Golden: Texas linebacker Jake Ehlinger's tragic death provides a sobering reminder
Ehlinger was a preferred walk-on at Texas
Jake Ehlinger was one of those Texas Longhorns who were entrusted with carrying the American flag onto the field during home games.
Anyone who has attended or watched a UT game over the past couple of seasons has grown accustomed to the early group of players who carried the national and state flags ahead of their teammates to the roaring approval of those in the stands at Royal-Memorial Stadium.
Sometime during the Mack Brown era, the Longhorns added the American flag to the pregame runout, joining the UT and state flags at the head of the pack. Jake Ehlinger never played in a game at Texas but won a practice competition among newcomers that earned him the right to lead the Horns out of the smoke-filled tunnel before the 2019 season opener against Louisiana Tech with his big brother right alongside him.
No. 48 was a proud flagbearer.
Thursday’s tragic news that Ehlinger was found dead served as a grim reminder that tomorrow is promised to no one. The fragility of life cannot and should never be overlooked.
What has been a time of celebration for the family — Sam Ehlinger, Jake's older brother, was drafted just last Saturday by the Indianapolis Colts — has turned to heartbreak and despair over Thursday's news. Jake Ehlinger was 20 years old.
It’s a real gut punch, not just for the football program but for the Westlake community that wrapped its arms around the Ehlinger family after patriarch Ross Ehlinger died of a heart attack while participating in a California triathlon eight years ago. Sam was a 14-year-old eighth grader at the time. Jake was 12.
When Sam signed with UT, where his parents, proud alums, had taken him to games dressed in Longhorns gear as a toddler, it was a cause for celebration. They bled burnt orange in that household and were the latest in a growing line of Westlake families, like the Streets and Campbells, whose family members played sports at the university.
After their father's death, the Ehlinger boys were forced to grow up quickly. Sam has told reporters over the years that his dad’s death created a toughness in him that he carried onto the field. Not always the most conventional quarterback, he would often take a pass on running out of bounds, choosing instead to take on much bigger tacklers — often lowering his shoulder to initiate the contact — for a couple of extra yards.
He wasn’t a linebacker like his brother was, but he played as if he were sitting in the same position meetings with Jake.
Jake didn’t have his brother’s immense football credentials, but he capably played on both sides of the ball at Westlake and scored two touchdowns his senior year, one on a fumble recovery off a blocked punt against Austin High and the other on a catch playing fullback in a win over Schertz Clemens. When he joined the Longhorns as a preferred walk-on before the 2019 season, the brothers were reunited as teammates.
Jena Ehlinger told the Statesman in 2019 that she had pulled her sons aside and given them a bit of motherly advice.
“I want y’all to take a moment, stop, look up in the sky and tell God and Dad thank you,” she said, “that you have the opportunity to play football together at the University of Texas, your dream school, both of you.”
As the quarterback, Sam’s every move was scrutinized by millions of fans. He was accustomed to the spotlight after a successful high school career with the Chaps and was extremely comfortable in his dealings with local and national media. Jake, like most defensive players, quietly went about his job, fulfilling his scout team duties as a walk-on.
More important than sharing the burnt orange uniform was both being enrolled in UT's McCombs School of Business. Sam is listed as a member of the Class of 2021, and Jake’s Twitter profile lists him as Class of 2023. Jake hit the books hard, as evidenced by him twice being named to the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll.
I never interviewed Jake, but I noticed that he zealously celebrated Sam’s numerous accomplishments over the years on Twitter. When the NFL Network mistakenly posted Jake's photo while discussing Sam's draft potential last weekend, we all shared a chuckle. There were also a speckling of photos of the two brothers on the sidelines together.
It would be inappropriate to even pretend to know the circumstances surrounding this young man’s death, but the fallout is enormous. At a time when they were celebrating a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a family is once again in tatters.
As the long days lie ahead, Jake’s family, teammates and friends will somehow attempt to make sense of a life that ended far too soon. Prayers and the sincerest condolences go out to Jena, Sam and his sister, Morgen. When someone loses a family member, especially one so young, we all share in the loss.
If things go as expected in training camp, Sam will take the field on a Sunday afternoon this fall, realizing a lifelong dream of playing in the NFL. Sadly, his biggest fan won’t be there to cheer him on.
And in our city, another Longhorn will be entrusted with holding aloft the American flag as the team runs onto the field of what we hope is a packed Royal-Memorial Stadium.
That was once Jake's job.