TEMPE, Ariz. -- You need to be in Anderson, S.C., in the pre-dawn hours to understand why Tennessee defensive end Shaun Ellis probably will play his last college football game Sunday night in the Fiesta Bowl.
You need to see his mother, Annie Ellis, leave for work in the dark. She clocks in at a bakery about 5 a.m.
The hour isn't the problem. The standing is.
Standing can become torturous when you suffer from arthritis, but Annie doesn't have a choice. She is the head of a single-parent household, which includes a daughter in middle school.
Shaun has a choice. He can return for another season of football at UT or he can turn pro. He has earned that choice.
Ellis was academically ineligible as a freshman and is listed on the roster as a senior. By completing 75 percent of his work toward graduation after four years, he receives another year of athletic eligibility under NCAA guidelines. He said he only needs to pass one more hour this spring.
"I wanted to have everything else in order, so I could make my decision," Ellis said. "I did everything I could to (qualify for another season). That was my goal."
The goal has given way to the decision. Ellis said again Tuesday that if he is projected as a first-through-third-round pick, he probably would go pro. Probably.
The All-SEC defensive end is 6-foot-4, 275 pounds, with a quick burst off the line of scrimmage that has earned him the moniker "Big Cat." It's a foregone conclusion he will be taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. Optimistic projections have him as a late first-round pick.
Yet college football isn't easily dismissed. Ellis speaks emotionally when he recalls what might have been his last run through the "T" on Nov. 27 against Vanderbilt.
"I was so emotional before that last game," Ellis said. "I almost started crying when we came out through the 'T.'"
No matter when he leaves UT, it's important to Ellis that he leaves on good terms. He spoke briefly with coach Phillip Fulmer about the decision Monday.
"It's nothing personal," Fulmer told him. "It's a business decision."
Said Ellis: "I really respect him for that."
On the other side of the decision, it's very personal. He has discussed the matter with other teammates in a similar position. "You get tired of your mom having to struggle so hard just to make a living," he said.
Like other young adults from single-parent homes, Ellis has a great love and respect for his mother. Their relationship extends beyond parent-child to friendship.
The bond has been strengthened through hardships. Ellis was almost killed in a severe car accident before the 1998 season.
"I can talk to her about anything," Ellis said. "Just like I can talk to her, she tells me how she feels."
Sometimes she tells him how much it hurts. They fear her arthritis eventually could become crippling.
Annie doesn't pressure her son about his decision. It's his to make, she tells him.
In turn, he says, "I want to do what's best for my family and myself." Notice the order. Family comes first.
Ellis likens his decision to his choice of colleges. He remembers lying in his bed at home the night before his decision, thinking about Tennessee, Florida and South Carolina. Mostly, he was thinking about Tennessee.
Tennessee was still there the next morning when he woke up. He told his family, then told his high school coach over a slice of pizza at lunch.
In the next couple of weeks, Ellis will go through a similar process. He will consult with advisers and weigh the pros and cons. Then he will seek solitude, and wait for a "gut feeling" to nudge him toward his future.
The decision will be made in Knoxville. The feeling might come from Anderson, S.C., at the home of his best friend, whose alarm has gone off too early for too long.