THE PLAYING field for high school football isn’t a hundred yards; it’s as large as the community’s hearts as they rally for their team and each other. Fayetteville High School’s Friday night lights spotlight a network of interconnected stories set in a small town against a backdrop of spirited marching bands, cheerleaders, concessions, players, and coaches. It’s a place where Tim and Sonya Ellis found healing following the death of their son, Edward.
“He had Lennox Gastaut Syndrome and lived to be 12. Lennox Gastaut is a rare form of epilepsy,” said Sonya. “May 15, 2010, we woke up to a new normal.”
The new normal was void of 24/7 care for Edward, who couldn’t walk or talk, although he could vocalize to demonstrate his emotions.
“Those 12 years were time-consuming. We look back now, and we thought we were busy, but you just went on with life. You did what you had to do,” Sonya said.
Tim, Sonya, and their son, Will, grieved Edward’s absence differently. Although present and parenting Will, a second-grader at the time, the parents weren’t sure how to fill the time previously committed to Edward’s care. Will can say today, though, that he knows Edward’s influence on his life.
“He made me realize there are more people out there [who] need help and are going through worse,” Will said. “Our job is to be nice to others because you don’t know their situation.”
When Will started playing football as a freshman at Fayetteville High School (FHS) in 2016, the family recognized that many players struggled to have everything they needed to play.
“The need was there. You had boys that didn’t have anything,” said Sonya.
With the coach’s approval, Tim and Sonya and two other couples founded the Tiger Touchdown Club, a football booster club whose mission is to provide players with equipment, supplies, jerseys, transportation to games over two hours away, pregame meals, and more. “If it touches the kid, that’s our whole focus,” said Tim. “Money is raised by the sale of banners, advertisements, and sponsorships.”
Chris Cagle, FHS offensive coordinator, attests to the club’s support of the players. “I wasn’t around when they developed the booster club, but [Fayetteville City’s football program] would have nothing without the Ellis family. Tim and Sonya provide financial support by giving and raising money. They do this while Tim runs a business and Sonya has a full-time job. They have
impacted the players’ lives by providing them with things they would not have if left up to them. [They treat] the players as their own without asking for anything in return,” he said.
The support the players receive compels them to achieve their best academically, too.
Tim said, “Seven players signed to play at the next level last year. One of the huge benefits we’ve had the last several years is that we’ve been able to help move a lot of kids from FHS into colleges and universities when they receive football scholarships.”
FHS head football coach Daniel Johnson said, “The [Ellis family is] the first family of Fayetteville football — the one constant throughout the years. Their tireless work has helped raise money that has supported the Tigers with pre and post-game meals, charter buses, purchasing socks, laundry detergent, and workout gear, among numerous other things that help run a successful program.”
A first family of football isn’t born overnight but birthed from generations of families who plan their lives around supporting their teams. Tim’s dad was Maurice Ellis, a former Fayetteville Junior High School principal. His uncle was coach Jimmy Ellis, a former athletic director at Lincoln County High School and a former football and basketball coach at Central High School. Sonya was a cheerleader, Tim played center for three years in high school, and Will’s earliest football memories are watching Tennessee Vols games with his dad. Even Edward was passionate about the Vols.
“He could definitely express his wants to us, and he loved hearing ‘Rocky Top,’” said Sonya.
Will attended Bethel University on a football scholarship. Inspired by his former teacher, Adam McCormick, and coach, Daniel Johnson, he was the student athletic trainer for the football team and graduated with a degree in biology education. He plans to coach football, continuing the family tradition and further steeping the Ellis family in high school football.
Sonya, Tim, and Will stay in contact with the players, making sure they know they can come to them if they need anything. They demonstrate their care and concern for them through their presence, day after day, putting hands and feet to their words.
“My mom and her friends are the biggest cheerleaders these young men have. If you look up in the stands on any given Friday night, there’s the same group of women standing up, cheering and hollering for these boys. Mom and Mrs. Kasey never sit down,” said Will.
Author J.K. Rowling wrote, “Things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end, if not always in the way we expect.” The Ellis family knows it’s true.
“This is how I look at working with the football players,” said Sonya. “We are spending time every week with these young men, and maybe, just maybe, we are touching them and helping them in ways we don’t even realize. Every year, we gain around 50 new family members.”
Ultimately, the Ellis family’s commitment to the FHS football players isn’t about recognition or praise. It’s about the genuine care and support they offer, day in and day out. Their unyielding dedication reflects their belief in the power of community and the impact of selfless giving. As the stadium lights fade, their legacy lives on, intertwined with the stories of those they have touched, forever etched in the heart of Tiger football.
“It’s not about us. We do it for the kids,” said Tim and Sonya simultaneously. “We love our son and Tiger football and everyone associated with it.” GN