Enduring Legacies: Was the tortured end for Troy Ellis caused by brain traumas and CTE?

·9 min read
Troy Ellis and his mom, Cheryl Carter, tailgating at a Massillon football game
Troy Ellis and his mom, Cheryl Carter, tailgating at a Massillon football game

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series called "Enduring Legacies" about your neighbors and friends who have recently died. They weren't famous. However, within their otherwise ordinary lives, they were extraordinary.

BREWSTER – The Troy Ellis most knew couldn't possibly have been the same guy who placed the butt of an AR-15 rifle between his feet, aimed the barrel at his chest and pulled the trigger.

Not Troy Ellis.

Not the fun-loving 34-year-old who resembled heartthrob actor Channing Tatum; loved spending time with his son; danced the Dougie; endlessly recited movie dialogue; once intercepted five passes in a game as a Massillon Washington High football star; even drove around in a Chevy Silverado pickup with the vanity plate "5N1-GAME."

"He fooled a lot of people," said Troy's dad, Michael Ellis.

Including, to some degree, his own family.

More: What is CTE? The degenerative brain disease that's been found in NFL players, explained

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More: Stark County Mental Health & Addiction Recovery Facebook

In a way, the guy who likely set fire to a house in Massillon the morning after Christmas, then barricaded himself inside his Church Street NE home and took his own life wasn't the same Troy Ellis.

That Troy Ellis was tortured.

"I'm sorry," he told his mom, Cheryl Carter, before he was placed into an EMS vehicle and rushed to Aultman Hospital where he died. On the way, he asked a firefighter to relay the apology to his mother again. And to tell her he loved her and that it wasn't her fault.

The firefighter phoned Cheryl the next night to share that message.

Cheryl and Michael, who are divorced, knew their son had problems. He'd mentioned suicide before, but told his mom he'd never actually do it. He was prone to angry outbursts. He often acted on impulse. Michael was aware. So was Troy's older sister, Lauren Ellis, a nurse, who was among those who'd suggested he seek counseling.

Troy wanted no part of it.

Probably, she said, he viewed that as a sign of weakness.

"He loved being around people, but when he was alone, he struggled," Lauren said.

Troy Ellis and his sister, Lauren Ellis, were both standout athletes at Massillon Washington High. Troy killed himself the day after Christmas, ending a pattern of behavior his family found to be out of character for him.
Troy Ellis and his sister, Lauren Ellis, were both standout athletes at Massillon Washington High. Troy killed himself the day after Christmas, ending a pattern of behavior his family found to be out of character for him.

After watching the 2015 film "Concussion" several years ago, Cheryl and Lauren began to suspect Troy may suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, It's commonly known as CTE. The degeneration of the brain is caused by repeated head traumas, such as concussions.

CTE has been found, posthumously, in more than 315 former NFL players, dating to former Steelers' great Mike Webster two decades ago. Problem is, a definitive diagnosis can be made only after death, by studying the tissue of the brain. That's why Troy's family has donated his brain to the Boston University's CTE Center for analysis.

"I think it will give us some answers," Lauren said.

"My mom's gut says it was," Cheryl said.

"Something was going on; I just don't know if it was (CTE)," Michael said.

He was a baller

A third-generation pipe fitter, Troy worked out of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 94 in Canton. He was good at it, too, his dad said. All the guys who worked with Troy loved him.

However, in his personal life, Troy had a tough time being organized. He forgot things a lot. His house was a mess. He couldn't pay bills on time. His mom stepped in to help last summer.

"In hindsight, maybe that should have been done sooner," Lauren said.

As is often the case, hindsight helps put the pieces together.

Troy's mom and sister wonder if his problems began with his fall from a tree at age 8. He was treated at Akron Children's Hospital for a brain bleed. He had to repeat a year of grade school. He also had a nasty spill from a bike. Then, consider all the baseball, basketball and football Troy played through the years, where he banged heads and got beaned by pitches.

Troy Ellis with a swollen eye after getting hit with a pitch while playing for Olney Community College.
Troy Ellis with a swollen eye after getting hit with a pitch while playing for Olney Community College.

No official concussions.

"But he had some stingers in junior high," Michael recalled.

They are caused by a blow or sudden movement that compresses the spinal nerve inside the neck. They're called "stingers" because they create a burning or stinging sensation in the neck, shoulder and arm.

Troy's were enough, his dad added, to force him to miss a few games while playing for Massillon's Lorin Andrews football team.

"Looking back, I don't know, maybe I should have not let him play football after that," Michael said.

Troy probably wouldn't have stood for it. From the time he could walk, he always found a ball to play with. Same with his sister. Both were named "Most Athletic" by their classes during their respective high school senior years. Lauren played college softball at Kent State University.

Troy Ellis with the Manchester A's travel baseball team. Troy later played baseball on scholarship at Olney Community College in Illinois.
Troy Ellis with the Manchester A's travel baseball team. Troy later played baseball on scholarship at Olney Community College in Illinois.

The siblings grew up on Massillon's west side. They played and competed against each other and neighbors. They walked to John George's convenience store and Brookfield Bake Shoppe for snacks.

"So many great memories," Lauren said.

As a high school senior, Troy was a second-team All-Ohio defensive back for the 2005 Tigers' football team. He was a one-man highlight reel in a game vs. Cincinnati Elder — Troy intercepted a school-record five passes and returned a fumble 20 yards for a touchdown.

"What I remember most about Troy is how much he loved to play the game; he even enjoyed practicing," said former Massillon head coach Tom Stacy, now an assistant at Ashland University.

Troy, he said, was a senior leader.

"Mentally tough," Stacy added.

Troy Ellis was a natural athlete. As a child, he played baseball, basketball and football. He was a second-team All-Ohio football player in high school, then played college baseball.
Troy Ellis was a natural athlete. As a child, he played baseball, basketball and football. He was a second-team All-Ohio football player in high school, then played college baseball.

After high school, Troy played more ball. In the Big 33 Football Classic for the Ohio all stars against Pennsylvania's best; on a baseball scholarship at Olney Community College in Illinois; for the Canton Terriers in the Canton A league; in men's league recreation basketball in Massillon.

"A natural athlete," his dad said.

Troy even dabbled in coaching kids.

Out of character

After Troy's death, his family learned more bits and pieces about his behavior. They were told Troy had confessed to a friend: "I have demons in my head ... something is not right between my ears."

Maybe it's why he also struggled mightily in relationships.

Aside from his dad, mom and sister, Troy left behind his 10-year-old son, Ashton, who lives with his mom. Troy had girlfriends and ex-girlfriends. He'd had a couple drunken-driving arrests in the past.

Troy Ellis and his son, Ashton, on a vacation trip a few years ago.
Troy Ellis and his son, Ashton, on a vacation trip a few years ago.

"Always had a hard time coping with rejection," his dad said.

"We were in the dark about a majority of the details in Troy's life," Lauren said.

She last saw her brother on Christmas Day. They watched the Browns game at their mom's house. It was fun and easy. What occurred from the time he left until the time he died, she can't understand.

"He did things in the last hours ... so out of character," Lauren said during a eulogy at Troy's funeral.

Shortly after 5 a.m. Dec. 26, the Massillon Fire Department was called to a house fire in the 200 block of 20th Street SE. No one was home, but the place was destroyed.

By that afternoon, a Massillon police detective already had contacted Brewster police to tell them Troy was a suspect in the apparent arson, according to police records.

Massillon Fire Capt. Chuck Ganoe said it was later determined the fire started in a rear bedroom.

When Troy's mom went to his house to check on him that afternoon, she said he wouldn't allow her inside. He slammed the door on her three times. He screamed and yelled at her. Brewster police were summoned to Troy's house shortly before 2 p.m. Navarre officers assisted. When they entered, they found a wounded Troy on the floor.

He was conscious, but died a few hours later.

CTE and research

Maria Ober, a spokesperson for the CTE Center at Boston University, said it typically takes at least three months for researchers to study and diagnose a diseased brain. However, a recent slew of donations — along with some pandemic-induced work suspensions — have created a backlog of 125 cases.

A young Troy Ellis spent time at Akron Children's Hospital. He suffered bleeding on his brain after a fall from a tree.
A young Troy Ellis spent time at Akron Children's Hospital. He suffered bleeding on his brain after a fall from a tree.

Cheryl said Center officials walked her through the process during a virtual meeting; they said results should be available this summer.

If Troy is found to have been in one of the four stages of CTE, Cheryl and Lauren will want the world to know. Not because it will change anything for Troy. Rather, to raise awareness for others.

"To help," Lauren said.

Some of Troy's friends already have reached out to Cheryl and Lauren. Not just to express their condolences, but to share stories about others who they suspect might have CTE.

According to the Center's website, CTE has been found in boxers, football and hockey players and military veterans who have a history of repetitive brain trauma. It's not limited to pro athletes, either. It's been discovered in people who did not play sports after high school or college.

The progressive degeneration of brain tissue creates a build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. The changes cause symptoms such as memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, suicidality, parkinsonism, and dementia, the website states.

There is no cure for CTE. However, those with risk factors suspected of having CTE can be treated by physicians for some underlying symptoms, such as depression and anxiety.

Troy Ellis was selected to play in the Big 33 game after his senior year at Massillon. He played for the Ohio all stars against a team of Pennsylvania stars.
Troy Ellis was selected to play in the Big 33 game after his senior year at Massillon. He played for the Ohio all stars against a team of Pennsylvania stars.

Lauren said she and others will forever ask themselves what else they could have done for Troy. She wondered if she should have learned more about CTE sooner.

During her eulogy, Lauren spoke of how she and Troy always wanted to go to an Ohio State-Michigan football game and sit above the Green Monster at Boston's Fenway Park for a baseball game. And that she wanted to take him on a western fly fishing trip on his 40th birthday.

In the days after his death, she combed through some of her brother's belongings. She found a list of tasks he'd created. Some, such as "clean" and "clean some more" were not crossed off.

Neither was "Be a better man."

"I will take over a lot of his to-do list now," Lauren said during her eulogy. "And I'd like to cross off forever the 'Be a better man,' because he already was one. I love you, Troy."

Where to get help

Need help? The following resources are available any time of day:

• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

• Stark County Crisis Hotline: 330-452-6000

• Crisis Text Line: Text '4hope' to 741-741

• Trevor Project Lifeline for LGBTQ youth: 866-488-7386

• Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860

• Military & Veterans Crisis Line: 800-273-8255, press 1

• Military & Veterans Crisis Text Line: 838255

Learn how to make your home a "Safe Home" by removing unnecessary risks for substance abuse and suicide at starkmhar.org/prevention-resources/safe-home.

This article originally appeared on The Repository: Family of Troy Ellis donated his brain for analysis to Boston center