Twelve years after football, Ellison still tackling defense

More than a decade after claiming his third Super Bowl ring, former San Francisco 49er Riki Ellison is still making a career in defense. Ellison has emerged as a seemingly unlikely advocate for high-tech missile defense systems, a politically charged issue devoured by aerospace engineers and foreign-policy wonks the world over. It’s not something most former athletes get caught up in.
More than a decade after claiming his third Super Bowl ring, former San Francisco 49er Riki Ellison is still making a career in defense.

Ellison has emerged as a seemingly unlikely advocate for high-tech missile defense systems, a politically charged issue devoured by aerospace engineers and foreign-policy wonks the world over. It’s not something most former athletes get caught up in.
Patrick G. Ryan
In Riki Ellison’s office, football memorabilia intermingles with mementos of his career advocating for missile defense.


But missile defense is not merely a post-football hobby for the retired linebacker. He has been at it for more than 20 years, studying national security at the University of Southern California and using the football off-season to work as a missile defense policy consultant for Lockheed Martin.

Today, Ellison, 44, is the president of the National Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, an organization he founded out of his Crystal City, Va., apartment in 2002. Over the past three years, he has expanded the organization to 4,200 members and receives nearly $500,000 a year in private donations.

To him, it seemed a natural progression from football defenseman to missile defense spokesman.

“I think defense wins championships. A great defense gives you the ability to win, the ability to protect,” he said. “I obviously am conditioned that way.”

During the 2004 presidential campaign, Ellison held meetings on missile defense with both the Bush and Kerry camps. For Bush’s staff, it was much like preaching to the choir. But Ellison said Kerry staffers warmed a bit to tactical missile defense.

His strongest political tool may be the state polls he conducts. During the campaign season, Ellison visited nearly every swing state, swamping candidates with poll data indicating that the vast majority of Americans want a missile defense system.

“Seventy-four percent of the American public believes it is affordable,” Ellison said. “It protects your assets, protects your life and protects your economy.”

Some view his polls with a touch of skepticism.

“He does a good job making the case that there is considerable public support for missile defense, though other polling has been used to make the opposite point,” one Democratic national security analyst said. “Honestly, that’s what people on the left and the right do on the issue, they poll in such a way to make sure their position is supported.”

However, the analyst said Ellison is “earnest” and supports a multipronged approach to reducing the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, with missile defense being only part of the solution.

Ellison considers himself a realistic supporter of missile defense, particularly when it comes to pushing for near-term solutions. He does not oppose the Bush administration’s plans to slash $5 billion from some development programs over the next several years as part of larger defense-budget cuts. And he criticized the Defense Department after a ground-based interceptor test failed in December. A similar test failed late Sunday when the interceptor failed to launch.

“We want a system that works, that’s effective and efficient, and we have to test more,” he said. “But I also believe we should be deploying a system on top of that because we need to do it for protection [and to] start dissuading other countries and other people from purchasing and proliferating that kind of technology.”

“Let’s get this stuff in the ground. Let’s turn it on,” he added. “And even though it may not be 100 percent … we can always continue to evolve it.”

Not everyone agrees. The Council for a Livable World, for instance, has said it is concerned that deploying a system that has not been through rigorous and successful testing could give the country a false sense of security.

“If a military confrontation with a nuclear-armed adversary broke out in a few years, it is not hard to imagine that American leaders will rely on a missile shield as French leaders mistakenly relied on an inadequate Maginot Line before World War II,” the council states on its website.

Meanwhile, several lawmakers have opposed the administration’s plans to deploy an unproven ground-based system. But Ellison shies away from the title “lobbyist,” though he is registered as one on Capitol Hill. He does not lobby for specific companies or systems, but says he meets with lawmakers, political candidates and the public at large to woo them over to his side of the missile defense debate.

“I’m a cause guy,” Ellison said. “This thing is much bigger than one single little company or big company.”

Ellison is careful to note that his organization is nonpartisan and is funded by its membership, which includes individual citizens, defense and nondefense companies and a broad swath of organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce.

Tall, tan and broad-shouldered, Ellison still looks the part of an athlete and not at all like a missile defense guru. But he is so well-versed on the intricacies of the multifaceted systems that he can break the topic down for any sports fan to understand.

“The [missile] launcher is a quarterback. What’s the best way to stop the quarterback from throwing the ball?” he said. “You use your defensive linemen. If you can tackle him before he launches the ball, there’s not a threat. That’s what we call our boost-phase defense.”

He has a similar analogy — equating linebackers to systems such as the Navy’s Aegis program — for midcourse ballistic missile defense. And he equates defensive backs to the ground-based interceptor currently in the ground at Fort Greeley, Alaska.

“That would take away the long bomb, the long pass,” he said.

A college student during the 1980s weapons buildup, Ellison became hooked on missile defense when President Ronald Reagan announced his Star Wars initiative in March 1983.

Sidelined by repeated injuries, Ellison assumed he would take up a career in defense policy. But, to his surprise, he was a fifth-round draft pick for the 49ers in 1983.

Ellison played for San Francisco and then the Oakland Raiders until he retired after the 1992 season, when he moved his then-wife and four children to New Zealand to “get completely away from the NFL and football,” he said. In the late 1990s, he moved to Washington and did public outreach for the United Missile Defense Co., then a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. He’s now engaged to be married in April.

After working on several other missile defense programs, he decided to start the organization. But it wasn’t always easy.

Being a football player “may have hurt me in the beginning more than it would’ve helped me,” Ellison said. “You have to fight that whole [athlete] stereotype. … But once I got up and started moving with it and created the credibility and … so forth, it opened some doors and gave me awareness.”

Now, he doesn’t hide his football-player image. His office, now in Alexandria, is a hodgepodge of his two careers. His walls are decorated with pictures of his days at USC and in the NFL, alongside missile defense posters and a picture he took with Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, chief of the Missile Defense Agency.

And then there are the Super Bowl rings. There are three of them, displayed casually in open boxes on a cherry bookcase amid the clutter of a growing organization.

“They won’t bite,” he said.