Making of a Quarterback
Some things are just meant to be.
For Elite 11 quarterback and Texas pledge, Sam Ehlinger, that seems to be the recipe. The 4-star from Westlake High School in Austin grew up in the Longhorn environment. He’s the oldest of three raised in a burnt orange family.
His mother (Jena) and father (Ross) both attended UT. His grandparents, head coach, personal trainer, and an aunt were also Texas graduates. It was almost as if he was destined to play on the 40 Acres.
“He’s just grown up being a Longhorn,” Jena said. “At one point when he was three or four years old, he wouldn’t take off his burnt orange t-shirt. I had to hide it. Once you understand the culture at Texas and appreciate the city of Austin, it’s hard not to fall in love with it. It is special. I think it was just always in him. It was in his gut. We never had to put any pressure on him. He would make his own decision. Of course I’m delighted he’ll be in Austin. His brother and sister are delighted. All our friends are delighted. It will be wonderful, the highs and the lows.”
Ross and Jena saw the competitive spark at an early age.
“He’s always been an old soul since the day he was born,” Jena said. “He’s always had a level of maturity. We used to call him ‘the reporter’ when he was a little boy. He was always listening to adults, and when the conversation was over, 30 minutes later he would ask me ‘mom, when you all were talking about (a subject), what did that mean?’ He was always sitting back and observing, taking things in and asking the right questions after he’d process it. He’s a thinker and just has always had a maturity about him since he was little.”
Then it translated to the field.
“When he played soccer at four years old,” said Jena. “He just had ‘it.‘ He had a vision in every sport. He just knew where the ball was going. He knew where he always needed to be on the field. The other parents would notice it and say,’ ok, he’s pretty good.’ It’s hard for to me say this, but we always made sure he knew that there was always somebody better. Ross was so humble. I like to think I am as well. His little brother and sister really keep him in his place.”
I asked if it was because he’s the oldest of three kids – Jake is a sophomore, Morgan is an 8th grader, or because of what has happened in his life, specifically losing his father at age 13.
“I just think it’s the way he was made,” said Jena. “I think it’s the way God made him, probably with a plan for what was going to be thrust upon him. It’s a combination of his genetics, because he’s the oldest, and because when his dad died three and half years ago, he had to step up. It wasn’t from any pressure I put on him, he just felt it in himself and made it his mission.”
His dad, Ross, was always one of the most respected people in the Westlake community and a man people looked up to. He was involved in every aspect and sport for all of his children and usually coached their teams.
He’d organize the youth sports and usually coached Sam’s Pee Wee and little league teams and just as people looked up to Ross, Sam recognized that and learned to use and build on his dad’s leadership skills to make him a better person. Remember, he was always watching and processing. He’s got the mental capacity to deal with anything life throws him, so opposing defenses don’t really stand a chance.
Sam likes to talk about being underrated. He plays with that chip on his shoulder and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Two years ago, not many outside of Inside Texas readers knew who Sam was. Now, he’s on one of two Dave Campbell’s Texas Football issue covers for 2016 and was named the AP HS Player of the Year in Texas for 2015. Not bad for a kid not many knew about two years before.
“About five years ago, Sam’s dad started to realize he’s really got something special,” Jena explained. “Ross would say he didn’t know how to handle this process (of being a potentially highly touted recruit). (Ross) knew Sam would love to play in college but I feel weird asking people about it because he’s only in 7th grade, 8th grade, but we knew he had something there. Being underrated was partly our fault because we didn’t know how to play this (recruiting) game – the camps, the trainers. My husband didn’t play college ball (even though Ross was a triathlete) so it was new to us.”
Making the Elite 11 was just icing on the cake, justifying years of hard work and sacrifice.
“It’s a dream come true for him,” said Jena. “I remember probably six years ago when he said ‘mom, come here. You’ve got to come see this.’ It was the 7-on-7 on TV. He said ‘these guys are really good.’ I told him maybe you’ll be there someday. It’s so exciting and he’s having the most amazing experience.”
Being a quarterback is more than just scoring touchdowns. It requires special leadership qualities and traits. Like posting the all-time Westlake Football QB records chart on his bathroom mirror over a year ago. A list that includes New Orleans Saints Pro-Bowler, Super Bowl Champ, and future Hall of Famer, Drew Brees, and Los Angeles Rams signal-caller, Nick Foles. Each time he breaks a record, he checks it off the list, one at a time. At 8,100 total yards, and 103 career TDs entering his senior year, he wants all the records. He’s that level of competitive.
Despite that, and the 6A State title runner-up finish last season, you wouldn’t know it talking to him. It’s the modesty Ross and Jena instilled.
“Being even-keeled is one of his greatest strengths,” said Jena. “He’s fiercely competitive. Sometimes our friends on the other team would say ‘don’t tick him off.’ He’s got those evil eyes. He gets those eyes and you better watch out. But he never gets too high or too low, especially in a competitive environment. He’s still humble.”
Jena credits some of Sam’s physical abilities and growth to a pair of strength coaches that go above and beyond for her highly-recruited son; Westlake Strength coach David Granson and Jessica Vaiana from Train 4 the Game in Austin.
“I’ve known (Sam) since he was a kid, and to an extent, he’s still a kid,” said Vaiana, who has worked with him since he was 14 years old. “His maturity has really flipped probably from the beginning to middle of last season. He just got a lot older mentally. He’s probably one of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around in my entire life. He just has something you can’t teach. It’s a switch he flips when he plays. I truly believe his mentality has gotten him to this point.”
That mentality is something Vaiana explains is not only innate, but fostered.
“I think a lot of things that have happened to him in his life, like losing his father, who really cultivated that (mentality), are what made him laser focused,” said Vaiana. “He’s determined.”
Kids that were years younger than Sam knew and respected his athleticism and presence while the kids older than him already knew of him as the next up-and-coming athlete to go through Westlake. It wasn’t unusual for Sam to hangout with the senior class his freshman year. It was the leadership and confidence of a kid mature beyond his age, which also came from his father. Sam hanging with the seniors taught himself lessons of how to handle yourself in an older environment that shaped his personality, making him the person he is today. When you talk to Sam, you’d swear he’s 25 years old. He’s had to grow up fast.
And there’s another Ehlinger playing football. Jake, a sophomore, will play LB at Westlake this fall.
“(Jake) is just a tank,” said Jena. “Reckless, and has a little bit of that ‘loose screw’ that a linebacker has to have. Jake has it. And those two get after it. I hear the banging upstairs and think the ceiling is coming down. They are up there wrestling and having a ball. Sam’s a great big brother. He’s taught his little sister how to play basketball. Sam stays on her. He’s constantly asking ‘how much did you practice today?’.
Another big help is his head coach, former Longhorn QB, Todd Dodge, who also graces the DCTF cover with Sam.
Ross and Jena used to joke about how great it would be for Dodge, who was at Marble Falls at the time, to coach their son-turned-prodigy. Dodge is one of the brightest offensive football minds in the country with multiple state titles at Southlake Carroll before heading back to Austin.
“Coach Dodge has been such a blessing,” said Jena.
Maybe some things really are just meant to be.