Football

Understanding Sam: Family bond, passion for Texas fuels Ehlinger's rise as the face of the Longhorns

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Story highlights
  • “Our Longhorn Nation probably couldn't hope for a better person to have to be the face of the program,”
  • Ehlinger is 12-8 in 20 starts over the last two seasons. This year, he could be a Heisman candidate.
  • Would success change him? “Not at all. I’ll kick his ass if he changes. And he knows it!”

Posted August 22nd, 2019

At this point, Sam Ehlinger is tired of the question. But he’s forthright, direct and honest with his answer. Not to mention unfailingly polite.

Why did the Texas quarterback grab the microphone on that Sugar Bowl stage and shout, “Longhorn Nation, we’re baaack!”

“I give the same answer every time,” Ehlinger said. “It was spur of the moment and doesn’t really mean anything.”

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Ehlinger’s high school coach, himself a former Texas quarterback, just shrugged.

“Hey, that’s what he felt,” Todd Dodge said. “And frankly, it’s gotten a lot of good intent, probably a lot of bulletin board material. So what? He doesn’t care. I do know one thing. It’s kind of given some hope and some confidence to a fan base that probably needs it.”

His mother, Jena, said that 28-21 victory over Georgia was a magical moment. “Nobody thought Texas was going to win, and they really didn’t think they were going to dominate,” she said. “I think it was one of those nights that I know we will never forget.”

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger poses for one of many photo shoots he did this summer on June 14. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman)

To understand why Ehlinger said what he did requires a deep dive into his burnt-orange background. It takes an understanding of powerful family relationships, a yes-sir, no-ma’am approach and an unflinching desire to turn your dreams into reality.

“Our Longhorn Nation, for lack of a better term, probably couldn’t hope for a better person to have to be the face of the program,” said Dodge, who quarterbacked at UT from 1982-85. He quickly adds that it’s not an enviable position, considering the pressure that goes with it.

Ehlinger grew up practically begging to be a Longhorn. He sat on the east side of Royal-Memorial Stadium, near the 30-yard line. His parents went to UT. It simply cannot be overstated how Sam eats, sleeps, breathes all things Texas.

“There are a lot of kids in Austin that grew up going to Longhorn games with a mom and dad who both went to Texas,” Dodge said. “And probably when they were little babies throwing up the ‘Hook ’em, Horns.’ But he’s the one that it has come to be a reality for.”

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) warms up before the Big 12 championship game against Oklahoma in Arlington on Dec. 1, 2018. The Sooner won and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

Dodge believes Ehlinger is the right person at the right moment for the University of Texas. Just don’t tell Ehlinger that.

“I know that playing the position of quarterback is generally labeled kind of as the face of the program, because you touch the ball every play,” Ehlinger said. “But I don’t really buy into that. So I’m not getting used to it, per se.”

His face is everywhere, though. Ehlinger’s mug is featured on one of the team posters distributed to fans. He’s done at least five photo shoots this summer, including one for Sports Illustrated for Kids and the American-Statesman, and landed on the cover of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine. That alone can trigger weird moments.

“When I was checking out of the grocery store, I looked out of the corner of my eye and saw a whole row of his face,” Jena Ehlinger said. “That’s when I went, ‘Whoa!’ That’s crazy.”

PHOTOS: Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger — Before he got to Texas

This is what happens at a place like Texas where everyone expects you to lead the Longhorns to a Big 12 championship, maybe even become a Heisman contender in the process. It’s what happens when you throw for 3,292 yards and 25 touchdowns and lead Texas to a 10-4 record last year. Ehlinger is 12-8 as a starter.

“Sam’s a stud,” UT defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. “Sammy, in terms of diagnosing the stuff that we do, getting our guys in the proper calls, he’s as good as any quarterback I’ve seen.”

‘For the honor of his father’

By now, most Texas fans probably have some idea about what happened to Ehlinger’s father, Ross.

The 46-year-old trial lawyer was an incredible athlete who competed in triathlons. He died on March 3, 2013, in the San Francisco Bay during the swim portion of the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon.

In October 2013, ESPN published a detailed story about triathletes who were suddenly dying and featured Ross Ehlinger. The medical examiner determined that Ross’ cause of death was lethal cardiac arrhythmia. “The exact catalyst for it will remain unclear,” ESPN’s report said.

Sam Ehlinger was 14 at the time. His brother Jake and sister Morgen were even younger.

Ross and Sam Ehlinger would sit in the stands during Dodge’s quarterback camps at Westlake. “They would follow his wins, the quarterbacks, the statistics, then all of a sudden, Ross dies and coach Dodge is his coach,” Jena Ehlinger said. “This is just crazy.

“To be in such a strong, supportive community has been really great. I feel beyond thankful.”

Dodge became a mentor, a sounding board for anything that was needed at the time.

“A lot of times people play with a chip on the shoulder, and somewhere there’s a lack of confidence,” Dodge said. “They’re trying to prove everybody wrong. But with him, to me, it’s all about playing for the honor of his father.

“On the front end of things, it was a little bit of anger,” Dodge added. “You know, why me? Why did this happen to me so early in my life? But now, as I’ve gotten to know Sam, he’s very consistent in who he is. I think he’s very comfortable with who he is.”

Dodge was the one who took Ehlinger to lunch one day at the Texas Land & Cattle Steakhouse in July 2015 to discuss the quarterback’s future. At that time, former UT coach Charlie Strong had issued several offers to quarterback recruits.

Dodge asked Ehlinger how he’d feel if one of those other recruits committed and took his spot.

“And there was a look in his eyes,” Dodge said with a slight hesitation, “nobody’s taking my spot.”

The two left the restaurant with Ehlinger having agreed to think about it. “We’ll talk again about it tomorrow,” Dodge said. “And by the end of the day, that night, he called me said, ‘I called and committed.’”

At 6:21 p.m. on July 28, 2015, Ehlinger tweeted out a baby photo of him throwing up double-barreled “Hook ’em” hand signs. “Been a Longhorn since day one, I’m truly blessed to say I am committed to the University of Texas. #hookem,” he tweeted.

Said Jena Ehlinger: “I do remember (Sam) calling me to say he was committing. I was like, ‘OK.’ Chill bumps. Go for it. This is going to be awesome.”

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger wears the Golden Hat after Texas’ 48-45 win over Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on Oct. 6, 2018. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

Securing the job

Ehlinger never played for Strong. He arrived on campus as an early enrollee in January 2017. By then, Tom Herman was settling in as Texas’ new coach. These two would quickly become soldered together.

Ehlinger turned heads as a freshman in a double-overtime loss at USC, but he spent the year rotating with Shane Buechele. Ehlinger started six games in 2017, Buechele the other seven. The Horns went 7-6 and snapped a three-year losing streak.

In 2018, Ehlinger had moved ahead of Buechele on the depth chart and was the clear-cut starter. But he threw two interceptions in another season-opening loss to Maryland, giving Herman a critical choice: Stick with Ehlinger or go back to Buechele?

Looking back now, offensive coordinator Tim Beck said the coaches didn’t run Ehlinger enough in that 34-29 loss to the Terrapins.

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) celebrates his second quarter touchdown run against Oklahoma with offensive lineman Zach Shackelford (56) on Oct. 6, 2018. [Rodolfo Gonzalez/For Statesman)

“And the reason why is he likes that,” Beck said. “He gets hit, he starts talking smack. I mean, that gets him in the game, right? I mean, I don’t know why that is for him, but it is. That’s part of who he is, his nature and his makeup, that he likes that.

“Have I talked to him about being smart? Yeah, be smarter,” Beck said. “But don’t lose that passion and toughness and energy that you bring to our offense. But just be smarter at some of the running decisions in terms of running guys over, a run out of bounds or whatever.”

The head coach never wavered.

“We’re a better team now than we showed,” Herman said. He stuck with Ehlinger for the next game against Tulsa, and the Longhorns were off and running.

Ross Ehlinger saw it all, his son believes.

“It’s still awesome, because I know he’s still watching,” Ehlinger said. “And obviously, it would be great if he was here in the stands, but I can’t let that affect the way that I go about my day or go about how I feel. The time to grieve was a year or two after he passed, but now I just have to be understanding of the situation and turn it into a positive.

“I try not to let it be like, dang, he’s not here. I know he’s still watching.”

If he was watching, Ross likely saw some pretty spectacular stuff. His son threw for the fifth most yards in a season in school history. Ehlinger opened the year with six consecutive 200-yard passing games, something only Peter Gardere, Major Applewhite and Colt McCoy have accomplished. There was a wild win over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl and a wild loss to those same Sooners in the Big 12 championship game two months later.

This season, there’s even more to see. Ehlinger got an emotional boost when his younger brother joined the team as a preferred walk-on. Jake Ehlinger (5-11, 225) is a linebacker wearing jersey No. 48.

“I told them that the first day of camp, I want y’all to take a moment, stop, look up in the sky and tell God and Dad thank you,” Jena Ehlinger said. “That you have the opportunity to play football together at the University of Texas, your dream school, both of you.”

Charging into 2019

Ehlinger spent the summer attending Steve Clarkson’s quarterback camp in California. He was roommates with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. The two have become friends, as Ehlinger is with most quarterbacks not named Baker Mayfield.

Mayfield took a shot at Ehlinger this summer on an Oklahoma radio station. “He doesn’t like me, and I hope he knows I don’t like him, either,” the Lake Travis product and Cleveland Browns quarterback said of a college athlete.

Mayfield’s comments fell into the ongoing noise that surrounds UT football, something Ehlinger has learned to ignore.

“I think with the uprising of social media, it can be hard for a college student-athlete,” Ehlinger said. “Don’t go looking for it. Don’t be searching your name. Don’t do any of those things, because ultimately, none of that really matters with your performance.”

Sometimes you can bend the rules. Ehlinger is taking more responsibility of the family’s white Labrador named Spur. The dog has his own Instagram account. “Spur, he’s not at the house full-time. When he comes over, he’s messy,” tight end Cade Brewer said with a huge smile.

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Have a great day! 🎥: @em.johnson

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Listening to Ehlinger talk about football, it’s clear he’s channeling Herman. From eliminating distractions to working through the offseason, Ehlinger has put serious thought into his growth for 2019. This is how a QB1 should carry himself.

“If you don’t have any intention to make yourself better or fit what this program demands, then we don’t need you here,” Ehlinger said.

Herman is the one who patted Ehlinger’s thigh after the Big 12 championship loss to OU. The quarterback was emotionally devastated and promised not to let the fan base down again.

“It’s really hard to go do something when you don’t know what you’re getting into, you don’t know where you’re going,” Ehlinger said. “And we’ve been really close to where we want to go. And now it’s time to use that confidence and go do it.”

Receiver Collin Johnson sees a more driven quarterback. “I’ve been proud of him,” Johnson said. “He’s improving. Just trying to get my man to protect himself. He always likes running people over out there.”

Oh well, maybe some things will never change.

“What you see is what you get. He is as real as the day is long,” Jena Ehlinger said of her oldest son.

Is she worried that he’ll ever change? “Not at all,” she said. “I’ll kick his ass if he changes. And he knows it!”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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