'Pride in the Grind': QB Sam Ehlinger's Journey from Heartbreak to Heisman Hopes

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterAugust 20, 2019


AUSTIN, Texas — She never told him how it tore her heart apart when he collapsed on the floor after hearing the news.

He never told her how he grieved, hiding in his room at night and burying tears in a pillow.    

When you're going through hell, sometimes it seems like the only way to hold yourself together is to protect those you love from your dark and desperate feelings.

"The pain was consuming," junior Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger says.

So too is the sweet embrace of collecting a broken life and piecing it back together.

"We'll never be the same," Jena Ehlinger, Sam's mom, says. "But we will have a beautiful life."

This is a story of love. Of a family that carried one another through the sudden and crushing death of a husband and father.

It's also a story of how we cope with grief. Of a family that never really told one another of the honor and respect that grew out of their unique, unstated bond of perseverance. Until now.

Sam Ehlinger's lips purse as he considers the topic, considers his mother opening up about it. He stares into the distance as he contemplates the all-encompassing emotional journey that began March 3, 2013, when he was just 14 and his father, Ross, died of a heart attack.

The words don't come easy.

"She is…it's hard to explain...my inspiration," Ehlinger says softly. "She lost the love of her life—and she was thrown into raising three young kids by herself. You just think to yourself, How does someone do that?"

It's so easy to travel back to that moment, the one day that forever changed what he knew of life, love and sorrow.

Ross had been found floating in the San Francisco Bay during an ironman triathlete event he was competing in. Jena had endured a long flight home and, hours after returning, was explaining the awful reality to her children.

Sam collapsed on the kitchen floor, and Jena felt like her soul was ripped out of her.

Then Ross' hand—Sam swears there's no other explanation—reached out one more time.

He used to tell his sons, Sam and younger brother Jake, over and over: "Is there blood? Is there a broken bone? No? You're fine."

"I know what my dad wanted. I know he guided me," Sam says. "Take care of his wife. Take care of my brother and sister. My mom told me, 'Don't feel pressure to be the man of the house.' That was a challenge to me. That's like telling me, 'Don't play football.' She was basically saying don't naturally lead. But naturally, I had to."

Standing in the perfectly appointed house in the Austin suburbs, Jena points to the immaculate kitchen, to where Sam whipped his phone into the wall on that day in 2013, buckled to his knees and fell to the floor in a swift and scary motion.

"God help me if I ever see that again," she says.

This is the home she and Ross built, the home where Sam's dreams of playing quarterback at Texas were cultivated by a father whose love of all things Burnt Orange bordered on obsession.

Jena is told that Sam said he never wanted her to hear of the countless nights he was upstairs in his room, wrecked with grief. He had to be the strong one, he said. If that meant hiding his pain to carry hers, well, there's no broken bones and no blood. You're fine.

Jena holds her hand over her mouth and turns her head. She is told how it wasn't easy for Sam to find the proper way to explain what his mother—and over the last six years, his best friend—means to him.

He called you his inspiration, she is told.

"He said that?" she says, wiping away tears. And the dam of emotion breaks.

"I would like to think I could've done it on my own, but I probably gained more strength from him in the really dark days. You have to find the blessings out of tragedy. Everything just became so real, so harsh, but it also put everything in perspective. We became so appreciative of the little things in life.

"You look at things differently when you go through something that hard and that dark together. Not that we don't still get upset about stupid stuff, like losing football games, but it just kind of helps you look at things in a little bit different perspective."

Tom Herman is in his office in the bowels of massive Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium, and the subject of Sam Ehlinger eventually leads to the very moment Herman both hates and adores.

Texas physically dominated SEC heavyweight Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, winning 28-21 to end Year 2 under Herman, a statement game from a program finally finding its way back into the college football elite after a lost decade.

Minutes after the game, while standing on a stage in the middle of the Superdome in New Orleans, Ehlinger screamed into a television camera, "Longhorn Nation, we're back!"

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 01:  Sam Ehlinger #11 of the Texas Longhorns celebrates after defeating the Georgia Bulldogs 28-21 during the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 01, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Gr
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

"Yeah, we're not back yet," Herman says now matter-of-factly, because every coach at any level only allows that talk once the whole damn thing is won.

But as quickly as Herman described his annoyance with those brief seconds, he scoots to the back of his posh office and starts to fiddle with a state-of-the-art 70-inch touch-screen television that may as well be a 70-inch computer. (It's Texas, everyone. Roll with it.)

"I gotta show you something," he says, and he finds a photo from the Austin American-Statesman that shows Sam and Jena embracing in the stands at the Superdome while Sam is holding his most outstanding player trophy. "I get choked up every time I see it. And I've seen it a hundred times."

Sam and Jena are crying. They are happy. They are full and whole, finally, again.

"I know this sounds crazy, but my dad was there," Sam said. "As sure as he was there for me when he died, he was there that night at the game in the stands with us. We could feel him celebrating with us."

Ross was a respected trial attorney in Austin and a pretty darn good Pop Warner football coach. He would've loved the Sugar Bowl not just because his beloved Longhorns won and his son—who ran for three touchdowns—was a big part of the reason why but also because of how it all unfolded.

Sam has endured two long years through the critical lens of a Texas quarterback. The fumble at USC. The late, game-changing interceptions against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. The Maryland loss. Catcalls from the home crowd and potshots from talk radio.

Years earlier, when Charlie Strong had the unenviable task of picking up after Mack Brown's Hall of Fame run in Austin ran its course, Strong knew he needed a unique player and personality to change the way Texas thought about football.

He found Ehlinger at Westlake High School and saw Tim Tebow.

"Not only same type of player, but more important, same type of person," said Strong, who was the defensive coordinator at Florida during Tebow's magical four-year run. "He was different. He was uncommon. You only get those players every so often."

Strong was fired after the 2016 season and never got a chance to coach Ehlinger, who was two weeks from joining Texas as a midterm enrollee when Herman arrived.

Nine months later, Ehlinger was on the field in Week 2 of his freshman season, playing critical minutes. By the end of September, he had taken control of the position. But all that did was clear an easy target for a fanbase that hadn't felt secure since Colt McCoy was knocked out of the BCS National Championship Game in 2010 in the first series—a game that every Orangeblood across the 40 acres will swear Texas would've won had McCoy not injured his shoulder.

That was a target Ross knew would eventually be placed on the back of his son. A target he couldn't—and here's the key— shouldn't avoid.

Ross loved Teddy Roosevelt. The tough and gruff personality—the brilliant adventurist who lived life hard and smart with no regrets.

Roosevelt's famous speech, The Man In The Arena, had been framed in Ross' office since law school. On the day he and Jena left for San Francisco, he printed three copies to be framed for his children.

"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming ... who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

Sam chose to play for Texas because he wanted that pressure squarely on his back. He wanted to be the one to lead the Longhorns back to the college football elite.

If it didn't work, it sure as hell wasn't going to be because he never tried.

If becoming the man of his family as a 14-year-old didn't work, you'd better believe it wasn't going to be because he didn't do everything possible to make it happen.

"The way you alleviate the grind is remembering that you're doing what you love. So you find pride and joy in it," Ehlinger says. "When I'm waking up at 4:30 a.m., I enjoy it. I enjoy working out, running, lifting. Going to school, the 15- or 16-hour days. I enjoy every part of it, because I know it's going to pay off and I'm going to see the smile on my teammates' faces when we win.

"I find pride in the grind."

AUSTIN, TX - SEPTEMBER 08:  Sam Ehlinger #11 of the Texas Longhorns warms up before the game against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Tim Warner/Getty Images

Something strange happened when Sam left for college in the winter of 2017. That same sickening feeling of despair came rushing back to the Ehlinger home.

For nearly four years, Sam was the man of the house, sharing parenting duties with Mom. There was pride in the grind of driving Jake and his sister, Morgen, to their various practices.

When any decision had to be made, it inevitably began with Jena asking her children, "Did you ask Sam?"

"At one point, Morgen texted Sam a photo of clothes she was wearing and asked him if they were appropriate," Jena says. "He said, 'Nope, too short.' And she changed."

So when Sam left for Texas, it's no wonder the ship felt like it had lost its rudder.

"I felt like it almost restarted, all of those horrible days," Jake Ehlinger says. "At that point, we were all emotionally stable. But when he left, he looked at me and said: 'OK, you're the man of the house now. Take care of our girls.' You grow up quick when you hear that."

Jake enrolled at Texas earlier this summer, choosing to walk on and play for the Longhorns instead of accepting an FCS scholarship. Morgen is 16, and eventually she plans to go to Texas too.

It's just Jena and Morgen and two rescue dogs at home now. A sign that reads "Live Like Ross"—Jake's Pop Warner team made it for the Ehlingers—is prominently placed in the backyard and visible from every room in the home. Jena has a boyfriend now too.

"It's always weird, the first relationship," Sam says, spinning a Live Like Ross bracelet around his wrist. "But he's great. He treats her well. She likes him, and that makes me happy. Seeing your mother distraught for such a long period of time is one of the worst things you can go through.

"Whatever made her happy and whatever put a smile on her face is what I wanted to see."

No matter how Herman tries to avoid it, the idea of Texas being back among the nation's elite isn't going anywhere. That's what happens when you beat Oklahoma and Georgia and win 10 games—and when your quarterback is one of six Power Five conference players in the past 20 years with 25 passing touchdowns and 15 rushing touchdowns in the same season.

All five prior to Ehlinger—Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota, Lamar Jackson—won the Heisman Trophy. Ehlinger is in that conversation heading into this season, and after raising his completion percentage from 57.5 to 64.7 in 2018, he's starting to get some NFL draft buzz too.

"Sam's story is unbelievable," Texas wideout Collin Johnson says. "He grew up dreaming of playing quarterback for Texas. And now he's doing it at a high level. How many guys can say that?"

If there were any doubt that Texas is back and Ehlinger is the reason, look no further than the hottest player in the NFL, who is still focused on his college rival. Former Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who has turned the league sideways with his play and dynamic personality, took the time this summer to take shots at Ehlinger and Texas while being interviewed on Norman's SportsTalk 400. 

Ross would've loved that. Mayfield is two years removed from Oklahoma and is quickly becoming the new face of the NFL with the Cleveland Browns.

And Sam and Texas are still in his head.

"I love football, everything about it." Sam says. "What it means, how it helps build relationships and teaches teamwork above all else. It's the perfect game.

"But there's so much more to life."

And it's all getting more beautiful every day. Just like Jena promised.


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