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Never Say Die

November 06, 2013
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Courtesy: Texas A&M Athletics
(photo: Texas A&M Athletics)

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NEVER SAY DIE

Travis Labhart perseveres and realizes lifelong dream of playing for the Aggies

by Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine

Texas A&M volleyball coach Laurie Corbelli recalls being particularly impressed with the competitive nature, intensity and hustling mentality of one of the players attending the Aggies’ volleyball camp two summers ago. The intriguing player—Whitesboro High’s Katelyn Labhart—was not quite talented enough to earn an immediate scholarship offer from Corbelli, who had an extremely deep roster at the time.

The veteran head coach, however, made a mental note to keep Labhart in mind. After a couple of personnel moves eventually opened some space on the Aggies’ roster, Corbelli immediately picked up the phone and  called Labhart, inviting the hard-working defensive specialist to walk on to the A&M program.

Only time will tell if the 5-foot-10 Labhart will develop enough to play a prominent role in the Aggies’ long-term plans. But Corbelli, who is in her 21st season at A&M, says she wouldn’t be surprised if Labhart continues to progress in her efforts to earn significant playing time.

“She has a lot of athletic ability and a great work ethic to go along with a really, really strong desire to be at Texas A&M,” Corbelli said of Labhart. “She is engaged in every practice and every team meeting. When I’m speaking, I know at least one of (the players) is listening, and that’s Katelyn Labhart. She has so many great intangible qualities, and she obviously has a great role model in terms of persevering as a walk-on.”

"You really can’t say enough about how hard that guy has worked and what he has meant to this team...He is a great inspirational story. We all have a lot of faith in him, and he is such a great part of this team."

- Malcome Kennedy

Indeed, she does. Her hard-nosed, 5-foot-9 older brother, Travis, is the epitome of walk-on perseverance and persistence, enduring rejection and watching his original A&M athletic dreams die when he failed to make the cut at the men’s basketball tryouts.

His remarkable route to earning a football scholarship at A&M and becoming one of Johnny Manziel’s favorite receiving targets this year took a bizarre detour through the women’s basketball practice team and was buoyed by a position change that was encouraged by the previous A&M football staff.

In his relentless pursuit to wear an A&M uniform and contribute to the Aggies’ game-day plans, Labhart has endured two hernia injuries, a broken collar bone, a foot injury and countless ailments and minor sprains that have been the result of his propensity to fling or hurl his body recklessly across the gridiron with absolutely no fear or thoughts of self-preservation.

Labhart was hurt so often earlier in his walk-on days with the football program that he says some of the younger receivers on the team thought he was a graduate assistant coach, not a player. But all the physical pains and emotional strains have paid off in a big way for Labhart, who enjoyed a tremendous breakout game on Oct. 12 in Oxford, Miss.

In the Aggies’ 41-38 victory over the Rebels, Labhart led all A&M receivers with eight catches for 97 yards. He followed up that impressive performance with another outstanding game, catching seven passes for 79 yards against Auburn.

Through the first seven games of 2013, Labhart ranked fourth among all A&M receivers with 18 receptions for 228 yards and one touchdown. He’s become a reliable part of the Aggies’ overall offensive plans, and he is one of the top feel-good stories on this year’s team, earning the respect and praises of his current and previous teammates.

“You really can’t say enough about how hard that guy has worked and what he has meant to this team,” said current A&M receiver Malcome Kennedy. “Lab is such a great route runner and works so hard. He is a great inspirational story. We all have a lot of faith in him, and he is such a great part of this team.”

“It’s great to see a guy like Travis reach his goals because you know how much he has been through to get to where he is today,” said former A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson. “It’s easy to root for those walk-on guys because you know they are truly out there for the love of the game. Travis has really come a long way. As a former quarterback, I can tell Johnny has a lot of trust in Travis. It’s a really good story.”

It’s also a story that is rooted as deeply in Texas A&M’s lore and landscape as the Century Tree near the Academic Building. A&M’s football program has produced plenty of inspiring stories of overachieving walk-ons through the years, including big-time contributors in recent seasons like Spencer Nealy, Caleb Russell, Michael Hodges and Kevin Matthews.

Labhart’s rise into the consciousness of A&M football fans is similar to the aforementioned four in some regards, but it is particularly unique in its distinctive maroon and white flavor.

Labhart, a multi-sports star at Class 2A Whitesboro (a community of about 3,800 people near the Oklahoma-Texas state line), could have played collegiate baseball or basketball at numerous smaller colleges throughout Texas and could have been a preferred walk-on for the SMU football team.

But there was really only one dream destination for Labhart, who was raised on tales of Rudder, Reveille and rivalry games against Texas. Labhart’s grandfather, Cecil (Class of ’54) took Travis to numerous A&M games, including the 2001 Red, White and Blue-out football game after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Labhart’s father, Mark, dreamed of playing football for A&M as a youth, but he accepted a scholarship offer from TCU and played with the Horned Frogs because the Aggies didn’t offer him.

When a neck injury ended Mark’s football career in Fort Worth, however, he transferred to A&M where he earned his degree and Aggie ring.

"This has been such an amazing journey for the whole family. And our community (in Whitesboro) is loving it, too. It has just been more fun than a dad could imagine."

- Mark Labhart

Mark’s youngest brother, Russell, was a walk-on linebacker at A&M in the early 1980s. He made the squad, but he decided not to stick with it throughout the duration of his college career and never lettered. To this day, it is one of Russell Labhart’s great regrets, and he continually encouraged Travis to stay with the walk-on process…no matter how bleak things occasionally looked.

Travis’ older brother, Jake, started his collegiate career as a football player at the Air Force Academy. But ultimately, he also transferred to Texas A&M, where he graduated in May 2012 and is now coaching and teaching in Spring.

And Travis’ cousin, Shannon Labhart-Grant, was a four-year letterman for the Texas A&M soccer team from 2001-04, helping the Aggies win two Big 12 regular-season titles, make two Elite Eight appearances and record the program’s first-ever 20-win season.

“Shannon was a major starter for us,” A&M head soccer coach G Guerrieri recalled. “The thing that sticks out most in my mind about Shannon is that she was mean in a good way. She was a key defender, and she was very intense. She was a great team player with a great work ethic.”

Apparently, those characteristics are as much a part of the Labhart family tradition as their passion for Texas A&M. Travis Labhart’s teammates and coaches heap praises in the senior receiver’s direction for his sacrificial, team-focused approach.

“Travis is a great story for us and a great story for this team,” A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said. “He’s worked very hard. He worked his way from a non-scholarship player into a scholarship player. He didn’t back off after that. He earned the respect of his teammates. I know for a fact that (at the start of this season), our quarterback felt as comfortable with him as anybody. When he went into the game, his success came as a surprise to a lot of people, but nobody on the team was surprised at all because he practices like that. I’m happy for him.”

His parents are delighted, as well, for so many reasons. They know how hard he has worked, how many hurdles he has crossed to achieve this childhood dream scenario and how he has stayed grounded in his faith throughout even the most difficult times. Travis’ collegiate journey has tested him in many ways. But a broken heart and broken collarbone have ultimately strengthened him beyond what his parents could have envisioned when he first enrolled at A&M in the fall of 2009.

“This whole journey has been about a young man who just refuses to give up,” his mother, Cindy Labhart, said gratefully. “He has a great outlook, and he has grown closer and closer to God through it. I have loved this journey for him, and I love the way Travis has honored God and God has used him. My greatest excitement for him and his dad was when he got the scholarship. We are so thankful for what it represents. It’s more than just a scholarship; it’s recognition of his perseverance and his determination. It’s tangible evidence of achieving his dream.”

It also serves as motivation to Travis’ younger sister. In mid-September, she was particularly discouraged about her lack of playing time and her position on the Aggies’ volleyball team. In A&M’s first 65 games of this season, Katelyn had appeared briefly in only two games.

She questioned herself and how she was using her time and talents. Then she called her brother for a little advice.

“She called Trav and said, ‘I’m tired of sitting on the sidelines,’” Mark Labhart said. “He told her, ‘Look, it has taken me four years to get where I am. Do not become impatient. Keep working hard. Get with those coaches and show them how hard you are willing to work. It will all pay off.’

“She called me after the Mississippi game and could not shut up about how the volleyball girls were yelling for Travis. This has been such an amazing journey for the whole family. And our community (in Whitesboro) is loving it, too. I can’t get off my phone from the number of people who have called me wanting to talk about Travis. It has just been more fun than a dad could imagine.”

 


 

THE NEVER-GIVE-UP KID

 

Travis Labhart, 22, acknowledges that he had completely forgotten about the statement he made last February. It was a couple of days after the Ole Miss game, and Labhart’s head was still spinning from the amount of attention and accolades he had been receiving. The media swarmed around him at the Oct. 15 press conference, asking him a dizzying array of background questions.

Labhart spent most of his college career walking across the A&M campus in relative anonymity. But in the aftermath of his heroics at Ole Miss, he was being recognized and congratulated practically everywhere he went, from his classes to one of his favorite restaurants, Freebirds World Burrito.

"I have been blessed to share my story lately, and it’s been great to talk about perseverance and making the most of my opportunities. But...there were some times when I was really down, and only my faith in God and the support of my family kept me going."

- Travis Labhart

He was enjoying lunch with a longtime friend, counting his blessings and looking forward to the Auburn game when his friend asked him, “Aren’t you glad you came back for this season?”

Labhart was initially puzzled, but then his friend reminded him that after A&M signed six heralded wide receivers in the 2013 recruiting class, he had wondered aloud if it was even worth coming back for his senior season. At that point, Labhart had already overcome many obstacles to even be part of the A&M team, but he had momentarily lost perspective.

“My friend reminded me of what I had said, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I did say that, didn’t I?’” Labhart recalled. “I have been blessed to share my story with (members of the media) lately, and it’s been great to talk about perseverance and making the most of my opportunities. But the truth is that there were some times when I was really down, and only my faith in God and the support of my family kept me going. There were some dark moments.”

Perhaps the darkest was when his basketball dreams died. Labhart vividly recalls watching the televised broadcast of Acie Law’s game-winning three-pointer against Texas on March 1, 2006, which propelled the Aggies to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1987. From that moment forward, Labhart was singularly focused on becoming a point guard on the A&M basketball team.

Labhart was an outstanding scrambling quarterback for Whitesboro, dazzling Bearcats fans with his Manziel-like flair and style of play. Labhart also was a tremendous middle infielder for the baseball team. In fact, Labhart says baseball was probably his best sport, but his true love was basketball. And his athletics dream was to play point guard for the Aggies before a packed house at Reed Arena.

He gave it his best shot, trying out for Mark Turgeon’s team and making it until the final cuts, along with fellow tryout hopefuls like Jarod Jahns and Alex Baird. Those two walk-ons eventually made the roster, but Labhart did not. The typically upbeat and optimistic Labhart, an all-state basketball player in high school, was devastated about not making the team.

“Travis has a great sense of humor, and you don’t often see him down,” Cindy Labhart said. “But when he came home for the semester break after not making the basketball team, I had never seen him so down. He came very close to making that team. Travis just knew he was going to make that team, and he really believed that was what God had in store for him.

“What lifted his spirits was that he made the men’s practice team that went against the Aggie women’s basketball team (that won the national championship in 2011). He often told me about how great those girls were, and he really loved the competition. Later, when he made the football team, he told me that being a part of that practice team against the women was vital to him getting faster, quicker and in better shape to make the football team. It was only then that he was able to see how God had bigger things in store for him after not making the men’s basketball team.”

After re-evaluating his goals, Labhart first made Mike Sherman’s football team in the spring of 2011 as a defensive back. Primarily, he was a scout team defender until Sherman suggested that he move to other side of the ball because he reminded him of Wes Welker. Labhart began working as a scout-team receiver, and he seemed to form an instant bond with a freshman scout team quarterback from Kerrville.

Labhart made a strong, positive impression on the coaching staff in the fall and made the travel squad for the Aggies’ Nov. 12, 2011 trip to Manhattan, Kan. The 53-50, four-overtime loss to Kansas State was part of the reason Sherman was fired at the end of the season. But that trip marked Labhart’s first appearance in an A&M game, as he covered kickoffs. It also inspired him to work even harder in the future.

"I wanted to do more than just appear in one game or make one little contribution. I wanted to be a player who could figure into the game plan."

- Travis Labhart

“It was so exciting to get out there,” said Labhart, who had been in the top 10 percent of his graduating class in high school. “Mike Evans was being redshirted, but he was on that trip and after I covered my first kickoff, I came back to the sideline and said, ‘Mike did you see me?’ He said he did, but he didn’t really. He still jokes now about how excited I was just to get into a game.

“Getting that little taste of being in a game made me hungrier to play more. I resolved to do whatever it took to get back out on the field. I loved the movie ‘Rudy,’ but I wanted to do more than just appear in one game or make one little contribution. I wanted to be a player who could figure into the game plan.”

He has done that…and then some. Labhart, who will graduate this May, says he has so many people to thank for encouraging him and propelling him to greater heights. He says Bill Johnston, the area director of the Brazos Valley Fellowship of Christian Athletes, has played an instrumental part in his spiritual and emotional maturation.

Meanwhile, former A&M wide receiver Ryan Swope helped him immeasurably in improving his on-the-field technique, and he raves about the roles wide receivers coach David Beaty and graduate assistant coach Justin Johnson have played in his development. Being around women’s basketball coaches like Gary Blair and former assistant Vic Schaefer made a positive impression on him, and he says he has been blessed to be around many great coaches on the current and previous football staffs.

Labhart says he has had so many positive influences and coaching mentors during his time at A&M that he is now seriously contemplating a future in the coaching profession as a way to give back some of the gifts he has received.

“I think coaching would be a great profession and would serve as a great way to do a ministry,” Labhart said. “I just think of the positive influence that Coach Sumlin, Coach Beaty and so many other great men have had on me here at A&M. They have inspired me in so many ways, and I would love to one day serve as an inspiration to others, too.”

He doesn’t need to wait until he becomes a coach to fill that role. He’s already quite an inspiration to his sister and probably every other walk-on athlete on the A&M campus who is daring to defy the odds and become the next Travis Labhart.



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