Sam Ehlinger won’t turn 23 until September, but he’s already carried the weight of two winning traditions. First, he was the quarterback at Austin’s Westlake High School, where he surpassed two Super Bowl MVP alumni—Drew Brees and Nick Foles—to become the Chaparrals’ all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns. Then, entering the University of Texas as a four-star recruit in 2017, amid a rough stretch in the school’s fortunes, he stepped into the role once occupied by Vince Young and Colt McCoy by becoming the Longhorns’ starting quarterback his freshman year.
Ehlinger’s tenure at UT sent him into the school’s record books, where he trails only McCoy in yards and touchdowns, but it didn’t lead the program back to the promised land. Ehlinger’s lifelong Longhorns fandom has been a part of his story since he entered the university. In a 2019 documentary short film, he discussed taking the field for the team as a way to honor his late father, who died when he was fourteen. Now, as he enters the NFL draft (where he’s expected to be a late-round pick), Ehlinger will for the first time prepare to wear the uniform of a team he didn’t grow up cheering for. Texas Monthly caught up with Ehlinger this spring to talk about achieving one of his life’s dreams, what losing teaches him, and how he perceived the conversations in the UT locker room about “The Eyes of Texas.”
Texas Monthly: You got to play quarterback for the college football team you grew up loving. Can you tell me about growing up a Longhorns fan?
Sam Ehlinger: It was really, really cool. During that period, right when I started to really learn what football was and learn players’ names, was right when Texas was playing for national championships and Big 12 championships. I grew up seeing that and I was like, this is awesome. I lived in the city, realized how big of a deal it was, went to all the games, and just absolutely loved it.
TM: Did going away to school ever appeal to you?
SE: Not really. I always knew that I wanted to go to Texas growing up a Longhorn fan. Both my parents went there. It’s kind of been a family tradition. During the recruiting process, from sophomore to senior year, Texas went 5–7 three years in a row. And everybody was telling me, “Don’t go to Texas. Why would you go to Texas?” And I was always, in my heart, like, “No, I want to go there and help bring them back to relevance.” I kind of flirted around with some other schools—the only other school that I considered was USC—but for the most part, it was always Texas.
TM: There are a million kids who dream of being the Longhorns quarterback. Most of them don’t get there. What’s it like to go in there as a freshman and say, “You know, I think I can help”?
SE: My freshman year, when I got just thrown in the fire early on, I had no idea what I was doing, but I was playing purely off passion and love for the university. And it kind of gave me a chance. I remember playing against USC my freshman year, and that was so cool for me. I had no idea what it took to be successful at that level. But I was like, hey, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability, and I’ll do it for the love of my teammates and the school, because I want to win this game so bad. And so that’s kind of what happened. I had no idea what I was doing. That was kind of the mentality, and I just kind of took it from there.
TM: Did you grow up watching the NFL?
SE: I grew up watching players. I grew up watching the Saints a little bit because of Drew Brees, but I never really had a team. I liked players.
TM: Is it an asset to not have that same emotional connection to an NFL team as you enter the draft, since you don’t get to say where you’re going to play?
SE: Yeah, no doubt. I have zero control over where I’m going to end up, so it’s kind of nice not having an emotional connection to any team—now I have an emotional connection to the game of football. The good thing about that is the game will be there wherever I go. I think that’s a thing that not everybody grasps—that the game is there for them.
TM: When did that start being something you recognized?
SE: In college. Just observing guys that have success and guys that don’t, you have to love the game more than what the game brings you in order to have success. Playing football, especially at a high-level university, can bring a lot of attention. If you don’t have your priorities straight and say, “I love the game of football for the work that I put in,” then you can get lost in what people are saying about you, or the going-out scene, or the attention that it brings you. I think that to play at a super high level, when you see all these guys that continue to do it year after year, it’s because they love the game. They’re in love with the process. And I think that’s what makes the difference between someone who makes it and someone who doesn’t.
TM: Does losing help you learn what you love about the sport?
SE: Oof. [eleven-second pause] I hate losing, so it’s hard to say, because there’s so many emotions after that. I think losing separates those that love the game and those that love what comes to them, because when you lose, you don’t have the things that come with winning. The people who really love football—when you lose, you’re back in the facility as early as possible to fix the mistakes and change things, because you hate losing that much. The people who are only in it for the followers or the money or whatever it may be, they’re like, whatever, you know?
TM: When you have coaches serve as father figures, especially in high school and especially after losing your dad, does that tie you more emotionally to the game?
SE: I think so. I like to say that football kind of saved my life—because of the pain of losing my father. Football was always there for me as my escape, and that hard work and the work ethic and the toughness was my way of getting out of that pain for a while. There were so many different paths that I could have gone down with that pain. You see like a ton of examples where it goes the other way, and I’m just very thankful that football was there for me to lift me out of that hole and provide discipline in my life, provide something that made me accountable to other people.
TM: You had to play your senior year with masks, limited capacity in the stands, and social distancing. What was that like?
SE: It was very tough. We had high expectations going into senior year, obviously had all the pieces in place. We had a very hungry team going into going into the spring of last year. We got a new offensive coordinator, new defensive coordinator right before COVID hit in March. So we were really just starting to get to know the coaches and didn’t get spring ball, didn’t really get a summer, so we had to install a lot of the new system through Zoom. A lot of guys had to be accountable working out by themselves instead of having structured workouts.
It was really hard. We weren’t able to build the team camaraderie as much, or able to be around the coaches and really get used to the systems that we were in. It was very frustrating. And then, you know, during the season it was hard because it was football, but without fans in the stands it was just a lot different. I’m glad that we got it done, but it was unfortunate that it had to be this year.
TM: What stood out as different when you were competing in real games?
SE: Just the atmosphere of the fans in the stands. We had so many crazy games this year and it just kind of felt like, “Ehh.” Like we would [make a comeback], and it’d be like, “That was crazy.” If the fans were there, it would have been absolutely nuts. Had there been fans in the Cotton Bowl, or a full stadium at Lubbock when we played against Texas Tech and came back, so many close games—everybody just kind of missed the environment and the experience.
TM: Do you have a different sense of how important the environment is to the product on the field now?
SE: Absolutely. I’ll play football in front of nobody, I’ll play just for the love of the game, but it does make you realize how much the camaraderie and the love for just coming together as a community makes sports special.
TM: There was that footage of you at the end of the Oklahoma game, where you were on the field during “The Eyes of Texas.” How do you feel about looking at that now?
SE: Well, it’s just another example of the way that that things get into the media and kind of get twisted. You know, I had a few teammates waiting for me on the field that weren’t in the photo. And they they weren’t white teammates either. They were waiting for me. I wasn’t the only player out there, but the picture made it seem that way. And we knew that as a team. That’s why it didn’t really derail us. And we had those conversations. So that that’s really the truth behind it.
TM: What were those conversations like? As a as a white player on a team where these conversations are happening, and also as one who has an emotional connection to that song that not every player has—how do you approach those conversations with your teammates?
SE: I learned a ton this year from a leadership perspective. I think the beautiful thing about sport, and the beautiful thing about football, is that the locker room is the perfect example of different people from so many different backgrounds working together for a common goal. So that was kind of my message: “Hey, here’s my perspective. This is my background. I’d love to hear yours, because I love you as a person and I support you and I respect to you. And our relationship is really important to me. And let’s work through it together and understand each other’s perspectives instead of just getting mad at each other.”
And, you know, that’s really all it took—just being vulnerable with each other, understanding each other’s perspectives and trying to move forward with a common goal. I think we were able to get past all that by being vulnerable together in the locker room.
TM: Is it hard to create a space where everyone can be vulnerable?
SE: I think so. I think men, specifically—it’s challenging for anybody to be vulnerable, but especially a bunch of dudes that are very masculine and have a bunch of testosterone, and think that the way of being a football player is to be tough and don’t talk about anything. I think it can be difficult, but it certainly can be done.
TM: How do you help make that space feel like one where you can have vulnerable conversations?
SE: I think for me personally, it started with, you know, just being in real life. So many people try to fake leadership and try to fake the real, and you can’t fake the real. People see straight through that. I think just being genuine and being real and being open and honest is the approach that I took. I just shared my story and said, “Look, this is how I’m feeling and I respect your opinion. Let’s all work through this together.”