**Story and photo by Kyle Heck**
Bruce Ellington's career was on the rise in August of 2016. The San Francisco 49ers' wide receiver was drawing praise from teammates, including veteran defensive back Antoine Bethea, who pointed Ellington out as one of the receivers he was most impressed with.
After seeing his role grow with the team over his first two years, 2016 was set up to be the breakout campaign for Ellington in the NFL.
Then came a heartbreaking setback.
In late August, just a couple weeks before the season was set to begin, Ellington tore his hamstring in training camp. Just like that, his breakout season was over before it started. For a player who had worked so hard to get to where he was, it was a devastating turn of events.
"I don't know how to explain it, not being able to go out there and play football and just watch your team," Ellington told Spurs & Feathers. "I never went on recruiting visits because I'm not a guy who likes to watch. I like to go out there and (play), so it was really tough for me."
Not only was Ellington forced to sit and watch his team go on without him, he was also staring at a grueling recovery process that would take months. The former two-sport star at South Carolina still wasn't ready to fully go during minicamp earlier this summer.
However, with San Francisco's training camp set to begin on July 27, Ellington said he "feels great" and is ready to get back to work with his team. When he is finally able to step on the field again, the recovery process will finally be over.
It was an unexpected journey that took away what could've been a special year for Ellington. Because of the injury, his future is now uncertain with the 49ers as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. However, it wasn't as worse as it could've been. The setback could've been one that completely derailed Ellington and took away his love for the game, but he didn't allow that to happen. Ellington relied on faith, teammates and hard work to get through the injury.
Those traits were on full display at the annual "Ellington Elite" football camp in June. Ellington joins up with his cousin Andre, a former star running back at Clemson and current member of the Arizona Cardinals, to hold a camp at Berkeley High School, their former stomping grounds.
Ellington and his cousin run the young children through football drills, but they also gather them together to speak about how important it is to work hard to accomplish dreams. Ellington told the campers about his injury and how he used the aforementioned traits to fight through it.
"I had to preach that to myself," Ellington said. "My mom always told me ever since I was a young kid to get on your knees and ask God for what you want. Like I told (campers), just continue to work hard and pray for what you want and everything else will take care of itself. I've been through a lot of injuries during my life, so it's just a setback for a major comeback."
The journey to a major comeback begins during training camp. After Ellington's injury, the 49ers signed Jeremy Kerley, who led the team in receiving in 2016. The team continued to overhaul the receiving corp this offseason, signing players like Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor, all players who are expected to claim a roster spot.
Throw in the fact that there is a new coaching staff in town, and that leaves Ellington, expected to be a key piece of the team prior to his torn hamstring, fighting for a roster spot. Ellington has proven to be a versatile athlete in the NFL, returning kicks and punts for the 49ers his first two seasons, which should help him.
Ellington played in 13 games in both the 2014 and 2015 seasons, and has three career touchdowns (two receiving, one rushing). The fourth-round draft pick more than doubled his receptions from 2014 to 2015.
"I'm going to keep working, even though I feel great," Ellington said. "I'm going to keep working on what I have to work on to become one of the best receivers in the league."
Ellington came to South Carolina on a basketball scholarship in 2010, and immediately found success. The point guard earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team after leading the team with 12.8 points per game. He started all 30 games and was named the SEC's Freshman of the Week once.
The next season, Ellington joined the football team and promptly earned Freshman All-SEC honors on the gridiron, accumulating more than 200 receiving yards and 100 rushing yards along with being the team's primary kick returner. He also still managed to play in 24 basketball games, averaging 11 points per game and leading the team in assists.
In 2012, Ellington's role with the football team grew tremendously, and he became the Gamecocks' leading receiver with 600 yards and seven touchdowns. He had the memorable game-winning touchdown catch against Michigan in the Outback Bowl that year. Ellington's basketball role diminished, but he still averaged 10 points per game in limited action.
Ellington was once again South Carolina's leading receiver in 2013 and capped off the year with another memorable bowl performance, racking up a career-high 140 receiving yards with two touchdowns in the Capital One Bowl. He also threw a touchdown pass to quarterback Connor Shaw.
Ellington gave up the rest of the basketball season to focus on the NFL combine, and the breakout football star was snagged by the 49ers midway through the draft. He still keeps up with many of his teammates on both the football and basketball teams. During the historic Final Four run for the men's basketball team, Ellington was with the team in New York and Phoenix. At Madison Square Garden in NYC, Ellington celebrated on the court when the Gamecocks punched a ticket to the Final Four.
"I wanted to cut the net, but I was like, 'Nah, that's going a little too far,'" Ellington joked.
Ellington still maintains a fantastic relationship with his former head coach, Frank Martin. Martin made a tremendous impact on Ellington, and it wasn't just as a basketball player.
"Those two years with Frank we built a bond that I think will never break," Ellington said. "He taught me a lot of things about life. Just having him when I go to Carolina, I can just go sit in his office and talk for days."
Ellington said he also still talks to nearly everyone he played with on the football team. When he first arrived at South Carolina, he may not have fully understood the mantra "Once a Gamecock, always a Gamecock," but that's become an integral part of his life now.
As Ellington tries to put his football career back on track this fall, he'll rely on his faith, hard work and those important relationships he built at South Carolina.
"If I need something, I call one of those guys and they'll help me out," Ellington said. "(Former quarterback) Dylan (Thompson) is a real big Christian. When I get down on myself I can always go on his Instagram or Twitter or he'll text me something that inspires me to keep going forward and keep pushing and believe that God is going to work everything out."