. I think we have a misconception of what love is today. Love isn’t giving people what they want. It’s giving them what they need.
“I didn’t have, like, ‘I’ll lift you over the fence.’ (But) you could say, their love lifted me over.”
Thanks to a strong support system, including five sisters who never coddled him, Ellett became a really good athlete. Having one functional arm somehow became an afterthought.
At one of his baseball games, his mother remembers thinking, “There’s a boy out there with one arm. … Oh, it’s Porter.”
In fact, he mastered the ability to bat with one hand and flip the ball from his glove to throw it. Except, that is, when he pitched. Then he’d leave the glove on the ground before him for throws back from the catcher. But there was no time to use it to field.
It seems telling that he relished that challenge.
“There’s nothing quite like the rush of pitching with no glove,” he said, smiling. “If you make a mistake and they hit it back at you, that’s on you. So it was always like, be unhittable, right?”
Basketball led to the decision to amputate. His atrophied right arm had become increasingly problematic. And not just because it had gotten to the point where he might accidentally slap somebody with it when he was dribbling or getting called for pushoffs.
“I’d look at the ref (and say), ‘My arm doesn’t move, so I’m not really pushing off,’ ” he said, laughing.
Even with scant sensation in in it, though, he’d felt the excruciating pain of it being broken several times. Then one night his sophomore year at Wayne High, he was sandwiched between defenders going for a rebound. His shoulder was dislocated, his elbow dislocated and broken.
For a while, he had wondered if something could be done to fix his arm. But he realized he knew how to do everything he wanted even without being able to use it. So on the long ride to the nearest hospital, he turned to his mother and said “Ah, let’s cut it off; I’m not doing this anymore.”
He tells this story with a laugh, and his mirthful way is infectious and ever-present. Every Halloween, for instance, Ellett and his wife, Carlie, have created costumes themed to the loss of an arm.
Once, he played Chubbs to Carlie’s Happy Gilmore. Another time, he played “Soul Surfer” Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm in a shark attack. So what if his female impersonation left something to be desired?
“I made for a mean shark,” Carlie said, “so that probably made up for it.”
Last year at the Chiefs’ team Halloween party, they went with a Toy Story 2 theme. Ellett played Woody with his lost arm, Carlie was Jessie and Buzz Lightyear was played by now-14-month-old son Brigham. (The Mormon couple met at Brigham Young University, Reid’s alma mater.)
“Might as well have fun with it,” Ellett said. “If people see you smiling and enjoying life, it gives them hope.”
Hope is why the modest Ellett consented to have his story told. When he asked Carlie about the idea, she said it would be worth it if even one kid contending with a perceived impediment reads about him.
“Porter’s always been kind of this go-to (guy) to show people that just because something bad happens to you, and you don’t physically look like everybody else, it doesn’t mean your life’s over,” Carlie said. “You can overcome whatever faces you.”
None of which should be confused with the idea that anything came easy for Ellett, 29. It’s just that he accepted he’d have to work twice as hard to do everything … then he did it.
As much as he was loved in the community, he also had to come to terms with ridicule.
“When you’re a kid and you’re really different, it’s hard, life’s pretty rough,” he said. “So I went through a time when I, like, legit hated people. I hated going out, and I hated being stared at and I hated being pointed at and I hated (hearing) comments: ‘He’s got one arm,’ or ‘he’s a freak,’ things like that. …
“You go to, like, a dark place in life. I think you find out who you really are then.”
Faith, friends and family helped. Including even the simplest gesture from Grandmother Shirley, who once gave him a picture frame with the words “Don’t Quit” and DO IT.
At first, he kept it prominently displayed on his dresser just so maybe she’d see it and get him a better gift next time around.
Over time, though, the words came to mean something to him.
Especially during a rough period when he felt to blame for everything going wrong, including his father being fired as the basketball coach. He thought about quitting the team to “make them all happy.”
Distraught, he lay on his bed and looked up at those words and had a revelation. He couldn’t worry about what others think, couldn’t keep them from staring. But when they did, he wanted them to see something special.
“That was a turning point, I think,” said Ellett, who keeps that picture frame on his dresser to this day.
With that mentality grew the capacity for pursuing what might seem a far-fetched opportunity that came in a circuitous way.
From working in the BYU football equipment room, he fell in love with the game and decided to do whatever he could to work in it in some capacity.
After his mission in Los Angeles teaching Spanish, by chance he became friends with Devin Woodhouse, who taught Spanish at BYU’s Missionary Training Center. Woodhouse is married to Reid’s daughter Drew, and became a strength and conditioning assistant with the Chiefs.
Long story short, when Ellett was working on his master’s degree in sports management at Baylor and came to a wedding here in 2016, that connection led to an invite to the Reid home after a game.
When Reid arrived, Ellett remembers some initial awkwardness because he was sitting in Reid’s chair. Turns out Reid doesn’t exactly see himself as having his own chair, Reid said, smiling, but “we made (Ellett) feel like I did.”
After they got talking, Ellett told Reid, “I’d pay money just to follow you around and see how you coach. I want to learn from the best.”
Reid told him to send a resume and a few months later called Ellett, who said he was shaking with nerves as he hoped for a short internship. Instead, Reid told him he had a full-time job available as his senior assistant and “for some reason you just keep coming to mind.”
So Porter soon became Reid’s “left-hand man,” and there’s more to the joke and chemistry that they share between them: Reggie Reid years ago lost the use of an arm in a motorcycle accident but didn’t have it amputated. He went on to become accomplished in the martial arts — among other ways of his life that defied the gravity of the accident.
That understanding of his brother’s ability to thrive despite the same sort of loss helps account for Reid seeing something in Ellett beyond his smarts and composure and energy.
“They just make it happen; that’s what Porter does,” he said. “The way he carries himself, you don’t even notice” he’s missing an arm.
With Carlie eight months pregnant, Ellett got the job offer on the Friday before the 2017 Super Bowl and started work two days later. Not easy for her. And for the second time, she left a good online marketing job (she soon found another here) to follow his dream.
But you could say her feeling about it was encapsulated in this moment: When Porter walked out of the Arrowhead Stadium tunnel with Reid for the preseason opener against San Francisco, she struggled to stay composed because of the joy she felt over his improbable journey.
The near-death experience cost him an arm, and you’d never wish that on anyone, yet in some ways it made him something more. He’s a better person for the accident, he has told his father, and his mother knows he considers it a blessing — whatever the “odds” might say.
“I think it’s important that kids understand that they should be the oddsmakers,” Ellett said. “Like, you always hear, the odds, the chances, of doing this are one in a million.
“Well, why not be the one that does it? Why not set the odds for everybody else?”