Why charitable push hits home for Texas' Tom Herman, Sam Ehlinger amid coronavirus pandemic

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Pete Thamel
·15 min read
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Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, coach Tom Herman and volunteers hand out meals and class curriculum at an Austin Boys & Girls Club. (Yahoo Sports illustration/photos courtesy Boys & Girls Club of Austin)
Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, coach Tom Herman and volunteers hand out meals and class curriculum at an Austin Boys & Girls Club. (Yahoo Sports illustration/photos courtesy Boys & Girls Club of Austin)

Amid a pelting rain, Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger and Longhorns coach Tom Herman stood outside at the headquarters of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Austin area last Thursday afternoon. They were both properly distanced and dressed coronavirus business-casual for the day’s volunteer work – surgical masks, work gloves, long sleeves and pants covering every inch of their skin. Keeping social distance was easy, because umbrellas would have collided.

For two hours, they alternated handing off bags of food necessities (Ehlinger) and school curriculum (Herman) to the families of needy Boys and Girls Club members pulling up in cars. Best-selling children’s author Kat Kronenberg, a family friend of the Ehlingers, joined them and gave out copies of her book appropriately named for the gesture – “Love Big.”

Curbside at the BGCAA headquarters, Ehlinger took a selfie from outside a closed car window with a young boy who excitedly bounced around the backseat of his family’s car upon recognizing the hulking quarterback. Herman disarmed the families by drawing a smiley face with a marker over the mouth area of his mask. “It’s hard to keep that light on in a child’s eyes, to stay mentally and physically challenged during this time,” Kronenberg said. “To bring that light of excitement in children’s eyes was really fun to see.”

Along the way, lights went on for Herman and Ehlinger, as they took separate shotgun approaches to helping charities hands-on with pressing needs during the pandemic. In a time of social distancing, the Austin area’s two most recognizable figures found a way to grow closer to their community. In a time of need, they addressed it with much more than an oversized check for a photo op. Both shared stories of their recent deep dives with local charities with Yahoo Sports to shine light on the struggles of their community, with the hope of both rallying fans and other players and coaches to make their own discoveries.

Less than a month ago, necessity prompted BGCAA officials to invent the “Club On The Go” program. It’s both a curbside pick-up program to help feed club members and deliver them an educational stimulus. Also new is a program – limited in scope by social-distancing rules – the Austin headquarters set up for child care for children of first responders and essential workers. The “Club On The Go” program has helped a dire need in the community, providing more than 24,000 meals, 14,000 snacks and 24,000 cartons of milk to needy families. All within a month.

Over the two hours they spent there, the Hermans and Ehlinger heard stories of nurses dropping off their kids at the child-care program. They dropped bags of food at the cars of families who expressed their gratefulness with a Hook ‘Em sign. Soon enough, the donations had faces, stories and destinations.

Tom and Michelle Herman had dropped off a check two days prior, but insisted on coming back to volunteer. When Ehlinger returned home, he told his whole family – mom Jena and younger siblings Jake (19) and Morgen (16) – he wanted them to join him there soon.

“It just made things a lot more real,” Ehlinger told Yahoo Sports by phone this week. “It helped me relate to what’s going on in the world and understand that we all need to come together to help others out.”

Ehlinger’s GoFundMe page, inspired by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s charitable efforts, has already raised more than $100,000 for three local charities – the Boys & Girls Club of the Austin area, Austin Pets Alive! and the Central Texas Foodbank. (The GoFundMe itself is at nearly $84,000, and a matched private donation Ehlinger solicited spurred $50,000 more dollars for the Boys & Girls Club.)

Herman and his wife, Michelle, wrote five-figure checks to six different charities around Austin – the Boys & Girls Club of the Austin area, Front Steps homeless shelter, Meals on Wheels of Central Texas, Central Texas Food Bank, Safe Alliance to stop abuse and the Student Emergency Fund at the University of Texas. They met with three of them so far – somewhat limited by social-distancing guidelines – and plan to monitor and understand the needs to see where more money is needed as the pandemic unfolds.

“It feels good to go there and help, to see the operation and meet the people who do it for a living,” Tom Herman said by phone this week. “It was important to publicize it, too. I want to rally the troops. I want Longhorn nation to be inspired by this.”

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger pauses for a photo while handing out meals at an Austin Boys & Girls Club. (Photos courtesy Boys & Girls Club of the Austin Area)
Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger pauses for a photo while handing out meals at an Austin Boys & Girls Club. (Photos courtesy Boys & Girls Club of the Austin Area)

Sam Ehlinger’s GoFundMe, hands-on charity work

Over a dinner of homemade spaghetti two weeks ago at his family’s home in Austin, Sam Ehlinger giddily told his family his big idea. He’d seen the GoFundMe that Trevor Lawrence and his girlfriend, Marissa Mowry, set up to help the needy from COVID-19 and wanted to do the same. “What Trevor is doing, it’s really cool,” Jena Ehlinger recalled the oldest of her three kids saying. “I want to do the same thing.”

Ehlinger soon dove into his contacts, as he and Lawrence had become friends over the years on the quarterback camp circuit, first meeting back in 2017. He made two calls to Lawrence to learn the nuances of the setup. Lawrence’s initial effort infamously stalled because he didn’t initially clear it with the compliance department at Clemson, which shut it down as a precaution of the NCAA viewing it as a likeness issue. (They restarted it on March 28 to support COVID-19 relief in the communities where they are from and attend school in Georgia and South Carolina.)

The furor over Lawrence’s shutdown had a lone bright spot – it afforded Ehlinger a smooth path toward setting his up. He called Texas compliance for guidance, and they called up Clemson for lessons learned. He also called Herman for his blessing and then Kevin Washington, who as the director of player development is the program’s chief community liaison.

“The one thing that Trevor and I talked about is that the NCAA isn’t out to get everyone,” Ehlinger said. “But they’re really willing to work with us and compromise. They have rules in place, so it just takes some time.”

Ehlinger’s GoFundMe was set up in about a day. The bigger challenge came with figuring out where to send the support. He called up his older cousin, Aly, who works as a “talent buyer” for C3 Presents in the concert and event business. She offered both her Austin connections and organizing skills.

With football on pause at UT and the concert world in similar limbo, the cousins had free time to channel their energy. (The family camaraderie delighted Jena, who majored in social work at Texas and volunteered as a driver for Meals on Wheels before she had children.)

Ehlinger set his initial goal for $1 million, which showed both his competitive ambition and perhaps an endearing pinch of youthful naiveté. “You gotta reach for the stars,” said his cousin, Aly, with a laugh. “I mean, good for him. That’s Sam.”

Washington tipped off Sam Ehlinger on the Boys & Girls Clubs, and Aly Ehlinger directed him toward the Central Texas Food Bank and Austin Pets Alive!, two local charities that resonated with Sam.

Sam Ehlinger plays with his dog, Spur, in the Ehlinger family pool. (Photo credit: Ehlinger family)
Sam Ehlinger plays with his dog, Spur, in the Ehlinger family pool. (Photo credit: Ehlinger family)

This past weekend alone, 1,500 people lined up in cars for the Food Bank’s drive-through food service. The images of the cars went viral on social media, underscoring the need.

Aly Ehlinger called the Food Bank because of her familiarity from volunteering there, and it just so happened the Hermans’ check had arrived the day before. “They were like, we just turned into massive UT football fans,” Aly Ehlinger recalled when she told them Sam’s plan to donate.

Sam Ehlinger was blown away that every dollar donated translates to four meals. That means a $25,000 donation would yield 100,000 meals for needy people in Austin. “That’s wild,” Sam Ehlinger said. “It’s been unbelievable. I think it’s really cool for me to be able to use my platform that God has given me to help others out around the community.”

The fit with Austin Pets Alive!, a non-profit rescue organization and animal shelter, was natural as well. The group has saved more than 70,000 animals since 2008 and found foster homes for 1,200 pets in anticipation for strapped resources from COVID-19. “Sam would have 100 dogs if he could,” Jena Ehlinger said. “I’m not joking.” For now, there’s two in the family – a 9-year-old golden retriever named Duke and a white lab retriever named Spur.

“Spur sleeps with me every night,” Sam Ehlinger said. “Now that we’ve been quarantine, he’s been my workout partner running around the neighborhood.”

Ehlinger’s white lab, Spur, is named after a connection between he and his late father. Ross Ehlinger died in March of 2013 from cardiac arrest during a triathlon. Sam was just 14, and when he went on to Texas he earned a place in the Texas Silver Spurs, the university’s honorary service organization. Just like his dad did.

Ehlinger’s eagerness to help is stemmed, in part, from all those in the Austin community willing to help out the Ehlinger family navigate the pain – Jena calls it the “dark times” – in the wake of Ross Ehlinger’s sudden death. “I understand the magnitude of how people helped me during that time,” Sam Ehlinger said. “I think it’s very important to help others during times of stress or whatever it may be.”

A delightful kaleidoscope of Sam Ehlinger’s life can be found amid the 670 donors on the GoFundMe that’s vaulted the fundraiser past the $80,000 mark. Ehlinger scrolls through and sees everyone from lifelong friends to fans he’s never met, from family to coaches, from the $10 donation of teammate Roschon Johnson to the $10,000 donation of the family of Matthew McConaughey. “Really, it’s my whole life, people I’ve been in contact with,” said Ehlinger, who starred at Austin’s Westlake High School and is entering his fourth season as a starting quarterback at Texas.

And as Ehlinger’s GoFundMe donations continue to speed toward six figures, he happily shares that a $25,000 donation of a family friend went directly to the Boys & Girls Club. That way, it could be matched through the Sheth Foundation and turn to $50,000. (That puts Ehlinger’s total funds raised somewhere around $135,000 in nearly two weeks).

While $1 million appears ambitious, Ehlinger’s already prompted a chain reaction. Washington said three of his Texas teammates have inquired about similar projects. Ehlinger hopes athletes around the country follow he and Lawrence’s lead.

“We don’t always realize the platform that we hold as athletes is very powerful,” Ehlinger said. “A lot of time, people want to take it and use it for themselves. People should flip that around and realize the impact that they can make for others.”

Why helping the homeless means so much to Herman

Soon after Tom and Michelle Herman met Front Steps executive director Greg McCormack last week, Herman dove into his personal experience with homelessness. “I’ve got a story to tell,” Herman said, “if you haven’t heard it.”

Front Steps is the non-profit that manages the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, the shelter known around the city as “The ARCH.”

Greg McCormack knew Herman’s coaching background as a Longhorn fan, but little else. So as they toured the 130-bed facility, the Hermans took McCormack on a trip into their past.

Herman’s parents divorced before he was 2 years old, and his father was sporadically in and out of his life. Tom Herman Jr., the coach’s father, suffered from addiction – alcohol abuse for much of his life that spiraled to drug abuse – and was homeless for nearly two years in both Southern California and later in Cincinnati. When Herman began his coaching career in Texas, Michelle would sometimes track down Tom Herman Jr. in California to buy him food.

They later paid for him to move to Cincinnati and live with a relative, which was short-lived. Herman recalls he and Michelle paying $10 a day so his father could eat and sleep on a cot at a similar facility. Herman’s father was found dead in a Cincinnati shelter known as the Drop Inn Center not long after on Dec. 15, 2002. “It was a moving and touching story,” said McCormack, who’d never met the Hermans before last week. “He and Michelle did a lot of heavy lifting helping his dad out. He spoke about how he’s really a testament to how homelessness can touch any family.”

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger holds up an umbrella for coach Tom Herman as he hands out school curriculum to a family at an Austin-area Boys & Girls club. (Photos courtesy Boys & Girls Club of the Austin Area)
Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger holds up an umbrella for coach Tom Herman as he hands out school curriculum to a family at an Austin-area Boys & Girls club. (Photos courtesy Boys & Girls Club of the Austin Area)

The tour of the homeless shelter with McCormack resonated on a visceral level, considering Herman’s family history with addiction and homelessness. “When Greg walked us upstairs to see the living area, my heart sank,” Herman said. “I looked at one of those rooms. My dad died in one of these rooms.”

The Hermans asked nuanced questions from experience, quizzing McCormack about storage areas for those staying in the shelter, job placement and Front Steps’ ancillary programs that offer financial support and case management. “I was pleased to know in order to get a bed, you have to be actively seeking employment and checking in regularly with your case worker,” Herman said. “That was pretty cool that there’s an incentive to get a roof over your head.”

Herman also had a linear connection to the Boys & Girls Club. He grew up a “Club Kid” in Southern California, and recalls spending his summers at the Boys & Girls Club in Simi Valley. He remembers his mom rushing to pick him up at 7 p.m. after her business dinners in her job selling phone systems and relishing the friends he’d play touch football and pickup hoops with each summer.

When Herman saw the resplendent new 32,000 square foot Boys & Girls of the Austin Area headquarters, he joked with executive director William Van Pelt that his home club looked nothing like it.

Van Pelt gave the Hermans a tour last Tuesday, and when Ehlinger returned two days later Tom Herman essentially took over as tour guide. Herman bounded around the massive headquarters, lauding the full baseball field, two indoor basketball courts, beat lab for music, robotics room and tennis court.

The kids who come to all the clubs after school receive a “hearty snack,” which for many could be the last thing they eat all day. The ideas again began running no-huddle in Herman’s head, as he wanted to bring the team (when safe) and help set up a bus system so more club kids could utilize the new facility after the pandemic.

As with all the organizations, the conversations carried over to more than quick stops. (Herman volunteered to drive during he and Michelle’s visit to Meals on Wheels). Tom Herman has already committed to speaking at multiple fundraising events for the organizations – when things return to normal – and has become more comfortable with using his standing in the community and the publicity that comes with it to help others. “The monetary gift is much appreciated,” said Meals on Wheels Central Texas CEO Adam Hauser. “Just as important, if not more, it’s raising the profile of hungry, homebound seniors in our community.”

The past few months, Tom and Michelle Herman had chatted often about getting out in the community more. When the pandemic arrived, they acted on it, and a sudden gap of free time led to their deeper exploration. “When this thing happened,” Tom Herman said, “it was a big kick in the butt.”

The Hermans hadn’t publicized any of their other charitable acts in Austin, with both family privacy and the general discomfort of appearing as if they’re drawing attention to themselves playing a factor. But Herman has realized the dire need in his community calls for public figures to draw attention to worthwhile causes.

“I think the one thing that I have an unlimited supply of is a voice,” Tom Herman said. “I told Greg [McCormack], ‘Use me and my platform however you see fit. I’ll shout anything from the rooftops if it’ll help these people.’

“I wish every day that we could’ve saved my Dad. Hopefully, we’ll help save someone else’s Dad.”

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