By RON HIGGINS | Special to Tiger Rag
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the July 1979 issue of Tiger Rag.
It would probably be rather bizarre, but very appropriate, to have singer Barry Manilow on hand when LSU senior quarterback Steve En-minger runs on the field for the first game action of the upcoming 1979 season.
As the 6-3, 200-pound Ensminger straps on his helmet and dears his head, it would be a perfect opportunity for Manilow to dedicate and belt out, “Tryin’ To Get the Feeling Again.”
After a spectacular sophomore season in 1977, which took the Baton Rouge Central High product to the heights of heroism against Ole Miss in a 28-21 miracle win to the bomb-out performance against Alabama in which he failed to complete a pass, Ensminger was the No. 2 quarterback last season behind David Woodley in LSU’s two-quarterback system.
In the past, being a part of the Tiger two-quarterback system hasn’t been so bad, but last season, things weren’t too bright for Ensminger. In only four games all season, Ensminger started half or more series during the course of a ball game.
Some games, the two-quarterback system seemed to be a farce. Some of the most noticeable seemed to be at Indiana when Woodley started 13 series to Ensminger’s two. Against Wake Forest, it was 12-3, Woodley. In the Georgia loss, it was again in Woodley’s favor, 13 series to Ensminger’s four.
Ensminger will be the first to tell you that he would have never been the reserve role if he hadn’t hurt his ankle playing church league basketball at Blackwater Methodist Church in the winter of 1978.
“At first, I thought I just sprained it again,” says Ensminger. “I’d sprained it so many times before that I stretched the ligaments. But this time after I came down on it sideways after a rebound, I stretched it so far out it just popped.”
An operation followed and as Ensminger missed spring practice, Woodley took full advantage of the situation by moving into the No. 1 quarterbacking slot. As last season heated up, Ensminger found his ankle had healed.
“It felt good,” he remembers. “It did have a few aches and pains, but it was back to normal.”
But even being back to normal didn’t earn him much playing time. He became the forgotten man. Forgotten were the 1977 performances against Rice when he threw four touchdown passes to Carlos Carson, covering 22, 29, 63, and 20 yards, a Tiger record; against Florida when he scored two touchdowns in the first quarter; against Vanderbilt when his two-point conversion pass to Charles Alexander tied up the game at 15-15, enabling LSU to get in position for the win; against Oregon when he scored once and threw a 43-yard touchdown strike to Carson; against Ole Miss in his finest moment when he completed 14 of 27 passes for 181 yards and one touchdown and scored the game-winner himself to give the Tigers a 28-21 win after being down, 21-0; against Miss. State when he hit on 16 of 26 passes for 153 yards and, one touchdown; and against Wyoming, when he tossed touchdowns of 54 and 17 yards to Carson.
Yes, in 1978, Steve Ensminger was out in the cold and the worst part of the freeze came at midseason in the Kentucky game when Woodley started the first 15 series, then Ensminger was sent in for the final two, to mop up with 7:27 left in the game with things in hand for the Tigers.
“I was very discouraged,” recalls Ensminger. “I was down in the dumps because I wanted to play. But to the then again, everybody out there wants to play more.”
What Ensminger did during the open date week between Kentucky and Ole Miss was talk to the ones who have helped his career the most..his father, high school coach Sonny Jackson, and Tiger coach Charles McClendon.
“My father and coach Jackson just said to suck it up and keep going,” Ensminger says. “Coach Mac told me to keep working hard and I would get my chance.”
His chance came the next week against Ole Miss. For the second straight year, Ensminger devastated the Rebels, completing nine straight passes (ending up nine of ten) for 88 yards and one touchdown. Against Alabama, Woodley and Ensminger were close to splitting time, but it was back to the bench for Ensminger at the start of the Miss. State game.
With LSU down 13-0, it was time for Ensminger to do his thing. Even though LSU eventually lost 16-14, Ensminger drove the Tigers 74 yards in eight plays for their first score, closing the Bulldog margin to 13-6.
His clutch play was a reminder of the first time he was ever thrown into that situation as a Tiger. It happened in the same place, Jackson, Miss., and against the same team, Miss. State, when he was a freshman in the 1976 season. He came into the game after starter Pat Lyons unsuccessfully engineered two drives. On Ensiminger’s fourth series, he drove the Tigers down to the Miss. State 28 where he missed getting a first down on fourth and two.
“I remember the guy who hit me (Gerald Jackson) said, ‘Hey buddy, you better pick up your head because it’s rolling on the ground.'”
Ensminger not only picked up his head in the final quarter, but the Tigers as well, rallying LSU from a 21-0 deficit to a 21-13 loss. Despite the fact that he threw an interception into the State end zone intended for the late Carl Otis Trimble with 1:28 left in the game, Ensminger proved right then and there he was a pressure performer.
Ensminger first realized he played better under fire during his senior year in high school at Central.
“I was our Most Valuable Player my junior year,” emphasizes Ensminger, “but it really didn’t mean that much to me. Then, my senior year rolled around and I realized a lot of people looked to me for leadership.”
He not only gave his team leadership, but he gave fans and foes alike fits with his game-saving antics.
“Against Catholic High, we were down 14-0 with seven minutes to go and we came back to win it 15-14,” says Ensminger.
Ensminger is a firm believer that if you inspire those around you, something’s bound to happen.
“I try to be an active quarterback,” he says. “I run around a lot, congratulate linemen and others for good play. You’ve got to fire up your linemen. When they get excited and jump around, they start to come off the ball better and the offense goes.”
The offense and everything else will definitely have to go this year. Many people have already written off the Tigers for various reasons, such as the lame-duck coaching status of McClendon and the loss of Charles Alexander to the pros. But one guy who is hanging in there is Ensminger.
“I feel there is a lot less pressure this year because of it (Mac’s last year),” Ensminger says. “All the coaches, including Mac, are closer to the players now than we’ve ever been.”
Ensminger and some of the other Tigers in the Baton Rouge area have been working out hard under the supervision of weight coach Johnny Parker. But Ensminger’s been working extra hard because the 1979 season will be his last as a Tiger.
“I’ve been working harder than ever,” he says. “I’ll know I’ll never get another shot again at playing college ball.”
He even sees the killer schedule, featuring the likes of Colorado, USC, Florida State, and Alabama, as an advantage.
“Because of the schedule, we’re picked down by people, but I think that’s better because we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” Ensminger believes. “We talk about the schedule all the time this summer when we workout. People keep saying to us, ‘Hey, you guys got to play USC this year.’ And we tell them, ‘Yeah, but over at USC, people are telling their players how they have to play LSU this season.’ ”