On the rugby league field, Raymond Terrace Magpie PJ Ellis has just about done it all – won grand finals, been recognised in top players lists, played NRL and proudly represented his Aboriginal heritage.
Now the 41-year-old father of three sons is being hailed a hero for his extraordinary deeds off the football field.
Just days after coming out of retirement and signing mid-season with the Raymond Terrace A-grade team, Ellis found himself in a life or death situation after stumbling upon a house fire in Cooranbong on his way to work in the early hours of June 25.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the Daracon pipelayer who has lived in Raymond Terrace since 2007 helped pull an unconscious man from a burning house, almost certainly saving his life.
But in his quiet, humble way, Ellis was reluctant to describe himself as a hero, preferring to heap praise on the bravery of a 50-year-old male carer who was equally as instrumental in the house fire rescue.
“I did what I think most people would do in that situation. At the time I didn’t have time to think about the danger, my instincts took over,” Ellis said.
“I could see that the fire was in the back of the house, the biggest danger was the smoke.”
A Lake Macquarie Police District spokesperson said that emergency crews were called to the house fire just after 6.30am with reports of at least one person trapped.
“On arrival paramedics treated two people for smoke inhalation – a 50-year-old man with minor injuries and a 30-year-old who was transported by ambulance to hospital in a serious but stable condition,” the spokesperson said.
“It appears that both men have recovered.”
For six weeks Ellis kept his heroics quiet, only confiding in his Magpies football coach and longtime friend, Brooke Roach.
“PJ had graciously agreed to come out of retirement to help the young blokes in our A-grade side just prior to the June 30 deadline, but his comeback had to be delayed three weeks because he told me he injured his back,” Roach said.
“It was only when I asked what happened that he went on to tell me about the fire rescue… it didn’t surprise me because PJ is a very respectful and modest man.
“Since his return at training and on the field he has been great with the younger players... he’s a great role model for our Aboriginal kids and a credit to his community.”
In recalling the events of that fateful morning, Ellis said that he was driving to work from his Raymond Terrace home along Freemans Drive at Corranbong when he noticed at about 6.30am a house that was well alight, so he stopped to see if he could assist.
“I was the first car there and when I got out I approached a man – later described as being a 50-year-old carer and occupant of the house – who was having trouble trying to climb through a corner bedroom window because of its height.
“He told me that another occupant – a 30-year-old man with a disability – was inside.”
Ellis said that the two men entered the bedroom through the window but visibility was virtually non-existent due to the thick smoke.
“I just followed the guy who managed to locate the unconscious man and together we were able to drag him across the room and to the window,” he said.
“Fortunately, by this time a few people had congregated outside and we were able to pass the unconscious man through the window.
“The guy did an enormous job. The smoke was that thick I had to run over to the window on a couple of occasions to catch my breath.”
Ellis said by the time they had made their way clear of the burning house the fire brigade and ambulance had arrived.
Ellis, who was raised in Tingha alongside the likes of NRL stars Nathan Blacklock, Preston Campbell and Bevan French, spent time with the Rabbitohs, Roosters and the Eels in the late 1990s and early 2000s before being picked up in 2007 by the Terrace Magpies in the Newcastle Rugby League.
He joined the Maitland Pickers after the Terrace club folded. In 2015, Ellis was named as one of the Pickers’ top 20 players of all time.
A tough hooker with a small but robust stature, he is often described as a colossus on the field and a man who has never taken a backward step.
Roach has no doubt that the courage Ellis displays each week on the field had been the catalyst for his heroic efforts on that day and ultimately resulted in saving a man’s life.