As Texas remembers Jake Ehlinger, carrying his '48' flag becomes an honor for former teammates
Ahead of the first game of the 2019 football season, Texas linebacker Jake Ehlinger took to the field at Royal-Memorial Stadium with the American flag.
Running alongside his older brother, Sam, Ehlinger was continuing a long-standing tradition at Texas. Over the years, lots of Longhorns — including veterans such as Ahmard Hall and Nate Boyer — have been chosen to carry that flag during the team's entrance.
This season, Old Glory has still flown high during the weekly stampede of Longhorns. Before Saturday's home game against Texas Tech, Gabriel Watson and the American flag led Texas out of its locker room. Accompanying Watson was Josh Thompson, who had with him a burnt-orange flag with the number 48 embroidered on it.
The flag carried by Thompson honored Ehlinger, who died unexpectedly May 6 at the age of 20.
"It was an honor to actually run out with that flag," Thompson said after the Longhorns' 70-35 victory, in which he returned an interception for a touchdown. "Just to know that he would be there with us in the stadium, that meant a lot to me."
A Longhorn had carried the "48" flag onto the field before each of UT's four games this season. Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said, "We just try to pick somebody that had an impact and vice versa on Jake's life."
UT freshman defensive back Michael Taaffe, for example, ran with the flag ahead of a shutout of Rice on Sept. 18. Like Ehlinger, Taaffe was a defensive star at nearby Westlake High. Like Ehlinger, Taaffe joined the Longhorns as a walk-on. Taaffe was also a pallbearer at Ehlinger's funeral.
"I was at the game and I had no idea. I'm sitting there watching the Horns come in, and I see the '48' flag, and I'm just touched that they did that," longtime Westlake coach Todd Dodge said. "Then I'm seeing (Taaffe) and that he was carrying it. It was pretty emotional, to be honest with you. I thought that was a really neat deal, and I know that Jena (Jake's mom) and Sam and Morgen (Jake's sister) all appreciate that so much."
A week later, Thompson was told to grab the flag just before the Longhorns made their grand entrance. Thompson and Sam Ehlinger were members of Texas' 2017 recruiting class. They were roommates for several years. Due to Thompson's bond with Sam, Jake was always "a little brother" to the senior cornerback.
"It's a lot to explain, but I love that kid," Thompson said.
This fall, the "48" flag has not been the only reminder of Jake Ehlinger at his high school and college. A large banner celebrating Ehlinger and Jackson Coker, a former Westlake receiver who died in a car accident in March, has been placed near the entrance of the Chaparrals' stadium. As it goes for its third consecutive state championship, Westlake has dedicated this season to both Ehlinger and Coker.
With the blessings of the two families, Westlake has also created a team award to honor Ehlinger and Coker. Dodge said the "Jake and Jackson 3616 Fighting Heart Award" will be given annually to a player who exemplifies Ehlinger's and Coker's noted toughness, passion and caring for their teammates.
"It's just a small way for us to go honor the boys and also just let the families always know that their sons will never be forgotten," Dodge said. "I don't know if you could have two greater examples of what we're trying to get done in our program than Jake and Jackson."
At Texas, the Silver Spurs have also taken possession of the "48" flag on Saturdays, and the group's members have pins that remember Ehlinger. (Jake, Sam and their father, Ross, were all Silver Spurs.) Linebacker Luke Brockermeyer wrote "48 " on the tape that was wrapped around his left wrist during UT's opener against Louisiana. So did Texas cornerback D'Shawn Jamison.
Additionally, Texas defensive lineman Jacoby Jones said the Longhorns have tried to honor their late teammate with their play. After blowout wins over Rice and Texas Tech, Texas is 3-1.
"I think about Jake all the time. I know a lot of players do," Jones said. "It's great to honor Jake. That was a big loss we took as a team. ... It affected the team in a big way, and we use that as motivation. We do it for Jake."
According to Sarkisian, Texas will continue to recognize Ehlinger with the "48" flag throughout the fall. This weekend, Texas has a trip to TCU on the schedule. Then it is off to Dallas for the annual rivalry game with Oklahoma.
"We will honor him all year and for years to come. What he brought to this program can't be matched by anybody else," linebacker DeMarvion Overshown said. "The Ehlinger family has done so much for this Texas community, and we want to show our support and love to them."