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Front Page - Friday, February 2, 2018

Gardner having a ball on different playing field

- Photograph by David Laprad

In 1979, Ellis Gardner received the highest honor a high school football player could receive: a personal invitation from Paul “Bear” Bryant to play for Alabama.

Alabama was the returning national champions that year, but their record was being wiped clean with the advent of the new season, and Garner, who was as tall and athletic as they came, would be an asset for any team.

Before Gardner would say yes, he needed Bryant to answer one question: Did the University of Alabama have an engineering program? No, came the reply.

It was a deal-breaker for Gardner, who was set on following in the footsteps of his father and three older brothers.

After Gardner did the unthinkable – rejecting a scholarship to play for one of the greatest sports coaches of all time – Bryant put his hand on the young man’s shoulder and said, “Ellis, do me one favor: don’t go to Auburn.”

Bryant could rest easy, as schools across the south were offering Gardner scholarships to play football for them. He gave Georgia Tech, which didn’t have the nation’s top team but did have a well-regarded engineering program, the nod.

At 56 years of age, Gardner is still tall and physically imposing, but his career looks different than he imagined it would nearly 40 years ago. Although he went on to play for the National Football League and worked for more than a decade as an engineer, his days in both occupations are long behind him. Rather, he’s a 17-year real estate veteran working with Re/Max Renaissance Realtors on the North Shore in Chattanooga.

Like the young man who chose engineering over the Crimson Tide, Gardner elected not to sacrifice the things which are most important to him to be No. 1. He’s grown his real estate business to a size that suits him and allows him to serve his clients well without taking him away from his community and family.

“I’ve done good business based on referrals for 17 years,” Gardner says. “I choose not to try to be everywhere at once. This allows me to spend a great deal of time helping 12 to 20 clients a year.”

Each one of these clients receives the full Gardner package, which includes his skilled market analysis. Gardner might have been an offensive lineman in the NFL, but he was no simple-minded battering ram. The engineer in him takes pride in being able to boil massive amounts of MLS data down to a handful of numbers a client can understand and use.

“Sometimes that means saying, ‘I’m sorry, but your house isn’t worth what it was three years ago.’ I had to do that yesterday,” he acknowledges. “But no one can out-math me.”

The full Gardner package also includes his education and experience. In addition to being a member of the National Association of Realtors, Gardner is a Certified Residential Specialist and a Graduate, Realtor Institute, e-Pro and Senior Real Estate Specialist designee.

Many Realtors list the acronyms of the designations they’ve earned after their name on their business card, but Gardner has placed them at the bottom of his card, separate from his name. In the same manner, he says the designations set him apart from agents who haven’t earned them.

“The CRS designation is the only one that requires you to have sold a house. You have to sell 60 houses in three years,” he points out. “So, if it’s between another Realtor and me, I’ve sold a lot of houses, so I’ve done this before, and I took 120 hours of continuing education.”

Gardner’s first broker in the business, Dot Heggie at Crye-Leike on Signal Mountain, preached the importance of designations as a way of demonstrating to the public one’s willingness to go the extra mile to serve them well.

Gardner has done more than take Heggie’s words to heart; he’s also taken her torch and is holding it high for others to see. For the past eight years, he’s helped to run the local Residential Real Estate Council (formerly known as the Council of Residential Specialists), a Realtor-run organization which supports CRS designees in the Chattanooga area and encourages others to pursue the designation. Gardner also served as the president of the Tennessee council in 2017 and this year is regional vice-president for four Midwestern states.

In addition to being equipped with in-depth statistics and the latest knowledge available to Realtors, Garner is willing to roll up his sleeves and get dirty to sell a house, whether it’s moving furniture, blowing leaves before a showing or performing minor home repairs. It’s all a part of the full Gardner package.

“Homeowners who have already left town, newcomers who don’t know who to call to take care of these things and single parents appreciate this extra effort,” Gardner says.

Ellis has a history of doing whatever it takes to achieve his goals. Although he was an award-winning high school football player who went on to a successful gridiron career in college, the sport was a means to an end – a way to pay for the education that would secure his future. But it took him on a detour he’ll never forget.

Welcome to the NFL

Long before Gardner was protecting the likes of Warren Moon and Earl Campbell of the Houston Oilers, he was safeguarding quarterbacks and running backs as an offensive tackle at McCallie School.

But football wasn’t his first love. It was always wrestling.

“I liked football, but I loved wrestling,” he recalls. “I was also good at it. I was used to wrestling my brothers, who were older than me.”

Gardner was indeed tough to beat. During his senior year, he tallied a 33-3 record at a time when public and private schools wrestled in the same tournaments. But there were no wrestling scholarships in the South, so when McCallie School’s Athlete of the Year in 1979 was faced with finding a way to pay for college, he cashed in on his football skills.

Gardner was ready to give his team, the Yellow Jackets, everything he had. But he was also academically-minded. Fortunately, he entered Georgia Tech armed with 23 hours of college credit he’d earned at McCallie. This allowed him to take a lighter class load than his fellow players.

“That was the secret to my success,” he says. “I wanted a better pace academically because I was going to be practicing football every afternoon.”

Gardner found time to wrestle, as well. The school’s coach asked him to join the team after seeing him pin a two-time heavyweight state champion while filling in for an injured player during practice. Gardner still holds the school record for the most pins in one season.

“After playing football until December, I wasn’t in wrestling shape,” he remembers. “If I wrestled for nine minutes, I’d be exhausted, so my plan was always to pin my opponent in the first five.”

Gardner remained focused on his classwork and football, however, as he served as the Yellow Jacket’s left tackle from the fall of 1980 to the end of the 1982 season. He was a standout player, and before it was over, he drew the attention of the NFL’s scouts.

They had just one concern: Gardner had a reputation for being an academic, and they thought he might pick graduate school over football. Garner knocked down that notion like an unprotected quarterback. “I told them I could go to grad school any time, but I had just one shot at playing professional football,” he says. “I said, ‘Draft me.’”

The Chiefs did tap Gardner – in the sixth round of the NFL draft. But he still had to make the team.

The moment that secured him a job as an offensive lineman for the Chiefs came during the third game of the preseason as the team was going up against the Detroit Lions.

On offense as the second quarter began, the Chiefs called for a screen play. When Gardner took his position, he found himself staring into the intense gaze of former Tennessee Vol Mike Cofer. After the snap, Gardner let Cofer rush a short distance toward the Chiefs’ quarterback, then dove toward his legs and rolled into a cross body block – a move he’d learned from McCallie School football coach John Day.

After Gardner tripped Cofer, the nose guard screamed, “Screen!” Gardner hopped up, turned the nose guard up field, pushed him 10 yards, did a barrel roll as his opponent skidded to a halt and then trotted back to the huddle.

While viewing the footage of the play with the team, the Chiefs’ offensive line coaches saw what Gardner did but didn’t recognize him until they were playing the film a second time. “When they asked me why I didn’t tell them it was me, I told them I wanted to see the play again,” Gardner says, laughing.

Gardner played for the Chiefs the entire 1983-84 season and was then placed on waivers when the team decided to keep other players. This allowed him to return to Georgia Tech during the summer to complete his degree, which he obtained along with the honor of being named a Tau Beta Pi Laureate. (Tau Beta Pi is the engineering honor society.)

Gardner then moved to Houston when the Oilers picked him up on waivers. His favorite story from his time with the Texas team is about Pro Football Hall of Famer Campbell, who seemed to reach out to help the young prospect but had a hidden agenda.

“I had a cut on my arm that needed to be re-bandaged, and Campbell was there icing his knee,” Gardner recalls. “The gopher comes in and says he’s going to give me a ride to the hotel where I was staying, but Earl said he’d take me. The same thing happened the next day, too.”

Campbell wound up driving Gardner to his room four days in a row. On the fourth day, Gardner, who was looking for an apartment, asked Campbell where he was living. To Gardner’s surprise, it was far from where he was staying.

Shocked, Gardner asked the veteran player why he was going out of his way for him. “He smiled and said, ‘You don’t think I racked up all those yards by myself, do you? Tomorrow, when we’re playing the Cowboys, I want a little extra from you,’” Gardner explains. “And he got it. I didn’t miss a single block.”

Gardner’s unerring performance against the Cowboys landed him a job with Oilers. But it was a short gig. When another player the team wanted became available, they cut Gardner. (The Oilers cut Campbell six games into the season, too, so Gardner can’t feel too bad about getting the axe.)

Gardner’s head-spinning tour of the NFL wasn’t over yet, though. When a rookie lineman for the Indianapolis Colts suffered a career-ending injury, Gardner tried out for the spot, made the team and played for the Colts the rest of the season.

It was the Colt’s first season in Indianapolis and Gardner’s last in the NFL. As what would have been his third season approached, the new coach let Gardner go to make room for a player he wanted to bring in.

As Gardner looks back on his time in the NFL, he has no regrets or bitter feelings about its brevity. Instead, he relishes the experience and the memories it gave him. “I hadn’t planned on going into the NFL; my goal was to become a professional engineer. So, I was happy for the time I had,” he says.

With the gridiron in his rearview mirror, it was time for Gardner to pursue his first ambition. But before he tells that story, he wants to divulge a few about the person who became his reason for everything that came next – his wife.

Enter Kathy

Gardner met Katharine (Kathy) McCallie at McCallie Lake during the summer of 1978. He was the lifeguard; she was there to vacuum the concrete. She was also the daughter of the school’s headmaster.

The campus of the all-boys school was short on girls, giving McCallie her pick, but she liked Gardner, and the two began dating when she was 16 and he was 17.

“She wanted to go to law school and perhaps become the first female president of the United States,” Gardner remembers. “Having grown up with a single mom, I wanted a strong woman who could stand on her own if something happened to me.”

The couple endured the heartbreak of attending colleges in separate states as he plugged away at Georgia Tech, and she worked toward an English literature degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As Gardner’s NFL career took root during his rookie season, he began to worry about them drifting apart. So, he took a plane to Chapel Hill on his day off, proposed and McCallie accepted.

“The jewelry store wasn’t open at 1 a.m. when I made this decision, so I gave her my Georgia Tech ring.’’

The couple married on Jan. 28, 1984 – just weeks after Gardner’s first season ended. After settling in at the house Gardner had purchased with a friend, Kathy applied to attend the University of Missouri School of Law and was accepted.

Then, three days before Kathy was scheduled to start school, Gardner was shipped to the Oilers. His wife moved with him to the new city, settled in and then went to the Houston University Law Center to pick up an application for school.

The next morning, Oilers coach Hugh Campbell told Gardner they liked him but were letting him go. Three days later, the Colts called.

Proving herself to be an understanding spouse and good sport, Kathy accompanied Gardner to Indianapolis and settled in. When Gardner returned home from practice one day, she told him the city might have a law school.

“I told her that was the kiss of death,” Gardner says without even a hint of irony. “So, she wound up raising money for nonprofits.”

Gardner’s NFL career came to an early end anyway, which ostensibly opened the door for his wife to pursue a law degree and for him to become what he’d wanted to be since a young age: an engineer.

A new career

To Ellis, engineering was a way to use his mind not just to make a living but also to better society. So, he was looking forward to where life would take him next.

He found out as he flipped through the Indianapolis Yellow Pages: Southern Engineering Company of Georgia, an engineering consulting firm. Within a week of spotting the company’s ad, he was the assistant of the No. 1 guy at the company.

“Our job was 80 percent engineering and 20 percent business development,” Gardner says. “And in Indianapolis, business development means playing golf with prospective clients. So, I learned to play golf in Indianapolis.”

Gardner worked for Southern Engineering for five years. In 1990, as Kathy finally began taking classes at the Robert H. McKinney School of Law at Indiana University, he saw a help wanted ad for Scientific-Atlanta, which was searching for a Midwest sales person. Gardner wanted the job.

“I knew how to sell things. I’d worked for J.M. Sanders, the Diamond King of the South, during high school, my family had a history of being in sales, and I had experience in business development at Southern Engineering.’’

Gardner had indeed grown up watching his parents earn money in sales: his father sold instrumentation in the tool and dye industry and his mother peddled World Book Encyclopedias. Going even further back, his great-grandfather owned a horse dealership in Chattanooga before the appearance of the motor car.

Gardner convinced Scientific-Atlanta to give him the job – and he did not disappoint. As he traveled his territory selling Direct Load Control systems (he specifically sold radio control switches that could turn off air conditioners and water heaters), he took a division that had produced $2.5 million a year and doubled it to $5 million his first year. He doubled that number again the following year, establishing a new watermark below which he never dipped.

“Public service commissions were forcing utilities all over America to be efficient, so we were making money hand over fist,” Gardner recalls.

During this time, Kathy graduated from law school and secured a clerk position with Judge Ted Milburn, a federal judge with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Chattanooga. When Gardner told his boss he was moving with her, his superior looked at him with tired eyes and said, “Ellis, I don’t care where you spend your weekends.”

After Kathy’s clerkship was over in 1993, she gave birth to their son, Spencer, then went to work at Miller & Martin, where she practiced law until she and Gardner had their second child, Becky, in 1995. She left the firm at that time to be at home with their children.

When Gardner hit $12 million in sales during his fifth year with Scientific-Atlanta, the company transferred him to its struggling cable TV division, which was trying to sell outdated technology, in the hopes of bolstering sales. But, Gardner says, it was a meat grinder. “There was a lot of turnover,” he adds. “They handed me customers who needed something we didn’t have yet.”

When Scientific-Atlanta finally cut Gardner loose in 1997 and he was able to spend more than two days at a time with his children, he realized he barely knew them. So, Kathy returned to work and he became Mr. Mom.

In 2000, Kathy returned to the federal courts to clerk for U.S. Federal Magistrate John Powers and Gardner began thinking about his future. He found inspiration in the work of his engineering classmates from Georgia Tech who had gone on to become major developers in Atlanta: real estate.

Go with a pro

When Gardner earned his real estate license in 2000, he had his sights set on becoming a commercial Realtor. He knew a lot about electricity and says he believed he could someday have a part in bringing large companies to Chattanooga. But he also had two children – so he put his commercial plans on hold and started listing and selling homes under Heggie’s leadership.

Gardner did well, partly because he knew a lot of people, but also because a lot of people remembered his mother. He also credits Crye-Leike’s training program for his early success.

While Gardner was with Crye-Leike, he was named to its Circle of Excellence, an honor reserved for agents who not only succeed in their business but also contribute to their community.

For Gardner, that included serving as chairman for Crye-Leike’s United Way campaign, president of the Nolan Elementary School Parent Teacher Association and deacon at Signal Mountain Presbyterian.

In 2008, Gardner switched to Re/Max Renaissance to take advantage of the company’s business model. “Re/Max is a good place for agents who have reached a certain level,” he says. “There’s not as much hand holding, and since there’s less infrastructure, they don’t need to keep as much of the money I bring in.”

Over the years, Gardner’s business card became more and more crowded as he added his designations. But one thing has been on his card since day one: his slogan, “Go with a pro.”

When a potential client sees the saying, they typically assume Gardner is referring to his work as a Realtor. And, from a certain perspective, they’re right, he says.

“Instead of trying to sell your house yourself, you should hire a Realtor because we know the market and can call people’s bluffs,” Gardner adds. “If someone makes an offer on a house that’s less than it’s worth, I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, but I know what this house is worth, and if you don’t want to buy it at that price, someone else will.

“Or if a house isn’t selling, I’ll tell the seller why.”

Some people who know Gardner’s history with the NFL think his slogan is a play on words that refers to his football days. That’s correct, too, from a certain point of view.

“Football players and Realtors have several things in common,” he says. “NFL players are, to a man, rather intelligent. Some of them didn’t make good grades in school, but they’re all quick-minded.

“Also, all of them are hard workers because you don’t make it into the NFL because someone is pushing you.

“Plus, being a professional means accepting your losses when a play doesn’t go your way because you have another play coming. Both professions are about what’s next and doing the right thing.”

But the slogan actually refers to what few people know about Gardner: his status as an engineer. Although he’s not working in the field, he’s maintained his Indiana license. If Gardner wanted to, he could become licensed in Tennessee and start flipping through the modern equivalent of the Yellow Pages to find a job.

That said, Gardner likes what he’s doing and has no plans to do a career about-face. “Real estate has worked well for my family,” he acknowledges. “When I was busy nights and weekends, my wife was able to take care of the kids. And when the kids needed to stay home from school, I was able to be there with them.”

Real estate is also working well for Gardner’s family financially. Although he doesn’t reveal how much he made in 2016, he does say it was nearly as much as Kathy, who’s currently “working at the elbow” of U.S. Federal Magistrate Chris Steger.

Gardner says he has no problem with his wife making more money than him. “My male ago isn’t tied to what I earn versus what Kathy brings home,” he says. “Besides, if anyone makes an issue of that, I’ve got the NFL in my back pocket.”

At the end of the day, though, Gardner is sticking with real estate because it allows him to live the life he wants – a life focused not just on work but also community and family.


As an active member of the Chattanooga community, Gardner is involved in two efforts to build bridges between whites and blacks in the city. Chattanooga Connected works to bring the two groups together to discuss race and racism and provide an environment that fosters friendships.

Gardner is also a committee member of the Ed Johnson Project, which is raising money to honor the African-American man who, in 1906, was murdered by a lynch mob in Chattanooga after being falsely accused of rape, and whose trial altered the course of civil rights laws in the U.S.

“I grew up in a traditionally white suburb of Chattanooga,” Gardner says. “At McCallie, there was one African-American on the wrestling team. We became friends.

“I then went to Georgia Tech, and half my friends were African-American. When I went into the NFL, two-thirds of my friends were African-American. And rural Indiana is mostly white.

“Then I returned to Chattanooga and realized it’s still a divided city. I want to do my part to help change that.”

Home and hearth

Gardner might not have achieved fame and fortune as an NFL player, but he considers himself to be a rich and fortunate man.

He and Kathy are enjoying life as empty nesters in a Signal Mountain home that’s more picturesque land than house, but still has plenty of room for their things and their memories.

Even better, their children are well on their way. Spencer is graduate of the University of South Carolina Elliot School of Business and is currently serving in the Peace Corps in Africa.

Becky, an international affairs graduate of George Washington University, is working for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., and studying for the LSAT.

Gardner also drives a Gold Lexus 400h that serves as his office. But it’s not an ostentatious statement about his wealth and status; rather, Kathy convinced him to buy a car that would project the image of a successful Realtor. “That made business sense,” he says.

But mostly, Gardner is grateful for the time he’s able to spend with his family. He might not be the No. 1 Realtor in Chattanooga, but he couldn’t be happier with where he is.

“There are big names in town who have huge teams and make more money than me, but they have little to no family life,” he notes. “I work for people who call me, and I’m doing just fine.”