Family, friends, teammates pay last respects to Jake Ehlinger
Jake Ehlinger was remembered Wednesday as a fearless football player whose competitive nature was matched only by the love he expressed to family and friends.
Roughly 800 peopled gathered at Riverbend Church for a "service of remembrance" for the the Westlake and University of Texas football player who died last Thursday. His brother Sam and Chaparrals coach Todd Dodge were among the speakers who portrayed Jake as a good son, brother and teammate.
Ehlinger was found dead last Thursday by Austin police officials. Authorities say his death is not considered suspicious. He was 20.
The 90-minute ceremony was solemn yet uplifting. The altar was decorated by two framed jerseys. His blue No. 36 Westlake jersey was complemented by the orange and white Longhorn No. 48 jersey. His closed casket was draped with orange and white flowers. A slide presentation showed the family in happy times at home, on vacations, at games.
Sam Ehlinger, speaking with pride and strength, recalled his "best brother and friend" always had a positive attitude about life. He was a "glass half-full, never glass half-empty" type of person. He said Jake would have wanted the audience to remember all the good times they shared together.
"As I'm coping and dealing with these emotions, I try to remember that, and I challenge you to remember that as well," said Sam, who was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts just two weeks ago. "Jake would say, hey, you got 20 years of me. You got 20 years of laughter. You got 20 years of happiness. You got 20 years of love."
Dodge told a funny story about his former team captain who was sometimes too aggressive during 5:30 a.m. practice sessions. Ehlinger used to sprint with an assistant coach to see who would get to the field first. During practice, Dodge occasionally had to tell his inside linebacker to take it down a few notches.
Before one scrimmage, Dodge told his players it was OK to hit and tackle everyone on the field except for the quarterbacks, who traditionally wear red jerseys to remind defensive players they are off limits. "Does everyone understand?" the coach remembered telling his players.
Ehlinger promptly "smoked" quarterback Taylor Anderson, a player Dodge described as "pretty decently important to our team at the time."
Pulling Ehlinger aside, Dodge told him, "What is it about the red jersey that you don't understand?"
After practice, Ehlinger stepped into the coach's office for a brief chat.
"In Jake fashion, he came in and said he had an idea about that red jersey," Dodge recalled.
Ehlinger: "Coach, if you'd just put some flags around Taylor, that will remind me not to hit him. I'll just pull one of those flags."
"I thanked him for that and told him we'd talk about it at the next staff meeting," Dodge said.
The comment drew hearty laughter from the audience, which included many of his former Westlake and Texas teammates.
Speaking of Anderson, he was among Jake's 10 pallbearers. The list included friends and teammates Luke Brockermeyer, Barrett Chambers, Blake Chambers, Trellis Collins, Will Rose, Michael Taaffe, Robert Taaffe, Josh Thompson and Nakia Watson.
Former University of Texas football coach Tom Herman also attended the service. Herman was responsible for allowing Jake to join the Longhorns as a walk-on player. Several former and current staff members boarded two charter buses from the university to the attend the event.
Cameron Thompson, who considers Jake her "best friend for life," recalls spending countless hours with him. They had sleepovers and parties and playtime together as kids. She described "Jakey" as "goofy and so full of life" and said she had an image that someday they would each have families and their kids would have the same type of relationship they had.
"I look forward to our next big hug when we meet again," Thompson said.
Rhett Kelley, who had known Ehlinger since they were about 10, remembers a one-on-one basketball game he had with his friend at the house. After Kelley won, Ehlinger went to his bedroom and started playing video games by himself. When Kelley tried to join him, he got kicked out of the room.
"I had to spend six hours with the dog," Kelley said.
Jake Ehlinger was the second child born to father Ross and mother Jena. Tragically, Ross Ehlinger died while competing at the "Escape from Alcatraz" triathlon in 2013. On Wednesday, Jenna, Sam and sister Morgen sat in the front row, often consoling each other with extended hugs.
"Jake was never really the same after my dad passed," Sam said. "He was his best friend and they had this quiet connection. He was never really the same, but now he's back with him. Who knows what they're doing now? Jake's probably doing flips and they're going crazy up there."
There were several poignant photographs during the five-minute slide presentation following the service. Jake hugging his parents and siblings. Jake giving the Hook 'em Horns sign. Jake posing with Jena and Morgen after football games. In one powerful image, Jake and Sam were sleeping together when they were little kids, their hands clasped together.
After the slide presentation, there was a funny video of young Jake dancing alone to Michael Jackson's hit "Man in the Mirror." Posing for the camera, Jake ripped off his white T-shirt and tried to imitate the pop icon with his own exaggerated dance moves. The audience roared with laughter.
As Sam would say, Jake's glass was always half full.
Jake Ehlinger memorial scholarship
A Jake Ehlinger memorial scholarship fund has been established through The University of Texas and donations can be made at https://give.utexas.edu/