Steve Ensminger sat at the podium and solemnly surveyed the reporters he hadn't seen for some time.
The LSU offensive coordinator explained he was here to talk football. He understood the timing. Many within the group that gathered inside the Xavier University Convocation Center were there for Ensminger's first public appearance since tragedy struck his family, when his daughter-in-law, Carley McCord, died in a plane crash the morning of LSU's previous game.
Two weeks have passed since the private plane struggled to take off from a Lafayette airport. The flight was bound for Atlanta for the Peach Bowl semifinal, but it crashed less than two miles from the runway. McCord and four other people were killed.
"I appreciate all the support the Tigers fans and everybody in this country, trust me, has given to my family," Ensminger said. "But we're here for football, and any questions you might have to ask, I'd like to talk about football."
LAROSE — Tom Guidry pointed out directions from the passenger seat as the car swerved along Bayou Lafourche, passing parked boats and bridges …
Among the many things the sport represents for Ensminger, it has often quite literally served as a home.
Ensminger has a bed in his office. The 61-year-old coach sleeps there Sunday through Wednesday nights during the season. Thursdays, he goes home for what he calls "family night." All his kids and grandkids come over. Then the weekend arrives, LSU football is played, and the week starts over.
It's a routine.
"Football's been everything, obviously, for Steve and his family," LSU passing-game coordinator Joe Brady said. "Without getting into a lot of the characteristics, I'm sure it's helped being able to work with these games coming up."
K’Lavon Chaisson couldn't contain his excitement.
The coaching staff feels like they can provide comfort in their own way.
Sometimes you "hug their neck and be there for him," defensive line coach Bill Johnson said. Sometimes you don't talk about it at all, offensive line coach James Cregg said, and even just doing your job well can be "the best thing we can give to him."
LSU had a historic offensive performance in that Peach Bowl, a 63-28 beatdown of Oklahoma in which Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow threw for seven touchdowns in the first half.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron said Ensminger "didn't hesitate" when deciding whether he would coach in the game, and the rest of the staff responded the same way.
"Like Coach (Orgeron) said, 'One team, one heartbeat,'" wide receivers coach Mickey Joseph said. "One of us hurt, we're all hurt. But we had to stay focused on what we were there to do. We accomplished it."
Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons may technically be the Tigers’ strong-side linebacker, but he can line up anywhere and be labeled anything.
Why does football mean so much to Ensminger?
That he would answer.
"I'm not a very smart person," he joked. "But I do understand football, and I love football, and I study football."
The only times he's ever left the game were by force. And when the game was gone, there was always family.
Ensminger was the offensive coordinator at Clemson in 1998; he returned to Baton Rouge after former coach Tommy West was fired. He told his wife, "I'm done." He wanted to see his then-seventh grade son, Steve Ensminger Jr., grow up. He wanted to see him play football.
So Ensminger became the head coach at Central High in 2000, and he only returned to college coaching when longtime friend Tommy Tuberville hired him to be his quarterbacks coach at Auburn in 2003.
"I've had great coaches," Ensminger said, "and I saw the passion in the game and everything else, and that's what I wanted to be."
There is a room in Tiger Stadium where the walls virtually speak of the greatness, the lore, the legends of LSU football.
When the former LSU quarterback nicknamed "Slinger" was cut by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1981, he said he talked with then-coach Dick Vermeil and said, "Coach, I know what I want to do. I want to coach."
Vermeil allowed Ensminger to stay for an extra month, and he filled up notebooks by listening to coaches like Vermeil, former Saints offensive coordinator Ed Hughes and longtime head coach Sid Gillman.
Ensminger said he left Philadelphia with a stack of notebooks — "I'm talking about books," he said — that he referenced until they were destroyed in his south Louisiana home in the 2016 flood.
Football is his second family.
Ensminger and Johnson first met in college, when Johnson traveled down from Northwestern State in the late 1970s to visit one of his best friends from Neville High, Cliff Lane, who was Ensminger's roommate.
Ensminger walked into his dorm room, and there was Johnson, taking up his bed.
"We've been friends ever since," Johnson said.
The New Year's party was in full swing when John Jefferson raised his glass for a round of toasts toward his three sons.
They'd continued crossing paths as coaches. In the early 1980s, when Ensminger was the offensive coordinator at McNeese State and Johnson was a defensive assistant at Northwestern, they'd get together in New Orleans for Louisiana state high school playoff games.
They'd swap stories over suds at a since-closed watering hole called Georgie Porgie's, building a friendship that crossed paths several times throughout their careers.
When Johnson coached defensive line Louisiana Tech in 1988, he recommended Ensminger to former Bulldogs coach Joe Raymond Peace, who was in need of an offensive coordinator.
When former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum needed an offensive coordinator in 1994, it was Johnson who recommended Ensminger again.
So when Johnson's friend needed another lift, he was there to help Ensminger along.
"It's going to take time," Johnson said. "It takes time for a heart to heal. All those tears will come into laughter one day, I hope."
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