AUSTIN, Texas — When Sam Ehlinger runs through the tunnel and the smoke and into the chaos at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, he glances over his shoulder to his right and finds it.
He locates the spot in the 100,000-seat stadium where he watched Texas games growing up. East side, near the 30-yard line, about 30 rows up.
“When I was a little boy, that’s where I was,” Ehlinger told The Athletic. “And then I take in the whole stadium and think, ‘Wow, this is really cool’ for about 10 seconds. And then I dial in. Here we go.”
He runs to the north end zone and kneels. He bows his head in prayer. And then, before his focus turns to the battle ahead, Ehlinger says a few words to the man who’s missing.
“I’ll talk to him like, ‘Well, here we are,’ ” he said. “ ‘I know you’re up there and you’re watching. Just watch over my teammates and keep us safe and healthy. Whatever is meant to happen, I know it will happen. Help us learn from that and move forward.’ ”
Ross Ehlinger was ripped from his son’s life on March 3, 2013, when he suffered cardiac arrest during the 1.5-mile swim portion of the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in California. Ross died while doing what he loved: competing. He was beloved in his community, a respected trial lawyer and youth sports coach. He loved his family. And he loved his Longhorns.
Sam was 14 when he passed. His father never got to watch him play at Austin Westlake High School, never got to see him run over defenders in burnt orange as the starting quarterback at Texas.
But before he departed, Ross did all he could to get young Sam prepared for this future. And today, Ehlinger is living out his father’s wildest dream.
(John Rivera / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
At times, he admits, this all feels destined. Tragedy made him uncommonly mature and uniquely prepared to guide a team through hard times.
The sophomore has already been through his share of painful losses at Texas. But there is strength in knowing you’ve already survived your worst loss and that nothing else can compare. What Ehlinger is facing now, not just against USC on Saturday but also in trying to lead Texas back on top, is challenging. But it is not pressure.
Pressure is becoming the man of your house as an eighth-grader and trying to help lead your family through heartbreak.
Jena Ehlinger raced home. The flight back is a barely remembered blur. The pain and the panic and all the arrangements had to wait. She needed to be the one to tell her children.
“I was just praying to God to give me the words,” she said. “I don’t know how to do this, what to say.”
The minute she walked in the front door of the family’s Westlake home that night, she didn’t have to say a word. Sam knew something was wrong. His mom and dad weren’t responding to his calls and texts. Jena wasn’t responding to anyone. All she could think about was getting to Sam, Jake and Morgen.
On that foggy Sunday morning, Ross had jumped off the ferry and into the choppy 51-degree waters of the San Francisco Bay. The fit 46-year-old was no stranger to this. He’d been entering triathlons since 2000 and had competed in this event in 2008. He’d run marathons and participated in more than a dozen half-triathlons and half-Ironmans.
Jena was waiting at the shore with friends and spectators when she received an urgent call from a San Francisco number. Ross had been found motionless in the water by three triathletes who called for help. He was unresponsive, and rescue workers’ efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
What occurred in the water that morning is difficult to pinpoint. A medical examiner’s report months later would list the cause of death as lethal cardiac arrhythmia, a sudden malfunction of the heart’s electric system. What Ross and his family didn’t know was he had an enlarged heart and a blockage in one artery.
Back home in Austin, Jena’s niece was babysitting the kids. Jena asked her to keep them away from the TV and keep Sam off his phone. Just try to keep them distracted while she traveled back. Sam remembers having a basketball tournament that weekend and spending the day hanging with friends. He was focusing on his math homework that night when the home phone rang. A family friend called to ask if everything was OK. They’d seen a local news report that an unidentified 46-year-old from Austin died during a triathlon.
“I hadn’t heard anything, so there’s no way that could be possible,” Sam recalled thinking. “That’s not my situation. No way. I would know by now.”
He wanted to shrug it off, but he couldn’t. He found more reports online. A 46-year-old from Austin? That couldn’t be a coincidence. He started panicking. He called his mom. No answer. He ran downstairs to her desk, frantically looking through an address book for phone numbers of friends who were at the triathlon.
Minutes later, Jena was crying as she walked in the door. Sam was standing in the kitchen, the home phone still in hand, and he instantly knew. He threw the phone as far and as hard as he could. It hit a stone wall 20 yards away in the living room and shattered.
“My body just collapsed,” he said. “I didn’t have any feeling in my legs or my body. I just collapsed. I didn’t know what to do.”
He let out a long, deep scream from deep in his gut: NO.
“I pray to God I never hear that noise again as long as I live,” Jena said.
His 12-year-old brother Jake and 9-year-old sister Morgen ran downstairs and found out. Sam remembers running to his parents’ bedroom and collapsing again. This can’t be real, he kept telling himself. He wanted most of all to speak with his dad one more time.
The hours, days and weeks after that remain a blur. But Jena says she made a promise to her grieving children on that impossibly painful and confusing night.
“I said to them: ‘We’re gonna be OK. We’re gonna be happy again,’ ” she vowed. “ ‘Life is gonna go on. We’re gonna make it. It’s gonna be a beautiful story.’ ”
The heartbroken 14-year-old boy realized something after the first hour of tears and anger and misery.
“All the sudden, it was, ‘I have to be the man of this family. I have to take over now,’ ” Ehlinger said. “I had to help them in anything I can. I switched out of being sorry for myself and sad for myself to, ‘I have to help my brother, my sister and my mom.’ From then on, it’s about them. That’s just how it’s been.”
It was a deep and sudden sense of responsibility, a gut feeling that as the oldest child you must be the strongest one. Your maturation gets fast-tracked in these moments of unexpected tragedy, not by choice but by necessity.
Ehlinger felt it was his duty to support his mother, who had just lost the love of her life and suddenly had so much to deal with, and to protect his siblings. And while he mourned like they did, he refused to dwell on feeling bad for himself. He chose to accept his situation and focus on helping his family.
“I realized that, from then on, I had to live a different life from what regular eighth-graders could,” he said. “That was just how it was.”
One night, Jena saw Sam tucking Morgen in and saying goodnight to her. She had to sneak away to hold back her tears. Jena had always been the rock of their family, the source of their strength and their ability to stay faithful and upbeat. But she remembers that at Ross’ funeral service Sam bravely spoke in front of everybody about his love for his father and the time they shared. She admires how he supported her that day.
“He had his arm around me, and I just remember thinking it was so sweet,” Jena said. “And looking back, he was keeping me strong. It was like he was holding me up.”
Sam says his father taught him everything about life and sports. Ross Ehlinger was adventurous and always smiling. Jena says he led a life of constant activity. Hours upon hours of throwing the football and baseball in the front yard with the kids, playing basketball, swimming laps, riding bikes. It didn’t matter if he had a bad knee — he just kept going. He was the director of Westlake’s Pop Warner football league and coached youth baseball. He was never Sam’s head coach but was always coaching him up.
What he passed down to his son was far greater than just how to throw a ball around. Sam says he learned from his dad to value ambition and humility. Consistency and hard work were always at the heart of what his father wanted him to understand. The lessons on toughness came early, too. Sam recalls playing in a Pop Warner game and banging up his knee. He’d never been injured in a game. Ross came over from the stands and calmed him down.
“He was like, ‘Oh, you can move it? It’s not bleeding? You’re fine. Go,’ ” Sam said. “I went back in the game and we won. You’re fine, suck it up, it’s not a big deal — that’s the mentality I have. If you’re not broken or bleeding, you’re fine.”
(Photos courtesy Jena Ehlinger)
Most of all, he believes his father’s legacy is one of positivity. After his passing, the motto “Live Like Ross” was printed on bracelets and embraced around their community. The family started a scholarship fund and a football camp to honor him and give back. To Sam, living like Ross means being compassionate and appreciative and refusing to embrace negativity. Looking back, he can see that’s why he responded the way he did to his father’s sudden death.
“It’s a traumatic feeling and emotion that takes over your body, but you can take it in different ways. You can turn to different things,” he said. “I really turned to where I have a life ahead of me, a positive life ahead of me, and I have a bunch of blessings that I’ve been given. Although this sucks and although this could be a lot worse, I needed to turn this into motivation. I needed to turn this into something where I benefit out of this instead of looking at the negatives, how bad this is, how terrible this is.”
Two days after Tom Herman arrived at Texas in November 2016, Sam walked into his office. He was just a few weeks away from enrolling and made the 8-mile drive to campus to meet his new head coach. He and Jena sat down with Herman and shared with him what they had been through as a family and how it shaped them.
“You could tell this was a 17-year-old grown man,” Herman said. “It was no surprise as to why when you hear his story.”
On the day Ross and Jena left for San Francisco, he printed out a passage that had always been important to him. He left three copies on the desk in his study. Jena says he’d wanted to run to an arts and crafts store to get them framed. They were for his children.
Ross had kept a copy of Theodore Roosevelt’s famed “The Man in the Arena” speech in his office since law school. Sam says it’s still posted on the bathroom wall at home to this day. The message:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Those words, from Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” address made in 1910 during a visit to Paris, still hold up a century later. LeBron James has long called this one of his all-time favorite quotes. To him, it means if you’ve never been in his arena, you have no idea what it takes. Richard Nixon referenced it in his resignation address. Nelson Mandela used it to inspire the South African rugby team. Miley Cyrus has a line from it tattooed on her arm. Celebrities and athletes clinging to those words makes sense. Roosevelt speaks to their experience living in a fishbowl, to the plight of prominence.
Sam didn’t fully understand its significance until his freshman year at Texas. He admits life in this particular arena, as starting quarterback of the Longhorns, has been at once “honestly insane” and a blessing. He says you really can’t prepare for all the attention and all the scrutiny that comes with this job.
“I think the speech is still very relevant to some of the things that happened last year,” Ehlinger said. “It’s pretty funny how that was presented to me before times were even really that tough with critics and people. Because, obviously, the magnitude of what I was doing wasn’t as great as it is here. So it’s definitely still something I think about all the time.”
His freshman season was no storybook fantasy. Dust and sweat and blood? Yeah, there was a lot of that. Coming up short again and again? Ehlinger lived that out against USC, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, where his last-minute turnovers squandered winning efforts. He lived it in his Red River Rivalry debut, scoring the go-ahead touchdown on Oklahoma with eight minutes left before being thwarted by Baker Mayfield and the Sooners.
Not that the 2017 season was all bad. There were highs and wins along the way. But Ehlinger had so much to learn in Year 1, so much error and shortcoming to confront. He says he figured out how to tune out criticism from people outside the arena. He learned those stumbles are necessary for growth. He never lost his enthusiasm for his worthy cause.
(Ben Queen / USA TODAY Sports)
“He’s unflappable,” Herman said. “I think his only response when things aren’t going well is to point the finger at himself and say, ‘I gotta do this better.’ That’s a sign of maturity and leadership.”
During the hard times, Ehlinger will call Todd Dodge for advice. There are few people in his life whom he trusts and looks up to more than his head coach at Austin Westlake. Dodge says somebody has to be real with the kid, because playing quarterback means you get over-praised when you succeed and over-criticized when you err. And Dodge knows that’s especially true when you play at Texas.
“The quarterback position is one of the loneliest places that you can ever be in sports,” Dodge said, “but it’s also the most fulfilling.”
Dodge has seen this all before. He sums up Ehlinger’s sophomore season at Westlake like this: He was magical 75 percent of the time with his terrific throws and hard-fought runs. As for the other 25 percent? “He was like a wild stallion out there making wild mistakes,” Dodge said. “He was bucking all over the place and absolutely would not give up on a play.” But he learned. He cut down on the stubborn plays. And in his first 10 games the next season, Ehlinger threw 34 touchdown passes and zero interceptions.
“Last year, he’d be the first to admit he made absolute mistakes that can’t happen,” Dodge said. “But, you know, I would always ask him: ‘Would you rather have redshirted as a freshman? Or would you rather start six games and play in nine?’ ”
Ehlinger’s reply: “Coach, you know the answer to that.”
He keeps perspective, too, from knowing he’s faced far worse. Ehlinger leaned on his family and friends last season. And he leaned on lessons learned from his father, both in life and in death. It’s a mentality of knowing you can’t change the past, you can only grow stronger from it.
“When you lose someone so important in your life, someone who holds so much value in your heart, the pressure to take care of the people that love you is 10 times greater than anything you can feel in a sport or in a game,” he said calmly. “Because in a sport or a game, what I’ve learned is you can prepare for and help eliminate the pressure. You can’t really prepare when you’re 14 years old for having to go through that.”
After Ross passed away, his family found a letter he’d written on his computer.
In it, he touted Sam’s ability and potential as a football player and asked what he needed to do to develop that talent and get him ready for high school football. He was bragging on his son but also earnestly seeking help. Jena says he was sending it to Mack Brown.
Ross was a deeply proud Texas graduate. That’s where he met and fell for his wife as a sophomore. He was a member of the Silver Spurs, the student organization tasked with the handling and care of Bevo. His kids have been throwing up the Hook ’em Horns hand sign since they were infants. Jena says the man owned “a gazillion” burnt orange shirts and enjoyed trash talking his Aggie clients.
Fall weekends were dedicated to Longhorns football. At Texas games, Ross would bring headphones and listen to the radio play-by-play as he watched. And he loved to bring his kids along. This was just family tradition. Their last game together was a trip to the Alamo Bowl win against Oregon State in San Antonio, two months before his death.
“He’s the main reason for everything,” Sam Ehlinger said. “He’s the reason why I committed and what motivates me: to fulfill what he wanted me to do. At least, that’s what I think he’d want me to do. He loved Texas.”
Ehlinger marvels at how his father’s dream has truly come to life. He took on the starting job as a freshman. He’s playing with guys he loves. He’s playing for a head coach who gets him. Ehlinger sees the similarities in their thinking and their competitiveness. The losses have been hard, but Herman’s belief in Ehlinger is as strong as ever.
When Texas’ season opener at Maryland finished in familiar fashion, with an Ehlinger interception to end a tight loss, Herman stuck with him. He can see the progress being made. He appreciates how the sophomore leads. He likes that Ehlinger can have fun and joke around and be a “smartass” with him on the headset during games. And when it’s time to compete, he gives everything.
“When it’s time to work, he can flip a switch and go to work as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Herman said.
There have been times when it all feels right for Ehlinger. Like the 14-play, 91-yard drive in the final minute of the fourth quarter at USC last year. First road game. Banged-up offensive line. Lots of mistakes. But everything came together on that drive. After scrambling to the sideline and firing his 17-yard touchdown strike to Armanti Foreman, Ehlinger jumped in teammates’ arms and then looked to the sky and threw up the horns.
“It was really, really awesome just to have that feeling of: ‘Wow, I could do this,’ ” he said.
That moment was surreal, but it was also fleeting. And he’ll keep chasing it Saturday against the Trojans and beyond. Because he knows there’s something uncommon going on here, something he’s struck by whenever he walks through Texas’ facility or runs through the smoke into DKR. As he puts it: How many kids get to lead the school they dreamed of going to their whole life? How many get a chance to turn around the program they love deep in their heart?
He grew up hearing from his father that the pride and winning tradition of the University of Texas will not be entrusted to the weak or the timid. And now it’s entrusted to him. So he can’t help but believe the hints were there all along that this has always been the grand plan.
“I feel that this story and everyone’s lives was written a long time ago. You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be,” Ehlinger said. “It’s something that, all the trials and tribulations, they’re going to pay off eventually — whether that’s for me in football or maybe it’s not. Maybe, as much as every sign is pointing to it, you never know. But it gives me a lot of excitement for life. It’s really cool to see how God and the things in your life shape the way that you’re supposed to live.”
He thinks he knows what his dad would say if he were here today. He would be insanely proud and thrilled to watch his son play for the Longhorns. He hopes his dad would be prouder of the man he’s become in helping lead their family. But he certainly knows Ross would urge Sam to work even harder, to never become content with what he’s accomplished so far.
Sam likes to talk to him before he goes to bed. He wants to share his gratitude. Thank you for watching over me. Thank you for everything you gave us. Thank you for everywhere we’re going.
“He took me along the path I needed to be on,” Ehlinger said.