RUSTON, La. (AP) — Steven Ensminger Jr. leaned forward in the visitor’s press box. Play sheet at the ready. Eyes transfixed on the field.
It’s the first Friday night of high school football season. Ruston High at Neville High. And Ensminger, the new quarterbacks coach at Ruston, was about to take part in one of Louisiana’s oldest rivalries.
Carley would have loved this.
Almost two years since his wife’s death, Ensminger still wears his wedding ring. He wouldn’t take it off for months. Now it hangs from a gold chain around his neck. Carley wanted Steven to pursue the coaching career he sacrificed for her. This was where he’s supposed to be.
“You still have your struggles,” Ensminger said. “I have good days and bad days, but when it’s all said and done, I still have football and that helps me get through it.”
Ruston lost the game, but for the third time in his life, the city has become Ensminger’s home. He was 2 years old when his father, Steve Ensminger Sr., was hired as an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech. Steven came back for college, playing quarterback for the Bulldogs from 2007-10.
From the entrance to Ruston’s fieldhouse, Ensminger can see the house he lived in while attending LA Tech.
“Until I took this job, I hadn’t been back to Ruston since I finished college,” Ensminger said. “It was a little weird at first, but it wasn’t a bad feeling at all. There were a lot of people here that reached out to me after everything happened.
“They were genuine people who care about me and there are so many people in this community like that.”
Carley McCord, Steven’s wife of almost two years, died in a plane crash that killed four others on Dec. 28, 2019. She was flying from Lafayette to Atlanta to cover the College Football Playoff semifinals for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. LSU was playing Oklahoma and Steve Sr. was calling plays for the Tigers as offensive coordinator.
Steven found out about the crash while working the day shift at a Baton Rouge chemical plant. He hated the job but stuck with it to support Carley. They had talked about having children. While Steven frantically made phone calls — first to Carley, then to his parents — his aunt and uncle arrived at the plant to tell him Carley was dead.
The days ahead were a blur. LSU beat Clemson to win the national championship.Steven made himself go to the game. He wanted to support his father. Their talks about football kept him going. They diagramed plays and argued over schemes. Maybe the time was finally right to get serious about coaching.
COVID-19 closed the plant for five months. Ensminger tried grief counseling. It wasn’t for him, so he poured his time into football. The process brought him peace and strength. The peace to accept what had happened and the strength to move forward.
Ensminger worked at a desk in his living room. Not far from the couch he slept on for three months. He couldn’t sleep in his bed without Carley. Reggie Bush curled up beside him. Not that Reggie Bush, but Carley’s 13-year-old toy poodle.
While he created his own playbook — protections, checks and all — Reggie Bush kept him company.
“He’s getting old but I still have that connection with him, which still connects me with Carley,” Ensminger said. “I remember her saying, ‘We’re a package deal, me and Reggie Bush.’”
After coaching quarterbacks at Assumption High in 2020, Ensminger was offered a job at Central High in Baton Rouge last spring. The fit couldn’t have been better. Steve Sr. played at Central and was the head coach there in the early 2000s. A cousin, Ashley Lewis-Rush, had recently been named the school district’s athletics director.
Meanwhile, Ruston was also looking for a quarterbacks coach. Offensive coordinator Earl Griffin wanted to hire Ensminger, his college teammate. They became friends not long after Ensminger transferred to LA Tech from Auburn.
“We both had that quiet arrogance,” Griffin said. “All the other quarterbacks were uptight and Steven was just real cool. He became my guy instantly.”
The opportunity at Ruston felt therapeutic. Ensminger could start over in a familiar place, close to another support system in West Monroe. Steven started high school there — Steve Sr. coached at West Monroe High in 2002 — and developed a close circle of friends. He returned for his senior year and helped the Rebels win a state championship.
“I think that was one of the main reasons why I wanted to come here,” Ensminger said. “To get out of my comfort zone and have the chance to deal with the things I knew they were going to come. It seemed like the best thing to do was face them now.”
After interviewing Ensminger, Ruston coach Jerrod Baugh offered him the job within 15 minutes. Ensminger got the call while driving back to Baton Rouge. Baugh wanted to move fast. Steven needed to talk to his dad. They both agreed it was the right move.
“I probably interview coaches a lot different than other people,” Baugh said. “I’m not one to get somebody up on the markerboard to see what they know. What I’m interested in is people who want to help kids and I could tell quickly he was one of those.”
Once summer workouts began at Ruston, Ensminger spent weekends packing up his house in Baton Rouge. He crashed in West Monroe with a high school friend, Issam Jaber, sleeping on a day mattress in the game room. Reggie Bush stayed behind with his parents.
The process gave Ensminger a new appreciation for how his mother, Amy, planned every move over the years. The family left LA Tech for Georgia, then Texas A&M, Clemson, and Central High. Stops at West Monroe and Auburn followed before LSU, where Steve Sr. retired following the 2020 season.
“You never realize how much stuff you have to deal with,” Ensminger said. “I appreciated all the people who offered to help but this was something I had to do myself and I’m grateful for it.”
Ensminger found a rental house near Ruston High. He’s sleeping on a full-sized bed again but hasn’t had time to pick up his furniture. Reggie Bush will join him once the move is finished.
They’re still a package deal. Just like Carley insisted.