Summer 2024

D-III football powerhouse University of Mary Hardin-Baylor built on foundation of faith

Riley Zayas is a high school freshman and freelance journalist from Round Rock, Texas. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated for Kids, Horns Illustrated, Fellowship of Christian Athletes publications and his personal blog, 360 Sports.

Just off of Interstate 35 — some 60 miles from where the Texas Longhorns in Austin have won four national titles at the FBS level — Belton, Texas, is home to a national championship program of its own.

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Since 1998, when the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor football program started, the Crusaders have been a powerhouse in the making. Playing at the Division III level, the Cru have made 17 playoff appearances, won 16 American Southwest Conference championships, and played in four national championship games, winning two of them (2016 and 2018). They’re 9-0 in 2019, with the regular-season finale coming up Saturday.

If there’s one man who best shows the spirit, passion and success of Crusader football, it’s their dedicated head coach, Pete Fredenburg.

Mary Hardin-Baylor football coach gives God all the glory

Born in Clifton, Texas, in 1949, Fredenburg always had a passion for coaching and guiding the next generation.

“Being a coach is really a calling because it takes a lot of work and effort. But the thing that keeps you going is that you know you can help guys in making life lessons, and to see it all come together is truly amazing,” Fredenburg said.

So after graduating from Southwest Texas State (now Texas State), where he represented the Bobcats on the gridiron, the young, aspiring coach embarked on what would become a lifelong coaching career. Starting off at the high school level, he transitioned to college starting in 1982. That’s when he became an assistant for the Baylor Bears, a school he coached for 13 seasons, ascending to the rank of defensive coordinator during his final year in Waco.

What followed was a series of quick moves, arriving at LSU and assistant coaching the Tigers for a season before taking a defensive coordinator position with Louisiana Tech for the next three years. Finally, an opportunity came from Belton, where UMHB was starting a football program.

When Fredenburg decided to take it, little did he know that he would be a fixture for the Cru for the next two decades. It was his first college head coaching position, the first program he would be responsible for creating. It was a role God had been preparing him for. While nearly three-fourths of his time on the sidelines have been at the collegiate level, his time as a high school coach made a mark on the way he recruits. He doesn’t take a typical approach to the recruiting process, as he knows that sometimes the best athletes aren’t always the most well-known.

“Coaching at high school, you get several players that you really fall in love with, but because of an inch here or a step of speed there, you couldn’t get them to the college level. So D-III gives that kind of youngster an opportunity to play in a great atmosphere. We go to high school coaches and they have their favorite kid that might be an inch or two short, but they just love him, and that’s the kind of guys we get in this program,” Fredenburg said.

It is these talented players that have helped make the team one of the most successful in the country, but it’s the solid foundation of faith for both Fredenburg and this program that have kept them grounded, humble and constantly striving for perfection.

“Christ is everything that I do. God has given me some chosen gifts and I give Him all the glory because I know that He’s the one that blessed me with those gifts. I think it goes without saying that when you deal with young people, you’ve got to show the faith that you have in God to help them along in their walk,” Fredenburg said.

Jalen Martin, a former defensive back for the Cru from 2014 to 2018 who earned All-American honors, added, “Colossians 3:16 always stuck with me, which says, ‘Whatever you do in work or in deed, do it in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ So I didn’t play for myself, I was doing it for a bigger purpose.”

Pete Fredenburg

UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg celebrates with his team after winning the Division III National Championship, Dec. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/David Morris)

‘Mistakes are not going to define who we are’

That strong faith has shown itself not only in the positive times but also in challenging ones. On April 9, 2018, just two days after Coach Fredenburg was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, UMHB self-reported NCAA violations that led to the famed coach being suspended for three months, including the first three games of the 2018 season. Then on October 10 of this year, the NCAA released a report vacating the school’s 2016 national championship and all wins from 2017.

These violations were due to the fact that Fredenburg loaned two of his players a car because they were in need of some help. His compassionate act wasn’t met with compassion from the NCAA, as the consequences brought upon the program went much further than most expected it to go. It was a frustrating, but not defeating, situation for Fredenburg, to say the least.

“This NCAA deal, was in my opinion, something my wife and I did to help a youngster and it’s come back to be a really bad decision to make,” Fredenburg said. “But mistakes are not going to define who we are, it’s how we respond. Our Christian faith is what keeps us apart and helps us really understand the challenges of life and keeps us focused on what’s really important.”

Martin added, “For those players, the whole experience during 2016 and 2017 and the memories of those seasons can’t be taken away,” he said. “Coach Fredenburg cares about all his players and if there’s something he can do to help them, he’s going to do it for them. He’s a players’ coach.”

Through it all, however, the program’s faith-based foundations and Christian principles remained intact. While there are many great teams and dynasties, what has separated UMHB from the rest is its desire and vision to not only perform well on the field, but also grow and mentor young men to be victorious even after they’ve hung up the cleats.

“Being in a program where you’re connected to people of the same belief as you, you grow a lot faster and a lot better in your faith,” Martin said.

Mary Hardin-Baylor football strong again in 2019

This year, a superstar trio of freshman safety Drake Johnson, senior quarterback Jase Hammack and senior wide receiver Jonel Reed all agree that playing for the Cru has been just as much of an improvement physically as it has spiritually.

“Growth is a big thing here,” Hammack said. “You might make some mental errors either on the field or off it, but the coaches support you and show you the importance of growing on the field, as well as in our relationship with Christ.”

All have played integral roles in the development of the current squad, which is ranked No. 1 in the country and chasing another national title. Hammack and Reed both came into this season knowing this was the time to step up as leaders, especially after so many starters on the offense left after the 2018 season. Hammack has enjoyed leading the offense in his second season as the starting QB.

“Being a leader both on and off the field is something I take pride in,” he said. “Really focusing on my guys and trying to help them in any way I can. It’s not always easy but it’s something that I love and that’s why I love the position.”

Reed has also done more than his fair share, leading the team in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns. After losing a big group of receivers heading into the 2019 season, the Cru have had a very young receiving corps, with players who came in untested and inexperienced but ready to play. Through Reed’s leadership, that unit has significantly improved over the course of the season, a testament to Reed and the example he sets for his fellow wideouts.

“With a lot of young guys they had to grow real quick,” Reed said. “I feel like I’ve been doing way better as a leader to them and I really feel like we’ve upped our game as a unit throughout this season.”

Johnson has also stepped up a lot in just his first season as a Crusader. With two interceptions, nine solo tackles and a tackle for loss, the freshman from Missouri City, Texas, has already made his mark. Starting at safety, Johnson said he was “really nervous” before the opening game of the season, a 56-15 win over Albright College. However, with God’s help, he’s settled into a starting role and has faced some of the top offenses in the ASC. While Johnson could easily take those early-career achievements selfishly, he gives God the glory.

“My faith gives me confidence each game. I talk to Him before every game to help me play to the best of my abilities and it gives me a confidence,” Johnson said.

Mary Hardin-Baylor

Mary Hardin-Baylor players lift the 2016 national championship trophy, Dec. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Shroyer)

A program on solid foundation

With these blowout victories, it can be easy for teams to get complacent and feel like they’ve achieved ultimate dominance. But as Fredenburg teaches humility, he also teaches hard work and always striving for perfection, while knowing they can never underestimate an opponent, no matter how easy the matchup may seem.

“I think everybody who works in the world has to fight apathy. You have to have a vision of what you’re going to accomplish that day, and obviously that’s what keeps us clicking here. We have a desire for a great program and as we’ve moved it along, it’s been a lot of fun to see it develop,” he said.

Out of his entire time watching this program develop, Fredenburg says the 2016 national championship was probably his favorite, as it marked a landmark accomplishment for the whole program and all who had contributed up to that point, including those who didn’t win the national title but left a championship legacy for those who came behind them. That accomplishment is just one of many examples of how the program has stayed consistent and on solid foundation. On a weekly basis, you can see that standard of excellence, like most recently against Hardin-Simmons.

On a breezy October afternoon in Belton, the Crusaders hosted the biggest matchup in the D-III college football world when they welcomed the No. 15 Hardin-Simmons Cowboys into Crusader Stadium. It was sure to be their biggest test of the season yet. What ensued was every football fan’s dream. At the half, UMHB trailed 7-6 but kept its composure, riding behind clutch passes from Hammack, timely receptions by Reed and a stifling defense anchored by Johnson, on their way to a fourth-quarter touchdown.

But HSU was still winning, holding a 14-12 lead with just over a minute to go in the ballgame and the Cru needing to go 50 yards to score. The offense again delivered, with Hammack completing a pass with 25 seconds left to bring up fourth down. Chaos then ensued, with players rushing on and off the field in the final seconds. After getting onto the field with just about 10 seconds to play, the field goal unit quickly set up and snapped the ball with one second left. Kicker Anthony Avila, who didn’t have ample time to set up, ran toward the ball and put up the kick. For about half a second, the stadium fell quiet, and the screams and cheers from fans fell away as everyone watched the ball sail … right through the uprights. Wild celebrations ensued with the entire sideline charging onto the turf and hoisting an elated Avila onto their shoulders.

When one looks around, it’s hard to believe that this football culture, winning tradition, excellence and Christlike program could have been built up so high in just a short amount of time. However, it’s far from coincidence. As Fredenburg’s favorite bible passage, Proverbs 3:5-6, says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make straight your paths.” No verse describes this successful, Christ-centered program better. It’s a real-life example of how trust and confidence in the Lord result in success and consistency amongst a team.

And to think, it all started off with a leap of faith.

Riley Zayas is a high school freshman and freelance journalist from Round Rock, Texas. He began his journalism career as a Sports Illustrated Kid reporter and has since become a regular contributor to Horns Illustrated, covering Texas Longhorn sports. His work also includes Fellowship of Christian Athletes, his personal blog “360 Sports,” and now Sports Spectrum, having been a longtime fan of the magazine.

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