Through grief and community, Sam Ehlinger has 'found peace' after losing his brother and father
WESTFIELD, Ind. — The text message hit Sam Ehlinger’s phone right outside the locker room on his first day in the Indianapolis Colts' facility, his first day in the NFL, four days after the euphoria of hearing his name called in the draft.
A friend in Austin had sent it, a short text, the kind Ehlinger knew he’d never send unless it was an emergency.
“Call me ASAP…”
Ehlinger called him right away, right there in the Colts’ hallway. His friend was standing outside the house of Ehlinger’s brother, Jake. There was caution tape around the house, eight police cars were parked out front, and the police refused to tell anybody at the scene what had happened until they talked to the former Texas Longhorns quarterback.
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A horrible feeling formed in the pit of Ehlinger’s stomach as the friend handed the phone to a detective.
“We found your brother unresponsive,” the detective told him. “I’m really sorry.”
Jake Ehlinger, 20 years old, a walk-on linebacker at Texas, had been found dead.
The Colts’ new quarterback was the first in his family to find out. He picked himself off the ground, walked into the office of Indianapolis director of player engagement David Thornton and told his new team the heartbreaking news he’d just been given.
His mother, Jena, was out of the country and couldn’t be reached right away. Ehlinger told the police he wanted to break the news to his mom; the police insisted on a counselor talking to Jena. After she was told, she called her oldest son and told Ehlinger she wasn’t able to break the news to her daughter, Morgen, the youngest of the three Ehlinger siblings.
Ehlinger, by this time sitting in the office of Colts General Manager Chris Ballard, merged calls with his little sister and told her the impossible news.
“Momo, Jake’s gone to heaven,” Ehlinger remembers telling his sister.
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The Travis County medical examiner still has not released an official cause of death, saying only that Austin police are still labeling it an ongoing investigation.
The Ehlinger family had already been through too much together, already suffered indescribable tragedy.
When Ehlinger was 14, his father, Ross, suffered a heart attack shortly after beginning the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in San Francisco and died at age 46. Ehlinger was at home that day, on March 3, 2013, with his siblings, Jake and Morgen, being babysat by a cousin.
“I kind of became the man of the house,” Ehlinger said. “(Jake) was in sixth grade, so we were kind of going through growing up as men together. In a lot of ways, I was able to help him and almost be his father figure in the house. I was the next up.”
The two brothers followed their father’s love of UT football all the way to the field at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Sam as the star quarterback, Jake as a walk-on linebacker.
When the Colts called to tell Sam they were picking him in the sixth round of the draft, Jake had been right there, celebrating next to him.
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How Sam Ehlinger learned to grieve the hard way
The tragic death of his father taught Ehlinger how to grieve — in the quarterback’s words, how to grieve properly. Ehlinger grew up a lot after his father’s death, grew into the man of the house and a remarkable leader at Texas, on the football field and off, the sort of leader the Colts raved about on draft weekend after using a sixth-round pick to add the Longhorn to the roster.
But Ehlinger admits that at 14, he understandably had a lot to learn about how to grieve and didn’t always handle it the right way.
“I think, as men, there’s an idea that you have to be tough, and instead of correctly addressing, identifying and releasing those emotions, you bottle them up and push them down, and it’s almost like it’s a bomb building up inside of you,” Ehlinger said. “What it does is it creates so much pain inside of you that you aren’t able to truly love yourself; therefore, you can’t truly love anybody else, because you’re so hurt and broken inside. That leads to treating people improperly, doing things that aren’t true to who you are. If you’ve never been through it before, you don’t even realize it’s happening."
For Ehlinger, that meant when he lost his brother, he wasn’t going to hold anything back.
He had to sit down with his girlfriend, his family, the people closest to him.
Talk through his grief.
“Even if you don’t get out any words,” Ehlinger said. “Just being able to get out that emotion, flush it out, and be able to think and talk about the moment and about that person.”
That’s what Ehlinger began to do in Indianapolis on the day he heard the news. A thousand miles away from Austin and his family. His first day in a new building with a bunch of people he barely knew, aside from former Westlake High School teammate and fellow Colts draft pick Kylen Granson.
Ehlinger talked through his emotions, laid everything he was feeling and experiencing out on the table.
With Thornton. With Ballard.
With his new head coach, Frank Reich.
“When it happened, to have men of such strong faith and such strong foundation there supporting me, I can’t even really describe how thankful I am for them, them just being there to take care of me and make sure that I was OK,” Ehlinger said. “That’s another thing. What are the odds that I’m in an organization that has such great leadership, and that happens on the first day that I get here?”
Saying goodbye to his brother, Jake
The next week, Ehlinger took the stage at Riverbend Church in Austin for his brother’s funeral.
He wanted to honor Jake, to talk about his brother and what he loved. Ehlinger remembers his brother with an ever-present smile on his face, a goofy, loving personality who carried its own lesson for the rest of the world.
Jake had never taken anything too seriously, never let himself get dragged down by things that ultimately aren’t all that important.
“To live that way, it’s a very happy life,” Ehlinger said.
Ehlinger also wanted to give the rest of the congregation, the roughly 800 people in attendance, some peace. Ehlinger, a devout Christian, believes deeply in heaven, in eternity, in the idea that a human’s life on earth is short in the grand scheme of things.
“The peace in eternity, eternal satisfaction, that concept, was something I clung onto when my dad died, but I didn’t truly comprehend or understood what it meant until probably about a year ago, when I really dove into my faith, really put God first in every single aspect of my life,” Ehlinger said. “Instead of saying I was a believer, actually, truly living it and following what he told us to do.”
Ehlinger says his faith has been his rock and his foundation the past three months, as he wrestles with the unthinkable for the second time in his life.
“It’s something that we can’t really comprehend, and if you put your faith into it, you just have to accept that you’re not able to comprehend it, and one day you’ll be able to,” Ehlinger said. “I just found peace knowing that he’s in heaven with my dad, and all he knows now is love and peace and happiness.”
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Navigating the 'fog' and looking ahead
Ehlinger has a bookmark from his brother’s funeral that he keeps in his Bible, a reminder every time he turns the pages. And he now wears an orange bracelet on his left wrist, protected by a white wristband when he plays, that has "Jake Ehlinger" written on one side, a cross and the number 48 — his brother’s number at UT — on the other.
The grief is still there. The moments when he finds himself thinking about his brother. When the emotions begin to well up inside of him, when he feels his brother’s absence even as he’s in his first NFL training camp.
“I feel like I’m kind of in a fog mentally,” Ehlinger said. “When my dad died in eighth grade, it was like my whole family, we said we were kind of in a fog for about a year, and then you kind of wake up and you’re like ‘OK, that happened.’”
Ehlinger knows what he has to do with his grief.
He has to sit down, identify those emotions.
Let them out.