BELTON- Anthony Avila has played in plenty of games during his five-year collegiate career. 56 to be exact.
He has kicked plenty of field goals, so many that he holds the UMHB career record with 52.
And to see him make a tackle in the open field, saving what appears to be a sure touchdown for the opponent is nothing new.
But this season is unlike those previous. Each and every moment has been savored. Because for Avila, part of a core of fifth-year seniors leading the third-ranked Crusaders, this season represents more than just a set of games on a schedule, more than just a dot on the expansive timeline of UMHB football’s 25-year history. It is the final charge for this group, some of whom, like Avila, were on the field for both the Cru’s 2018 and 2021 Stagg Bowl victories.
“At the beginning of the season, I just told myself I would try to enjoy everything I could because it was our last dance,” Avila recently told True To The Cru. “After every practice, I think about how I did, and I just want to gain something out of that. I stress it to the other guys to enjoy it, be here, and be part of the team.”
This perspective has come about over time, as Avila has grown into his role within the program. A native of nearby Troy, where he was an all-district selection in high school, Avila came to UMHB in 2018. During the national championship run, he was not only a true freshman on the varsity roster, he was the Cru’s primary kicker, taking 15 of the UMHB’s 25 attempted field goals. He made 12 of them, including a 30-yarder against Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl.
“My freshman year, I didn’t really buy in, but was put onto the varsity team just because I was essentially the only kicker,” Avila recalls. “Then in my sophomore year, I bought in, and I was able to see how much the coaches stress to you how to build this team and the foundation and leadership of the guys who came ahead of me.”
Taking those lessons learned, it did not take long for him to step up. Fully invested, he approached the high-pressure kicking situations with relative ease, converting on 23 field goals, which remains the most he has made in a single season.
One of those 23 in particular has gone down in the program’s list of greatest moments. In a vivid picture to all who were there to witness it, the then-sophomore runs onto the field with the field goal unit, lines up the goalposts with his right arm, takes two steps back, and two to the left. Seconds later, the ball sails through the uprights, as the Crusaders dogpile near the 30-yard line, celebrating a come-from-behind 15-14 win over No. 15 Hardin-Simmons on homecoming.
“We practice that 14-second field goal every Friday,” he said, thinking back. “I practice it every day basically, just taking my steps as fast as I can.”
It was not the last game-winner he would kick as a Crusader.
Three years later, almost two weeks to the day, Avila stared down the uprights at Brownwood’s Gordon Wood Stadium. This time, there was no need for the 14-second field goal. He had plenty of time, with UMHB’s playoff hopes, and streak of 17 ASC titles, on the line. Trailing Howard Payne, Kyle King and the offense completed three passes, along with a 25-yard run, setting up the senior kicker for a 42-yard field goal. Avila’s kick was straight through the goalposts.
“Honestly, I didn’t get too emotional about it,” Avila said. “I know my teammates did, though. Maybe it was because I had been in the situation before, or the sickness I had, but I was able to stay pretty calm and collected in that moment. I like the pressure, and was just glad that we were able to seal the victory.”
For all the highs in Avila’s career, it is worth mentioning that there have been lows. It hasn’t all been game-winners, and near-perfect field goal percentages. But those are only worth mentioning because of the way Avila has approached those points, never wavering in his approach.
“The mental game is, I think, the most important part of being a kicker,” he said. “For example, if Kyle makes a bad throw, he’s got another chance right then and there to do it. But as a kicker, if you miss a kick, you have to wait a little while to get another opportunity. You have to have that mental strength to let that [previous miss] go.”
Perhaps the best example of this mental fortitude came in what he calls “one of the worst games” of his career, during the spring of 2021 at ETBU. In that contest, he missed three field goals leading up to a critical fourth one, with just 2:32 left in the game, and the Tigers leading, 28-27. And despite the frustration of the previous missed attempts earlier in the day, Avila returned to the field with a fresh mindset, and came through in the clutch, as UMHB won 30-28.
“I would say that game was one of my worst,” he recalls, “but I also learned something from that game, because I was able to come back and hit the last kick and not worry too much about the other ones. You have to take it one kick at a time.”
Of course, not all of the pressure is on Avila’s shoulders when he sets up for a field goal. There is also a fair amount of responsibility on the part of snapper Adam Strawn, and holder Tommy Bowden, two players whose roles are often overlooked by the general audience, but are pivotal to Avila’s success in putting points on the board for UMHB.
“The snap affects me, because if the snap is slow, then I have to wait it out, and my steps are off. And if my steps are off, I miss thinking about the kick. So it is very crucial.
“I trust those guys with every kick that I’m taking. I think that’s been the main difference this season, as opposed to season in the past, is that we have a really tight knit group as far as the kicking unit goes.”
That cohesiveness amongst the three seniors is a microcosm of the cohesiveness found within the entire 20-player senior class. Experienced, and tested in the postseason, when the stakes are highest, there is no telling how critical having veterans such as Avila have been in UMHB’s 9-1 record during the regular season, or how far the Crusaders will go in these 2022 playoffs.
“It’s very crucial to have that senior leadership.” Avila said Thursday. “I think during this playoff game, you’ll be able to see that things don’t affect us like they might affect teams who are in their first playoff run. We’ve been here before. And we know what we have to do to get to that national championship game.”