Number seven on the University of Massachusetts football field is easy to find. A massive running back who constantly knocks defenders to the ground. Despite rushing for a UMass team that struggled all season, winning one game, Ellis Merriweather proved to be one of the best players on the program.
At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, he rushed for over 1,100 yards and five touchdowns despite playing on one of the worst offenses in the nation. Merriweather developed an identity as a power running back and elite athlete.
Aside from his ability as a footballer, the public doesn’t know much about who Merriweather is and what he looks like when he’s not arming defenders on the turf.
In January 2021, Merriweather virtually attended the Black Student Athlete Summit, which encourages Black student athletes to get the most out of their college experience, beyond the sport they play.
At the summit, Merriweather met with black lawyers, doctors, psychologists and many others who have earned doctorates. Before going to The Summit, Merriweather even thought about trying to get her master’s degree. There were many things he just wasn’t aware of before this summit, which quickly changed.
“Basically the most important thing I really learned [the Summit] was just that I’m more than an athlete,” Merriweather said. “Because while we all want to think we can play forever, time flies pretty quickly.”
Merriweather was told to start thinking about life beyond football, a thought that didn’t occupy the headspace of a highly competitive athlete trying to take it to the next level.
“It was probably a life-changing experience,” Merriweather said. “There’s a lot of things we’re not told, and especially as black student-athletes because we have a lot of people who aren’t like us in charge of telling us how we’re supposed to move.”
These experiences have helped him join groups he has been interested in since joining UMass in the summer of 2020. Merriweather is one of two football players on the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). He and the other student-athletes on the committee speak directly with the athletic department about what can be improved for their teams, also promoting the mental health of other student-athletes, among other responsibilities. He is also a leader at Peak Performance, an on-campus club that focuses more on the mental health of athletes and how to improve their mindset for the highest level of performance in competition.
In less than a year at UMass, Merriweather found himself captaining the football team and in managerial roles at several clubs. While the Black Student Athlete Summit helped shape his perspective, it doesn’t tell the full story of why Merriweather is who he is today.
During Merriweather’s teenage years, every Sunday included church, followed by Bible study later in the evening. Eric Merriweather, Ellis’ father, sat Merriweather and his younger brother Elijah in the living room to educate them on Bible verses or Christian books and movies.
Eric relayed the religious messages into life lessons, such as respecting elders, building relationships and the right things to do when they have a family one day. The Bible studies lasted about an hour, partly because of the content Eric was showing the boys and partly because Merriweather and Elijah were curious.
“To dumb it down, [The Bible] is just about being a good person,” Merriweather said. “When you really live by [The Bible]it cannot mislead you.
“Me and Ellis move every day with a lot of stuff that our dad told us about,” Elijah said.
Prior to playing football for the Minutemen, Merriweather spent two years at the JUCO level with Garden City Community College in Kansas. Central Kansas was a culture shock for a kid growing up more than 1,100 miles away in northern Atlanta. While Garden City achieved its goal of getting Merriweather into a Division-I football team, it added a few other benefits. Merriweather formed one of the closest bonds of his life and made the Dean’s List after his freshman year.
He met Taishan Holmes, a defensive tackle who also moved from Garden City to UMass. After the first conversation the two had together, they knew there was a real connection.
“For quite a while [Merriweather] was the person I could come and talk to about mental health,” Holmes said. “Just because I knew he understood…he always knew the right things to say, and he was always trying to improve and uplift himself and his mindset.”
The Dean’s List is a good achievement for everyone, but the reason it had such an impact for Merriweather is that he and more than half of his other teammates who made the list received an award. Seeing so many of his teammates earning good grades while playing football was a wake-up call. Merriweather wasn’t happy to do as much as his teammates, he wanted to do more.
After two seasons at Kansas, Merriweather and his former UMass teammate Holmes moved to Amherst. But before Merriweather officially enrolled at UMass, he was on campus tour. One of the people who showed him around on this tour was Solomon Siskind.
A former football player who didn’t see the pitch during his years with the Minutemen, Siskind had a much bigger impact off the pitch. He was a member of the SAAC before Merriweather. He also presented research at the Black Student Athlete Summit that he and another former UMass athlete found about the experience of black students at UMass. On top of that, he helped create the Northeast Black Student-Athlete Summit.
They didn’t immediately connect like Merriweather and Homes did, but Siskind saw potential in Merriweather during this visit. Although the potential on the pitch was obvious, Siskind was referring to his potential off it.
“It all started with his willingness to share his experience and his natural curiosity to be better, to be awesome,” Siskind said of Merriweather. “He wanted to be big, I think the problem was not knowing where to look and what opportunities there were for him.”
Merriweather quickly saw everything Siskind was doing off the pitch and wanted to follow in his footsteps. During water breaks at practices, Merriweather caught Siskind’s brain on what he was doing.
“Solomon was definitely a hugely influential person for me,” Merriweather said. “I have so much respect for him, he’s like a big brother to me… It was my first time in college, and I was really trying to find someone who was on the same kind of mission. only me and someone I could learn from.”
Another key person for Merriweather during this time was Amanda Ekabutr, Director of Student-Athlete Development and Head of Diversity and Inclusions at UMass until October 2021.
Ekabutr and Merriweather’s relationship began to grow when Merriweather called her while he was stuck in the UMass hotel quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic. Merriweather has spoken out about the stress of the pandemic and the racial injustices in America surrounding George Floyd and other black people who have been killed in 2020.
“She really listened,” Merriweather said of Ekabutr during those phone calls. “She didn’t try to talk too much, she just tried to listen to me and understand…It was just that she was there for me.”
These calls strengthened the connection that ultimately led Ekabutr to recommend the Summit to Merriweather.
If someone attends a women’s lacrosse game, they can see Merriweather in the press box. This spring, Merriweather interns for the UMass athletics department as a sports information intern. It keeps statistics for all women’s lacrosse matches, which are immediately updated on the UMass athletics website. Before that, he was on the court at men’s basketball games taking pictures.
“A lot of people at Isenberg take classes to learn and I hope to have a chance to do what I’m doing right now, I don’t take it for granted,” Merriweather said of her internship experience.
Since Merriweather is receiving credit for the internship, he doesn’t have to take any classes this semester, allowing him to focus more on football and becoming a mentor to his teammates.
“Okay, now they know who I am, what can I do to be a better leader,” Merriweather said. “Whether it’s in the locker room, whether it’s taking a certain teammate out for the day… Understanding that we’re more than athletes and building those relationships is what allows me to [be a better leader].”
Although there were no official captains last season, everyone in the locker room knew Merriweather was a team leader.
“It is easy for people to turn to [Merriweather]”, said Holmes. “And it’s not even football. Even when [we’re] in Amherst, it’s easy for people to gravitate toward [Merriweather]”
Merriweather enters his final season of UMass eligibility comfortable in his role, but has not finished developing. All of his experiences and connections allow him to continue to be a dominant running back and a great leader for the Minutemen.
The experiences also allow him to earn a postgraduate certificate from the Isenberg School of Management and continue to be a leader at SAAC and Peak Performance. Merriweather is also traveling to Texas to attend the Black Student Athlete Summit in person this year, to learn more about what has driven him since the last summit: to be more than an athlete.
“I had to grow into this role, it wasn’t like I felt that way when I arrived [to Amherst]. It was other people saying they saw things in me.
Joey Aliberti can be reached at [email protected] and followed @JosephAliberti1 on Twitter.