Comment of the judge: Writer captures the emotions in LSU’s blistering of Oklahoma in a national semifinal that was tinged with tragedy. Great job of telling the story of the day and game that was like no other in LSU history,
By Ross Dellenger
ATLANTA, Ga. — Somewhere in a corner of LSU’s locker room here at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Tigers offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger held the hardest phone call of his life. His daughter-in-law, Carley McCord, a 30-year-old TV journalist, had perished Saturday morning in a plane crash in Louisiana while en route to this very place. His son and namesake, Steven Jr., so shaken by the news that family members rushed him to the hospital, lay in a bed in a medicated state, on sedatives, in and out of reality—until dad called.
Just before he took the field for warmups, an hour before he would call plays in his alma mater’s biggest game in eight years, Steve Ensminger, for just a brief few minutes, pushed football aside for family. He called his son. He told him that everything would be O.K., that he’d make it through this dark hour. He told him that he loved him and to be strong and have faith.
He also made him a promise. As the call ended, dad told son what was coming next. “The team is behind you, these coaches are behind you,” Steven recalls his father saying, “and we are about to go beat Oklahoma’s ass for you.”
Hours later, with LSU in the midst of a deconstruction of the Sooners, Steven’s blood pressure dipped to more normal levels. He emerged from that cloudy state and maybe most importantly, the 30-year old got to watch his father’s offense roar in LSU’s 63-28 thumping of OU. Quarterback Joe Burrow carved through the Big 12 champs and its defense with such quick ferocity that it almost seemed unfathomable. The Tigers scored a touchdown on eight of their first nine drives, led 49-14 at halftime and finished with 692 yards of offense in one of the most dominant victories in the six-year history of the College Football Playoff.
They’re bound for a national championship bout on Jan. 13 in New Orleans with Clemson, a quasi-home game for a team on a magical 2019 run. They’re the top-ranked team in the land, have the Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback and haven’t lost a game since last November. For a second time in three weeks, LSU brought a Louisiana party to this place, celebrating a playoff win days after claiming the SEC championship here. Garth Brooks’ “Callin’ Baton Rouge” blared through the stadium speakers, purple-clad LSU fans screamed from the stands and their team, high up on a platform, accepted the Peach Bowl trophy.
And then there was Steve Ensminger, the last assistant coach to arrive on the field for this celebration, having made his way from the press box.
He found wife Amy and then he found head coach Ed Orgeron, the man who had delivered to him the tragic news around lunchtime earlier Saturday. They all embraced in an emotional moment and peculiar scene—tears of sadness surrounded by a celebrating sea. Ensminger, 61, is not any other assistant here. He is a beloved figure, an LSU quarterback under famed coach Charlie McClendon, a country boy raised in the Baton Rouge area with a hilarious twang. He’s heralded as an unsung hero of LSU’s 2019 season, hidden in the darkness of the looming shadow of 30-year-old pass game coordinator Joe Brady, a former Saints assistant who helped overhaul the Tigers’ offense into a spread attack over the offseason.
Without Steve, none of this happens, Brady and others have said. During the first half, ESPN TV cameras flashed on screen Ensminger and Brady in the booth, and when the Tigers went up 42-7 in the second quarter, the two even shared a fist bump. Nothing changed about their normal, two-man play-calling system despite the tragedy, Brady says.
Meanwhile, more than 500 miles away, Steven Ensminger Jr. agreed to a text exchange interview with Sports Illustrated in the second quarter of LSU’s win, detailing one of the darkest days of his life and describing that pregame phone call from his father. “I had talked to my mom crying and couldn’t get out words and same with my cousin who was my best man in our wedding,” Steven says. “The one voice that got on the phone with me that was clear and strong and supportive and confident while I was laying in that bed was my dad right before he walked out for warm-ups. I could barely speak. I couldn’t hold myself together and he said, ‘Son, you will get through this, it’s what we do. We face the darkest times in our lives and it’s what we do, we get through it. And I will take care of you and I’ll be there for you to keep you strong. You’re my one and only son, and my namesake and I love you and I can promise you we will get through this.’”
McCord was one of six passengers on a small private aircraft that left Lafayette, La., around 9 a.m. CT bound for Atlanta. The only survivor, Stephen Wade Berzas, 37, was in critical condition as of Saturday evening. The eight-seat plane crashed in a parking lot about a mile from its take-off point, bursting into flames with such force that it blew out the windows of a nearby post office. Witnesses told a Lafayette TV station, KATC, that the plane hit a power line while presumably attempting to make an emergency landing through dense fog.
Gretchen Vincent, 51, offered a seat on the plane to McCord, who had no other route to Atlanta. Steven Ensminger had planned to drive McCord to Atlanta, but he couldn’t get off work. He’s a chemical operator at a nitrogen facility on the Mississippi River in a small town between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. A company policy prohibiting employee vacations after Dec. 22 prevented him from getting time off.
In fact, he was at work without his phone when McCord texted and called him that morning before the flight. He missed both of them. “I don’t have my phone and she sends me a message saying she loved me,” Steven says. “I was in and out of a nightmare, not being able to tell what was real and what wasn’t. I can remember laying in the hospital bed repeating myself saying it wasn’t real and then one of the hardest things I’m dealing with is that I missed her text and I missed her call. It is by far the most pain, angst and terror and just darkest time of my life and I honestly don’t know how long it will last because I still don’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it.”
While eating lunch, Steven learned of McCord’s death from his aunt. Back in Atlanta, special assistant to the head coach Derek Ponamsky informed Orgeron of the news. It was Orgeron who broke the news to Ensminger. It trickled to assistants during staff meetings and a walk-through at the team hotel in downtown Atlanta. There was never a doubt that Ensminger would coach, living up to his reputation of toughness and grit, of hard work and focus. After all, Steve sometimes sleeps in a cot in his office during fall camp. He’s a journeyman of a coach, fired three times as a coordinator or assistant, humble enough to find ways to dodge media interviews, the focus of hard fan criticism upon his promotion to offensive coordinator in 2018.
Those close to him aren’t surprised by the strong will he showed Saturday. “Only Slinger,” says LSU receivers coach Mickey Joseph, using Steve’s nickname, one that dates back to his quarterbacking college days. “For Coach E to come out and call the plays he called… somebody was watching over him,” says running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Asked in the postgame celebration how her husband did it, Amy Ensminger’s eyes begin to swell with tears and she points up to the heavens, “God,” she whispers.
Many players only learned of the news by word of mouth, some before the game and others afterward. Blake Ferguson, a senior snapper, heard about it from an equipment manager during pregame warmups. “I immediately went over to coach, hugged him and told him I loved him,” Ferguson says. “He’s strong as hell for coaching in this game. We played for him and that family.”
McCord wasn’t just a daughter-in-law to an LSU assistant. Even before she married Steven Ensminger Jr. almost two years ago, she held a close connection to those around LSU. She turned into a familiar face on many televisions in the state as a Cox Sports and ESPN sideline reporter, known for her hard-charging reporting and bubbly persona. McCord held jobs few knew about, Steven says. She woke up each morning around 4 a.m. to teach online English classes to kids in China, and she worked some with New Orleans TV station WDSU. She also served as a travel agent and spent time covering some of her favorite programs, the New Orleans Pelicans and Saints. “She was a tough minded, caring, charismatic personality who would not take no for an answer,” says Jordy Culotta, a Baton Rouge sports radio host and cousin to McCord. “She was refreshing in our business. She was also my friend. A sad day.”
McCord and Steve Ensminger had a joking relationship, one full of jesting at one another’s expense. Before McCord and Steven’s wedding, Steve told her that he might not make the ceremony because he’s “got recruits in,” Steven says. McCord would poke at her father-in-law that demons were coming for him. “She’d always give my dad a hard time,” Steven says. “These words are the hardest words I’ve ever had to speak. She will always be part of my life. I’m torn and struggling but I knew she would tell me to be strong. I love her. I miss her so much it hurts. I wish she was here with me.”
After the game, Steve Ensminger left the coaches’ suite and briskly walked directly to his family, escorted by a team spokesman. Soon afterward, he’d call his son again to check up. It’s a call Steven was waiting for since they had last talked, one he thought about as the Tigers romped to a big win.
“To sit here and watch my dad with so many emotions and a heavy heart and his worry for me and watch him do what he said we would do, there’s no question that he is my rock, my idol, my mentor, my coach, my father,” Steven says. “I’m his namesake and I wouldn’t be able to make it through anything without him there to tell me to man up and get through it.”
College: Mississippi State, 2006
Background: A native of Biloxi, Mississippi, Ross drifted toward sports journalism as the son to a high school football coach. Not athletic enough to play, he started his career by filming high school games for recruiting sites and writing high school football game stories for various outlets. He joined Sports Illustrated in May of 2018 after more than a decade as a college sports beat writer, covering the likes of LSU, Missouri, Jackson State and Auburn.
He has mostly lived and worked in the Deep South, holding a passion and love for college football. However, in April of 2019, he moved with his wife to Washington, D.C., where Elizabeth works as a national political reporter covering Congress and the White House.