ACL tears and leadership: Dan Ellington is your Panther of the Year

Sports POTY 2020. Photo by Shel Levy | The Signal

If there is ever to be a Mount Rushmore for Georgia State athletics, Dan Ellington’s face will be one of the four commemorated on it. When Georgia State offered the Itawamba Community College the position of quarterback in 2018, he took the challenge head-on. 

Guided by his faith in God, Ellington exemplifies the meaning of Georgia State far beyond football. He has become the face of not just football, but of Georgia State as a whole.

Ellington embodies the idea of the “Panther family” both on and off the gridiron. He put Georgia State football on the map. Ellington is one of the highest-profile athletes to come out of the school and wears his blue and white with pride.

“I’m a Panther for life,” Ellington said. “The school has given me so much, and I’m glad I was able to contribute to the program.”

He is also The Signal’s 2019-20 Panther of the Year in sports.

Ellington will never forget when head coach Shawn Elliott offered him a scholarship to play football for the Panthers.

“When Coach Elliott offered me, I had to look up Georgia State,” Ellington said. 

When Ellington arrived, the football team had never seen a player as dynamic and promising as him. Before 2019, Georgia State football was niche, at best, but Ellington led the program to national recognition.

Ellington’s legacy will also go further than whatever the stat sheet will communicate. Yes, the Panthers were only 7-6 this season. But in each game, the Panthers played with more passion for the school and the city than the last. Nobody possessed the passion more than Ellington, who never took his eye off the prize. 

“I wanted to get my school to its first [Sun Belt] Conference championship,” he said.

Following their stunning 38-30 victory over the Tennesse Volunteers in Knoxville, the Panthers received nationally televised games on ESPN. The Panthers peaked when  ESPNU televised their game against the Appalachian State Mountaineers. 

Many would assume the game is Ellington’s favorite career highlight. But they would be wrong.  

“For me, it was going on that four-game winning streak after we lost two straight,” Ellington said. “It showed how our team was a brotherhood.” 

The Panthers won crucial conference games at home against the Army Black Knights and Troy Trojans. 

For Ellington, that winning streak truly displayed the strides the program took and the adversity it overcame. The four wins propelled the program to heights never seen before. For the first time, the conference championship was not just a silly dream, but a reachable goal. 

“During the streak, I felt we were going to win ten games,” Ellington said.

He was able to get the students excited about the program – a huge feat considering how weak the crowds were at the games for the young team.

After the win against the Volunteers, Georgia State Stadium was packed for the home opener against Furman. Had the Panthers not defeated Tennessee, there wouldn’t be any sellout games at home during the 2019 season.  

Throughout the season, Ellington not only impacted the team on the field but off it as well. He often engaged with his fans and students, encouraging others to support the team and represent the school for the newcomers. 

“The fans’ support was great, and it was amazing to have more students come out and support the team,” Ellington said. 

Above all, Ellington’s loyalty to Georgia State sets him apart from anyone else. After tearing his ACL against Louisiana-Monroe, many Panther fans started believing Ellington’s season and the Panthers’ were done. Even Ellington knew that ACL tears require surgery and often end athlete’s seasons.

“I knew I tore [my ACL] when I went down,” Ellington said. “I had never felt a pop like that, so I knew what it was.”

He was determined to play through the injury and still reach his goal of getting the Panthers to the conference championship. After the game, Ellington expressed his desire to continue to play on for the rest of the season, including any postseason games.

“I asked the training staff if I could still play because I know other players have played on torn ACLs,” Ellington said. “I still wanted to get the school its first conference champion. That was the goal when I came here.”

We often talk about a player’s mental state during tough times, but Ellington’s determination never wavered. His faith and his teammates rallied him to fight through the pain and continue to add to an already unduplicated Panther football career. Ellington’s resilience is an inspiration both for athletes and for anyone who is going through a difficult time in their lives. 

“My offensive line, when tasked to keep me clean, said, ‘We got you,’ and that was huge for showing how we come as a team,” Ellington said. 

While it may seem reckless to play on a torn ACL, Ellington wanted to go out on his own terms; he would play the remaining five games. While Ellington definitely lost his playmaking ability, he put himself on the Mount Rushmore of Panther athletes.  

After the season, Ellington announced his retirement from football. While the season may not have ended the way he wanted, he achieved a lot for Georgia State.

But if you think No. 13 is done with the school after this year, you would be mistaken: Ellington intends to continue helping Georgia State grow in any way he can. 

He cannot wait for the home-and-home series with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in 2024 and in 2026. 

“I’ll definitely be there. I was so mad we couldn’t play them; they didn’t want this smoke.” Ellington said.

From a three-star recruit out of high school to ICC to Atlanta, Ellington has come a long way.