Meet Falcons LB Kaden Elliss' football family, including his NFL father

Atlanta Falcons linebacker Kaden Elliss (back row, third from right) and his siblings grew up around football while their father, Luther (center), played in the NFL. Courtesy Kaden Elliss

KADEN ELLISS WAS 5 or 6 years old sitting in a suite inside the old Pontiac Silverdome. Down on the field, Luther Elliss, Kaden's father, was a star defensive tackle, harassing opposing offenses for the Detroit Lions.

Kaden didn't realize that. He heard the cheers, but was more interested in playing with action figures than paying attention to his dad. Which might explain why, for a little while at least, Kaden believed Luther played professional basketball.

Kaden didn't realize for years how big a deal Luther was in Detroit, where he spent nine of his 10 NFL seasons. He didn't understand that his dad was a considerable fan favorite or why they would be among the last to leave after games at the Silverdome.

"We would be standing there for forever," Kaden said. "Because of the crowd, when you walk out, he wouldn't leave until he signed everybody's autograph."

This was most of Kaden's childhood living in Oakland Township, Michigan, a suburb of the city, before moving to Utah. Detroit always felt like home.

Seeing his father then -- and how happy he made others -- made Kaden want to play football, which is why Sunday is such a big deal. Kaden has played inside Ford Field -- his father was on the team that opened the building in 2002 -- but it was during the 2020 season with few fans.

When he returns with the Atlanta Falcons (1 p.m. ET, Sunday, Fox), it will be with a bigger role than he's had in a packed stadium. He's a full-time starter as one of Atlanta's inside linebackers.

"You try to make every game the same," Kaden said. "But there are sometimes where you just, you know man, this is really cool.

"This is full circle."

KADEN HAS BEEN a Lions fan his entire life. So has the majority of his family. His large, 14-person football family includes four NFL players -- Luther played for the Lions, Kaden for the Falcons and his brothers, Christian and Noah, have been with the Philadelphia Eagles -- two college football players, another in high school and another in middle school.

And so often, the centerpiece of the Elliss family home in Utah is a massive, rectangular dining room table with enough seating to fit at least 14 people, and often more with extended family, spouses and friends.

For a while, there were chairs for each Elliss member. When you've got a family of football players, those might not survive. A combination of size, roughhousing and running around the house with NERF guns or foam swords destroyed a few and forced their mom, Rebecca, to add a bench recently.

The table was the communal meeting place. Every night, they'd gather for meals often cooked by Rebecca. There would be a race for food. The earlier you got there, the bigger portions you received.

They'd go around the table, each Elliss sharing a "good thing, bad thing" to catch everyone up on the day.

"Just keep the family bond tight and keep checking in on each other, loving on each other," Luther said. "Dinner is a special time for us, something we tried to make a priority.

"And it was something, no matter what kind of day it was, it was something to look forward to."

It was part of growing up in Kaden's massive family, where questions were often the same from outsiders.

You have how many children? You all live in the same home? How does that work?

"It's definitely been a little challenging because the older siblings [are] always picking on you and stuff, the hand-me-downs and just everything that comes with that, being a younger sibling," said Micah, 18, the ninth-born. "But at the same time, it was awesome because I got to see how much my family has grown and how much my brothers have grown."

Kaden is the oldest. Then Olivia, the eldest daughter. Christian came soon after. As they had children, Luther and Rebecca also talked about another way to help kids -- adoption.

As the family story goes, Rebecca was out with a friend who mentioned a baby boy without a home. Would they be interested in adopting him? Rebecca called Luther, who was home with their then-three kids. Luther was chasing a dog, cleaning up Christian's dirty diaper and burning breakfast. A devoutly religious family, he said they should pray on it.

Rebecca said sure, Luther could pray. She was picking up paperwork. Soon enough, the children multiplied. Within 18 months, three children turned into six. The adoption agency kept going back to the Ellisses with more kids, leading to a very crowded home.

The Ellisses traveled in a multitude of vans over the years, including a silver Ford E-350. Once in California, they were mistaken for a preschool class.

But so many of their memories started in Michigan. They might have stayed there, too. But Luther made financial mistakes: poor investments and spending habits. In 2009, he received a call from his bank. He was broke.

The bank garnished everything. Luther had gone to buy groceries when none of his cards worked. Kaden doesn't remember the particulars -- just the sight of his father's face while speaking on the phone after he picked him up from basketball camp that day. Luther rarely showed stress, and Kaden could tell something was wrong.

Luther and Rebecca were open with their children about the bankruptcy, better to hear it from them than elsewhere. They navigated public perception, classmates making fun and difficult emotions. It brought a tight family closer.

The move from Michigan to Utah changed their lives.

"It was just one of the hardest things that I think we've ever been through," Luther said.

THE ELLISS CHILDREN had a yearly ritual: They would buy the Madden video game and Kaden would get to work. Every year, Kaden took his entire family -- and some extended ones -- and created them all in the game, often on the same team: the Lions.

Kaden would be the quarterback. Luther would play on the defensive line or linebacker. Older siblings played skill positions. Younger siblings like Micah, linemen. In Utah, Kaden, Christian, Noah and another brother, Isaiah, lived in the basement -- Christian and Noah in one set of bunk beds, Kaden and Isaiah in the other -- and Madden would be played often.

"Make a team," Kaden said. "And try to go out and win the Super Bowl."

While the Elliss children understood football growing up, they didn't necessarily understand how good Luther was. Micah, who plays at Snow College in Utah, learned from YouTube clips. Noah realized it when he started listening to his father's advice on what to do on the field. Christian found out in middle school, when kids told him how cool it was his dad played football for a living.

Kaden learned about how good his father was from one of his early NFL coaches who used to play against his dad: Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell.

"He was like, 'He was a bad man,' and played against him and all this stuff," Kaden said. "He kind of got me to go find some videos, find some footage and get me to watch just how good he was."

Kaden gained an appreciation for the magnitude of Luther's career -- a first-round pick, 119 games started, two Pro Bowl appearances -- and how he and his siblings are creating a unique football family.

Christian is in his third season with the Eagles, while Noah was with them last year. Jonah is in his second year as a starting defensive end at Utah. Micah is at Snow College. Elijah, a senior in high school, verbally committed to Idaho -- where Kaden, Christian and Noah played -- this week. The youngest sibling, Colsen, is in middle school playing flag football.

"We talk about what we could have done differently in college or in high school to just better prepare ourselves for the league," Noah said. "We just share that with them so they can do better than what we did."

This happens through a continuous text message thread -- Colsen is the most active in the chat -- and through the one time a year all the Ellisses get together.

IT STARTED WITH a family kickball game. None of them imagined the Elliss Family Olympics would grow to a multiday, multievent, multiteam gathering, typically over the July 4 weekend and the one can't-miss moment on the Elliss calendars.

Events are selected by a family voting process: There's a combination of sports, family trivia, board games, escape rooms and a family favorite video game, Super Smash Bros. There's an MVP and a coveted trophy -- engraved with the names of the winners -- in Luther and Rebecca's home.

Captains are selected off the prior year's performance: Christian and Jonah were captains this summer. Teams are drafted, and husbands and wives are taken as pairs. This year, including invited friends, there were 38 competitors. It's intense enough Christian and Kaden have had to remind themselves to remain calm. The bragging rights last a year, but sometimes longer.

Kaden's teams have won the event three times.

"This year was the best year for family Olympics that we've had so far in terms of fights and arguments," Christian said. "This year, Kaden was adding fuel to the fire and he was honestly more on the quiet side this year which was shocking because he did win MVP.

"I thought he would be talking a lot more."

The family has expanded. Multiple siblings are married and have kids of their own. They aren't able to get together often. Luther is coaching at Utah. The kids are living all over the country. But they'll all likely end up doing the same thing Sunday, no matter where they are.

They'll turn on the television and watch Kaden play against his father's old team.

"To have just -- I guess you could call it euphoria," Luther said. "Just, man, this is exciting. I think I was more excited and I am more excited for him and the opportunity he has.

"To be able to go and stomp on the same field I was on a few years earlier. Quite a few years earlier."