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Rhett Ellison formed by rugby roots, 49ers father

Rhett Ellison, whose father won three Super Bowls with the 49ers, has a number of relatives who are professional rugby players. Brad Barr/USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Rhett Ellison will race down the field on the Minnesota Vikings' first kickoff on Monday night, looking for someone to hit. His father, Riki, will be watching nearby, clad in the colors of the San Francisco 49ers team with which he won three Super Bowls. Indirectly, too, his ancestors will be there with him.

Ellison has touched the ball 31 times in his three seasons with the Vikings, but they count him as one of their most valuable players precisely because of all the ways he can affect a game without touching the ball. He'll line up anywhere from fullback to tight end or wide receiver on offense, tasked primarily with blocking duties, and he's a key contributor on special teams. His ability to embrace a role with so much physicality and so little prestige, his father believes, comes from his roots.

Ellison's great-great-uncle was Thomas Ellison, the first captain of New Zealand's All Blacks national rugby team. Rhett Ellison is related to current New Zealand rugby union players Jacob and Tamati Ellison. He lived in Christchurch, New Zealand, as a child, and travels back to the country each February with his father to revisit his heritage.

"I think it really gives him self-awareness and self-confidence," Riki Ellison said. "Contact, tackling, it’s part of his bloodline. Rugby really spurred on football. There’s commonality between both sports; both were basically developed as training mechanisms for the military. I think he really understood what his roots were. He can see the plaques of his (great-great uncle). He has great confidence of what he does. Rugby is a team game. It's not an individual sport game. Their players are much more humble than our players. There's a different culture there, in playing the game a sportsman. Rhett resembles a little bit of that."

He'll likely have some company on the field Monday night, in the form of former Australian rugby player Jarryd Hayne, who made the 49ers' final roster as a running back and return man.

Ellison said he hasn't talked with Hayne, but has watched his development with keen interest during training camp and the preseason. "His movement, mechanics and stuff like that, he's as good or better than anyone I've seen at that position," Ellison said. "It's just a matter of him understanding football."

On his most recent trip to New Zealand, Ellison spent some time with the Auckland Blues, discussing the parallels between the sport he played briefly as a child and the one that pays his salary now. Interest in American football has spiked among rugby players in New Zealand, Ellison said, and during his trip there, he was peppered with questions from rugby players about whether they could make the jump.

"They're really intimidated by it," Ellison said. "I think they think it's a lot more complicated than it is. I'm like, 'Do exactly what Jarryd's doing -- you start on special teams and learn the game from there.' The more you watch rugby, it's just a pipeline of perfect football players. They just need to learn the game. I'm kind of cheering for Jarryd. That just kind of opens it up for that world."

Riki Ellison isn't as convinced that rugby is a fertile ground for football players -- "They may have four plays -- four total -- they run in playing a game. None of these guys have seen a playbook like this," he said. But if rugby ever were to become a feeding system, it would likely turn out players at the same positions as Ellison and Hayne.

"Rhett was shocked when he went down there," Riki Ellison said. "Those players were the same size that he was. There are guys that are linebackers, running backs, tight ends. Those are very easy body types [to transition to the NFL]."

Retired since 1992, Riki Ellison now lives in Alexandria, Virginia, where he runs a nonprofit organization advocating for a national missile defense system. He travels all over the world for work -- he's been to 22 countries and 375 military bases, he said, and called a reporter after attending a congressional hearing about the Iran nuclear deal at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday -- but he wasn't going to miss the Vikings-49ers game.

The 49ers will honor Ellison's former teammate Charles Haley for his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement on Monday night. Riki Ellison had plans to host a breakfast for California missile defenders on Monday morning. And he'll be there for the game, hoping his son plays well but rooting for his old team.

"It'd be disrespectful [not to]. I don't think anybody in my shoes would go the other way," Riki Ellison said.

Said Rhett Ellison: "My first-ever preseason game was at Candlestick Park. I turn around, and my dad's standing on the sidelines wearing his old [49ers] jersey. I'm like, 'All right -- it's my first game, but whatever.' That's just him."

Between his father's 49ers past and the chance to collide (figuratively and literally) with his rugby roots -- not to mention the opportunity to block once again for a certain running back -- there's plenty of significance for Ellison in this trip to the Bay Area. To revel in the moment, though, wouldn't be in his character.

"It's more significant just for the Vikings to win a game," Ellison said. "It's not really about who I'm playing against. It's about us winning a game. That's the goal."