America can be a cruel place sometimes, especially to those who stand out as being different. These differences often result in the mimicking, mocking, and disparagement of innocent victims.
And that is exactly what happened to current New York Jets and former Buffalo Bills cornerback Ellis Lankster, as a result of an August 15, 2009 post-game interview.
Lankster, a talented rookie out of West Virginia, who had been drafted by the Bills in the seventh round that year, had just completed his second preseason game, where in a span of 64 seconds, he intercepted Chicago Bears quarterback Brett Basanez, twice. It was the highlight of Lankster's young playing career and was quickly followed by a career low-light.
Immediately after the game, Lankster joined reporters on the podium for the post-game press conference.
"What were you thinking on that play [the first interception]?" the reporter asked. "Did you peel off the assignment when you saw where the ball was heading? Walk me through that."
"Yes sir. Like, um. Like, um. I was just like, um. I was like, um. Like, um. I was like, um. Like, um. I was like, um, um," Ellis said.
Ellis' response continued for another two minutes.
Following the press conference, which aired live on WKBW News 7 in Buffalo, N.Y., the public began uploading the Ellis interview to YouTube.
Clearly, the public's reaction was not due to its undying devotion and interest in a seventh-round pick fighting to make the 53-man roster. Rather, the public eagerly and swiftly jumped at the chance to ridicule a man for his manner of speech.
In just a matter of days, the video went viral. Howard Stern played it on his show, degrading Lankster and making a mockery of him. In addition, hundreds of parody videos began popping up, including one of rapper Kanye West dissing Lankster.
Suffice to say, Lankster was everywhere, with the public labeling him "inarticulate" and "dumb."
In reality, however, this is an inaccurate depiction of an individual who suffers from severe stuttering, a disorder that is recognized by numerous organizations, an individual who has had to deal with it every single day since he learned to speak.
He remembers his own difficulties with stuttering as a child, especially in the classroom.
"Kids would tease me, and teachers didn't know if they should call on me," Lankster said.
Lankster withdrew from others and avoided participating in classroom discussions. He recalls not raising his hand, even when he knew the answers.
"It makes you feel isolated and different," Lankster said. "No child should ever have to feel like that."
Lankster's disorder, however, aided in shaping him into the intensely dedicated athlete and citizen that we see today.
"The situations Ellis has faced [because of his stuttering] have taught him he needs to work harder at what he wants," his mother, Sayinka Lankster said. "And one of the things I am proud of most is that [Ellis] does not like to see someone picked on or bullied, and he has been like that all his life."
Determined to erase the stigma surrounding stuttering and ensure that no child experience the same misfortunes he endured, Lankster has committed himself to providing hope to children who suffer from the disorder.
"Many times superior athletes, such as Ellis, develop a certain self-perception of themselves as being flawless, but going through [stuttering] as Ellis has, certainly helps him relate to people not as gifted as he is athletically," according to Vince McConnell, owner and operator of McConnell Athletics, who has been Lankster's personal strength and conditioning coach for almost seven years.
The Stuttering Foundation, the world's leading charitable organization helping those afflicted, honored Lankster in May 2012 for the inspiration he brings to the stuttering community. According to Jane Fraser, the foundation's president, "Ellis shows his true toughness by sharing his struggles with fluency as a child. He is committed to helping and inspiring children attain their dreams by overcoming the obstacles they face."
It is important to Lankster to use his stardom to encourage others to follow their hearts and to remain steadfast in the pursuit of the goals they set for themselves. "I believe that God made me a star football player who stutters for a reason, so I can help other people who stutter," he said.
In fact, Lankster mentors young athletes, specifically high school and college players, during the offseason and has just established the 2014 Ellis Lankster and the City of Prichard Parks and Recreation Football Camp for youths ages 5-17.
"Ellis has that kind of charisma that attracts younger athletes and inspires them to want to learn," McConnell said. "Cliché or not, these younger athletes each see Ellis as their 'big brother.'"
Lankster acknowledges that although it is critical for him to make his presence known on the field, with his solid tackling and lightning speed, he has other shoes to fill as well.
"In high school, my coach, Kerry Stevenson, told me my reason in life is to help others, and that has stuck with me years later," Lankster said.
Lankster, described by his business manager, Michael Wilson, as "a student of the game that loves to practice his craft," is a role model for many young athletes and has never allowed his stuttering to become an obstacle on his path to playing professional football.
"As with other athletes, like Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson, who've been ridiculed for stuttering, you realize Ellis has taken authority of the condition and refused to allow it to affect who he really is on his way to fulfilling his potential and God-given destiny," McConnell said.
His toughness and dedication do not go unnoticed by his teammates either.
"That's a badass dude. He was business on the field, and you could tell his passion for the game by the way he played. Not only was he a good player, but a great teammate. He showed respect to you whether you were a 10-year vet or a rookie," according to former Jets teammate Jake McDonough.
Lankster has clearly made tremendous strides since that infamous Buffalo interview in 2009 and is now a media favorite who has no qualms about sitting down for interviews.
"In reality, I've never seen [the stuttering] interfere with Ellis communicating with someone. I make it a point to introduce Ellis to new people all the time," McConnell said. "And I can't tell you how many times that I'll mention to someone, after they meet and greet Ellis where he experiences stuttering, and it went unnoticed. The perseverance Ellis has engaged in throughout his life off the field has definitely seen him through on the field. Ellis's best days in the league are ahead of him."
With that viral video now in the distance, Ellis Lankster is finally able to let his play speak for itself.