When Jacoby Ellsbury introduced his edition of charity wine last May at an event held in the shadows of Fenway Park, he beamed with pride at the thought of being able to give something back to one of three causes close to his heart, the Navajo Relief Fund.
Through sales of the vintage, Ellsbury, the first major leaguer of Navajo ancestry, would be providing assistance for those he once called neighbor, friend and family. Having seen some of the obstacles presented to those loved ones, he knew that any opportunity to help out was an opportunity he had to take.
"It gives them hope," Ellsbury said of those who face difficult odds in finishing high school, finding work and avoiding the difficulties often associated with poverty.
Fortunately, for the Red Sox' speedster, Ellsbury had a little more than hope when he was on a Navajo reservation in Oregon as a very young child and later as a visitor to another in Arizona, where his grandmother lived. He had an opportunity that others did not, one to leave the reservation and escape some of the ills that held others back. Still, those years provided the foundation upon which the Red Sox star would build his athletic prowess.
Ellsbury, the son of Jim, a forester, and Margie, an early intervention specialist who was part Navajo, would take lessons learned from his childhood years on and off reservations and apply them to his incredible potential. He had seen his grandmother weave rugs and sheer sheep in intense heat without the benefit of air conditioning, all while battling the effects of age. He had seen peers with obstacles that would be difficult to overcome. Surely, he could get past whatever came his way in the athletic arena, which became his focus while outpacing, outscoring, outrunning and outhitting everyone in his way as a four-sport star at Madras High School.
It was that mind-set that allowed Ellsbury to create his fifth gear, that mental element beyond the pure physical attributes that eventually defined him. Even if someone had an edge on him on the track, field, court or diamond, which was rare (legend has it an 11-year-old Ellsbury once ran down and roped a deer in a forest), Ellsbury had you beat upstairs.
"He can roll better than most," said Ellsbury's father, Jim. "His greatest attribute, besides pure athleticism and speed, is his ability to adjust."
Father knows best. He was the one who guided Jacoby, the oldest of the four boys, as a coach in Little League and through hitting sessions at home.
Soon enough, that ability to adjust, the mental edge that Jacoby had on his peers, evolved into an ultra-competitive streak that made the athletic boy committed to finding a way to win. If there wasn't a way to win, he was downright angry.
"I don't like 'Oh, we're playing for fun,'" Ellsbury once said. "There's no such thing as playing for fun."
With that mentality, forged through paternal guidance and time spent in difficult situations surrounded by relatives who busted their behinds, Ellsbury became a force at Madras. Nobody had such talent, and nobody worked harder or wanted to win more.
"From the time he stepped on the field to the time he got off, he was a very astute student of the game. He worked diligently every day," said Ellsbury's former baseball coach at Madras, Bruce Reece. "We knew he was a heck of an athlete, and there was no doubt he was going to be really, really good."
While he excelled at many sports, baseball was always Ellsbury's favorite. Legend has it that he was never thrown out on the base paths in his four years at Madras. He didn't have awesome power or the greatest arm on the planet, so Ellsbury was not the hottest commodity out there. But his athleticism was so off the charts and that drive so exceptional that he was noticed. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays drafted Ellsbury in the 23rd round of the amateur draft, and multiple schools offered scholarships.
Armed with a full appreciation for what it means to be close to home, and all the values that come with it, Ellsbury made his choice.
Check back Tuesday for a look at Ellsbury's college years, where his inordinate athletic skills made him into a special talent in the eyes of major league scouts.