SOLON– Don Ellis loves sports. He loves Solon. He especially loves Solon Spartans sports. For 20 years, he’s been the guy sitting next to the official scorekeeper and the scoreboard operator with a microphone in his hand doing the announcing at Solon High School sporting events.
Ellis has rubbed elbows with some of the finest high school athletes in the state, and now he’s joined an elite group of his own as a recipient of a Morris D. “Mo” Kelley Award from the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA). The award, given annually since 2002, is presented for excellence in public address (PA) announcing and pays tribute to Kelley who served the IHSAA for 30 years as the association’s publications director and the “voice” of its state tournament awards presentations. Ellis was presented with the prestigious plaque between the third and fourth periods of the Spartans vs. Washington Demons game Monday, Feb. 18.
“I love to do it,” he said of a volunteer career, which dates back to 1993 and a chance opportunity. “Dennis Gruber read the starting line-ups (at boys events) then turned the microphone off,” Ellis remembers. “One night, they were short-handed in the concession stand, so he asked me if I would do the PA for him.” Ellis said he thought about it for a moment. “I said, gosh, yeah, I could do it.” With that, he slid behind the mike and worked off of the example Gruber and others had set.
It wasn’t very long after when the girls approached him and asked him to be their announcer. At the time, they had nobody doing the job. He accepted the invitation. For the first game, he just gave the line-up and was done. The second game though set him on the path to becoming “the Voice of the Spartans.”
“I kept the mike on,” he said, “and started introducing the substitutes and who scored.” The response was swift and positive. “Parents came up to me and said, ‘wow, we didn’t know what we’ve been missing.’” Ellis didn’t either. Years before, he’d had aspirations of coaching, but realized he really didn’t want to deal with the negative interactions coaches sometimes have with a small percentage of the parents. He did do some coaching while son Ryan and daughter Haley were playing in little league and summer league programs and had a blast doing so. “I loved those opportunities,” he said.
After giving up coaching, Ellis had a decision to make: if not coaching, how else could he stay involved in sports? The answer came easy, announce. It’s been personally rewarding for Ellis on many intangible levels. “After I say ‘goodnight’ and ‘drive safely home,’ and I congratulate the other team, bid them adieu, I sleep quite well.” He sees his job as not only helping to pump up the Spartan faithful, but also to make the opponents feel welcome. Though he wears a self-described Department of Transportation orange shirt and bleeds Spartan Orange, he moderates his introductions of both teams’ players and points out goals and impressive plays, regardless of which side made it.
Ellis also makes it a point to meet the visiting team’s coaches as soon as possible. “I greet the coaches, that’s part of the public relations. I may be the second or third contact person they see.” He gets their line-up, makes small talk with them and confirms the proper pronunciation of the players’ names. “The best feeling for me at night is when the visitors stop by on their way out, tap me on the shoulder, and say, ‘hey, nice job.’ That means the world to me.”
While he makes it a personal priority to get the names right, sometimes things do go awry despite his due diligence. He told of a time when a kindly grandmother chided him for a blown pronunciation, one he’d made all through the game. The catch, he pronounced it exactly the way the head coach had told him. The disconnect and irony made him chuckle. “I want those fans to say they like to come here.” It’s also about being professional and casting the best possible light for Solon and Spartan Athletics.
“It’s a complete package: the building, the gym, the singer, the announcer, the programs…it’s all a package of pride.” The singer Ellis referred to is none other than Solon High School student Keela Uhlenkamp who performs the national anthem live. “She’s my mainstay,” he said. Ellis, like many other PA guys, has used a taped performance, either by the school band or other entity. But, said Ellis, “it felt like canned corn. She just belts it out, nails it. It makes you have faith in our youth. It makes you realize what a wonderful country we have.”
Some quick calculations revealed Ellis has manned the mike for over 500 basketball games, at least 126 football games and 150 softball games. Through it all, he never received a single dime for his time or effort. “It’s all for the love of the game and the Spartans. The kids, the athletes are the story. I don’t ever want to take away from them.”
A self-proclaimed sports nut, Ellis has also emceed various events in Solon since 1988 including 14 years of proms and 15 of 16 welcome home ceremonies for state championship teams. And he plans to keep calling games and greeting future champions for a long time to come.
Ellis said retirement will come “when it feels like work, when it’s no longer incredibly fun.”