Bonnie D. FordESPN Senior WriterClose
- Senior Writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
- Enterprise and Olympic Sports
AUSTIN, Texas — Sam Ehlinger started college classes this week. He moved into a room in an athletic dormitory, changed his Twitter profile to “Quarterback at the University of Texas” and posted a picture of his assigned locker.
He signed his formal commitment to the Longhorns last month with his right forearm in a cast, and his mother, younger brother and sister beamed proudly behind him. It wasn’t exactly the way he had imagined it, but Ehlinger has considerable experience with the unexpected, having built a stellar high school career after losing a parent.
One of Ehlinger’s old avatars was a cute snapshot of himself as a tow-headed 3-year-old in denim overalls, flashing “hook ’em” signs with both hands. His new avatar, which shows him gripping a football and gazing pensively into the camera, is a stock U-T photo adorned with the official team logo. He made much of the journey between those two images look easy. It wasn’t always.
As a sophomore and junior at Westlake High School, Ehlinger eclipsed the career passing yardage and touchdown records set by his predecessors there, NFL veterans Drew Brees and Nick Foles. Versatile and accurate, he led the Chaparrals to the 6A Division I state championship game in 2015 and established himself as a top dual-threat quarterback prospect. He committed to Texas as a rising junior, foreshortening the recruiting process and fulfilling his childhood aspiration.
But bad luck blitzed Ehlinger from the start of his senior season. Knee, thumb and wrist injuries limited him to five games. By the time we talked last week, the cast was off and he was throwing again.
“To compete on the field and win, that’s what I love to do, and not being able to do it is hard,” he told me, sitting in his family’s living room in the interlude between early high school graduation and early college enrollment. “My whole thought during that time [was], ‘There’s better things to come and bigger stages. Stay focused on the task at hand. Yes, it’s not the ideal situation, but I’ll be able to do that later on down the road.'”
I first met Sam in late 2013, six months after his father, Ross, died in the frigid, choppy waters of San Francisco Bay during the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon. He was a respected lawyer, a charismatic youth football coach and a fully engaged family man. I was part of an Outside the Lines team investigating triathlon fatalities at the time. Ross Ehlinger’s death was representative of many I reviewed, in that it was probably triggered by a heart arrhythmia whose catalyst is unclear.
Jena Ehlinger and her three kids graciously agreed to help put a face on the story. She and Sam, Jake and Morgen hoped they could raise awareness of risk and prevention strategies for triathletes and organizers, and perhaps help keep others from suffering a devastating loss. Triathlon fatalities have dropped sharply in the three years since, according to the ESPN database, a trend the Ehlingers hope continues.
– Texas Football (@Longhorn_FB) January 14, 2017
The way Sam spoke that September day in 2013 made it impossible for me to be objective about him, now or ever. Then on the cusp of his 15th birthday, he spoke without a trace of drama or self-pity about grappling with his new reality. His words were both raw and uncommonly mature. He said he thought of his father when he saw a shooting star. He said he tried to keep his worst moments to himself. Mainly, he talked about managing.
“Definitely there are times when I know Jake’s looking, I know that Morgen is watching, and I just have to pull it together, and it’s not that bad knowing that I’m kind of replacing him, but there is also no replacement,” he told my colleague T.J. Quinn on camera.
“I mean, it’s not a normal-day thing for a 14-year-old, so it’s pretty tough … sometimes I know how to react and sometimes I don’t.”
The 18-year-old I sat down with last week is taller, broader, deeper-voiced and more accustomed to interviews. But Ehlinger is still blunt and thoughtful, unafraid to say “I don’t know” rather than fudge his way through an answer or recite something to please the listener.
We spoke a few hours before Clemson played Alabama for the national championship. I asked if he had visualized himself in that situation.
“Difficult to say, because I haven’t really been on a college team yet,” said Ehlinger, who met with new Texas coach Tom Herman shortly after he replaced Charlie Strong this past November. “That part is hopes and dreams and something I’m gonna be shooting for. But it’s hard to envision that right now.”
I told Ehlinger that I remembered his description of what it was like to be a high school freshman coming off the field after a game and seeing other fathers greet their kids. Was it different now?
“He passed when I was in eighth grade, so I never experienced playing a big football game and having him there,” Ehlinger said. Instead, his father is “almost like another conscience that you hear. You have those people on your shoulder, and I feel like there’s a third one. There’s the good and the bad and then him.” Definitely perched on the good shoulder, Ehlinger said.
Jena Ehlinger said Sam has been “a humongous influence” on Jake, now 16 and a budding linebacker, and 13-year-old Morgen, who hones her basketball skills in the driveway with her brothers.
“He has been my rock at times, and my friend, my buddy, but I also really tried to let him be a kid,” Jena said. “When he would get really sad that first year, the few times that I would see it, I was like, ‘OK, he’s actually getting it out.’ I said to the kids over and over again, ‘You gotta get it out, or it’s gonna come out later, ugly.’ I do think there was unspoken pressure, because you’re the oldest and you’re the guy and all that, but he handled it beautifully.”
Had his father’s very public death prepared Sam, in some sense, to deal with the intense spotlight that follows a Texas high school football standout? “Come back to that,” he told me.
Westlake head coach Todd Dodge has no doubt. He said Ehlinger carries himself with the authority that deep perspective brings, calling him “a big-time alpha male” who is forceful about holding others to high standards.
Dodge played quarterback at Texas in the ’80s, but over the course of a 30-year high school coaching career, he has never had a quarterback wind up with the Longhorns — until now. “I see so many kids these days trying to be popular,” Dodge said. “Sam doesn’t really care about being popular. He is, but he doesn’t mind leading in a very sometimes emotional way.”
That emotion, mostly unspoken, boils down to this, Dodge said: “‘There ain’t nothing this game can bring to me that I haven’t been through. There’s nothing that can be bigger than that, more pressure than that, more sad than that.’ And that’s the way he plays.”
Ehlinger eventually circled back to answer my question about growing up in the public eye.
“It’s always just kind of been what’s going on in my life,” he said. “The pressure, the eyes on me, it’s never really gone away, so I’ve gotten used to it and learned how to deal with it.”
His father was “never a person who wanted things, so there’s nothing I can give,” Ehlinger said. “It’s just excelling on and off the field. It’s not that I would set aside something for him. It’s everything. The way I go about my day, it affects everything.”
During a lifting session not long ago, Dodge inquired about a lone, fresh tattoo he had spotted on the side of Sam’s rib cage. It is Ross Ehlinger’s Alcatraz triathlon race number, transposed into Roman numerals: MDLXVI. It’s visible only when Sam chooses to expose it, his tangible acknowledgement of what he carries, as purposefully as he can.