WESTFIELD, Ind. — Saw my favorite play from 13 training-camp practices so far here Thursday, executed by the 10th and final quarterback taken in the 2021 draft, throwing to the 32nd wide receiver picked in the 2021 draft. Colts sixth-round QB Sam Ehlinger to Colts seventh-round wideout Mike Strachan. In a feisty practice against the visiting Panthers, from inside the Carolina 5-yard line, Ehlinger looked at his first option, covered; looked at his second option, covered. Ehlinger came back to the back side of the play, where the 6-5, 225-pound Strachan was blanketed by two Panther DBs—both of whom had their hands on him as he trolled the back of the end zone.
“‘Draped’ doesn’t describe it correctly,” Colts coach Frank Reich told me a day later. “In fact, with words, I don’t know how to describe how well-covered Strachan was by those two Panthers. There was no way to get a ball to him.”
Ehlinger threw it anyway, a line drive to nowhere. “I know covered in the NFL is different than covered in college,” said Ehlinger, who played 46 games at Texas. Well, of course it is. This throw, though, just looked, well, not smart. But Ehlinger burned a fastball at Strachan, through various body parts of the two defenders, and the ball just velcroed onto Strachan. Touchdown. “That play is perfectly indicative of Sam’s camp,” Reich said. “He’s been really impressive.”
Normally I wouldn’t be writing about a depth quarterback on my training-camp trip. That changed two weeks ago, when Carson Wentz underwent foot surgery after a fluky camp injury, and the Colts said he would be out five weeks, minimum. Now it appears Wentz has a good chance to play the Colts’ opener Sept. 12 in Seattle; he was out at the practices I saw with no boot on the surgically repaired foot, with no limp. But it’s a mark of how impressive Ehlinger has been in camp that he is seriously challenging presumptive top backup Jacob Eason, and based on his decision-making quickness and how he’s led the offense, I give him good odds of playing the opener if Wentz isn’t ready. But that’s not a decision that has to be made now, and Eason’s preseason play could change that.
Ehlinger, in his debut playing with the twos and threes, led the Colts to a late TD and ran in a two-point conversion to tie the game, then led the Colts to the winning field goal with seven seconds left to lift Indy past Carolina 21-18 on Sunday.
So much to Ehlinger’s story beyond football. His father died of a heart condition competing in a triathlon when Sam was 14, and five days after Sam was drafted, on his first day inside the Colts’ facility, his younger brother died of undetermined causes back in Texas. Great story by The Atlantic’s Zak Keefer on Ehlinger’s path.
Imagine the first time Ehlinger was in Colts’ headquarters being the day his brother, the closest person in the world to him, died with zero warning. Reich told me at that moment, he didn’t even know Ehlinger—they hadn’t drilled down hard on him before the draft—beyond surface-y hellos and welcome-to-the-team.
“So the first time I’m with Sam is the worst moment of his life,” Reich said. “He found out in the building, then he went out to our practice field, and he’s on his knees, wailing, crying, totally grief-stricken, heartbroken. It was the depth of despair that has a feel you can’t put into words. I don’t know Sam, but he is a brother in Christ, and the amazing thing about this moment is he was pounding his fist on the turf one minute, screaming, ‘Why Lord?’ And the next minute he’s quoting Scripture. I just put my hand on his shoulder and tried to be there for him.”
GM Chris Ballard and Colts director of player engagement David Thornton went to the funeral for Jake Ehlinger. To their surprise, Sam Ehlinger got up and gave an eloquent eight-minute eulogy for his brother, thoughtful and meaningful, fighting through whatever emotions one has when something this earth-moving happens. When it was over, Ballard said to Thornton: “I don’t know exactly what ‘it’ is, but whatever it is, Sam has it.”
That’s become a football cliché, and I thought a while before using it. It’s here because Ehlinger just radiates it, even in the short meeting I had with him.
“That’s an honor for people to say that,” Ehlinger said. “I think it’s just living in the present, really loving others and loving what you do and trying to be the best every single day and improving.
“It’s been very difficult for me. I’m not going to act like it’s easy. To get up there at the funeral and put together words was tough, but I wanted to provide hope for everyone and understanding what that situation was being his brother with the community, with the people we know. I wanted to provide some hope because I knew everybody was hurting. And then living on a daily basis with that is tough, for sure. It’s just important to let those emotions come, not suppress them and push them down, and it certainly comes. It’s not easy and some days are better than others, but continuing to press on, try to stay in the moment and remember the good times is kind of my motto.”
I asked about the message in his eulogy.
“I think the biggest thing I wanted them to take away was obviously what Jake taught me, but giving them hope in eternity. I think that’s something that death makes you face; if you don’t have death in your life you don’t really think about that. But comprehending eternity and how short this life is compared to eternity, and my belief Jesus Christ sacrificing his life for us. But . . . just eternity and putting into perspective how short this life is compared to eternity.”
There is no logical segue to football after what Ehlinger has been through. But around the Colts, after the blows he has taken, they want him to succeed at this level. It’ll likely depend on his ability to make those line-drive NFL throws to spots—his arm is just average—but knowing Reich, he’ll be able to figure out a game plan with offensive coordinator Marcus Brady to win a game or two with Ehlinger if he has to. The smartest thing Ehlinger said to me is hackneyed, but if you believe it, and he does, it’s smart: “Doesn’t do me any good to think about that. I can’t control anything outside of myself.” Point is, just do the work, practice hard. The chips will fall.
Maybe he becomes a starting quarterback one day, if he can show enough arm. Maybe he becomes Chase Daniel, a career backup who can win the occasional game. No one knows. But he makes quick and smart decisions, probably the result of starting 42 games in the Big 12 at Texas. And he is 22 going on 42, and that’s a trait a quarterback coach cannot teach.