BELTON — It’s just one of several childhood memories, a delightful little story really, but it tells so much about Jefferson Fritz. It doesn’t have anything to do with the kind of football player he is today but, when pieced together with his beliefs and philosophies, it all fits to form a picture of a guy who attacks every aspect of life with an uncommon zeal.
“My very first football game was when I was in the third grade,” the Mary Hardin-Baylor senior recalled. “I was playing running back and I was really little. It was a pitch to the left, and there were these big dudes coming at me. I was scared. All I had played before that was soccer, so I never hit anybody, and nobody ever hit me. Now I have the ball and I’m scared, so I start running for my life.
“I ran 95 yards and, as soon as I crossed the goal line, I laid on my back because I couldn’t believe I survived. The coach comes out and picks me all the way up in the air — because I only weighed about 50 pounds — and is telling me, ‘Good job. Great job.’ Really, though, I was just running for my life.”
It seems like an odd genesis for a two-time All-American free safety and the UMHB and American Southwest Conference career leader in interceptions with 22 through three full seasons and last spring’s truncated five-game campaign.
That’s the starting point, though, for a college career that’s nearing the finish line.
Crusaders defensive coordinator Larry Harmon can remember when it began and knew right away that Fritz was something special.
“You could see his instincts, and he had such an ability to understand concepts,” Harmon said. “He gets it. He’s a football guy. Some guys come to Mary Hardin-Baylor and just expect they’re going to win. He really understood early on why we win, and he bought into it right then and there.
“Some positions in football, you have to be able to run or you have to be physical. When you talk about what is a free safety for us, the No. 1 thing is leadership. Our safeties have all been guys with great character, great leadership ability. They are servant leaders for their team and are internally motivated to be the best that they can be. That’s Jefferson.”
As for the journey that took Fritz from being a scared third-grader to a freshman tabbed as UMHB’s next great free safety and now to one of the most respected defensive players in the country, it’s filled with countless hours of hard work and a whole trove of deep-thinking philosophies — the kind of which some people believe elite athletes aren’t capable of producing.
Fritz can prove those people wrong with a 20-minute conversation, such as the one that produced these thoughts:
-- On work ethic: “I try to show (my teammates) what it’s like to work hard. A lot of people expect something when they work hard. No. We’re just going to work hard because that’s what we’re supposed to do. The coaches might say, ‘Good job.’ If they don’t, oh well. You know you’re working hard and know you’re getting better.”
-- On how that translates to off-the-field aspects: “It’s the same in school or whatever you do. You have to approach life almost like it’s a football game and really put everything you have into it.”
-- On his most memorable plays: “There’s a couple that are my favorites and a couple that I don’t like. You have to remember the good and the bad because you can’t live in just the highs or just the lows. You have to be somewhere in the middle.”
-- On why he’s seen so often around campus and town with a smile on his face: “You have to be able to smile. It’s easier for me because I’m my biggest critic. Coach Harmon will come in here and get onto us about not making a play. Sure, that gets to me for a minute, but I’ve already thought about that play a hundred times before we ever got into the meeting. You have to be able to take it as a lesson that makes you better and not let it get to you emotionally. You can’t let criticism ruin your day because you have to get back to work, and you’d better find a way to enjoy that work and make it fun.”
As anyone around the UMHB field houses can attest, Fritz certainly enjoys the work. That enjoyment — along with the NCAA’s ruling to give every college athlete another year of eligibility after the pandemic wiped out nearly all of sports in 2020 — is why he’s back for one final season with the Crusaders, seeking to hoist the national championship trophy just as he did in 2018.
“Four of my best friends are guys who were freshmen here the same year I was, and they’re still here,” he said. “Since we didn’t win the championship in 2019, I figured I’d come back so we can all try to win it together.”
So once again, Fritz will lead the pack in another title chase, helping his teammates find the middle ground between the highs and the lows and pulling them along through grueling workouts and crunch time on Saturdays while knowing full well that each step moves him closer to the end of his college career.
“I definitely want to take it all in, one day at a time. It feels like I’ve been here a very long time, but this is it,” he said. “I have to make the most of each day because there aren’t any more days here for me after this.
“I’m trying to give everything I’ve got every single day to get better and get to where we want to get.”
And there is the finished picture of Fritz, who — all these years after that long touchdown sprint in elementary school — is still running for his life. Not because he’s scared, but because he believes everything in life is worth running for.