When Patrick Bettiol verbally committed to Tarleton State, the Texans were reigning Lone Star Conference co-champs. Entering his senior season, they are preparing to defend the same title once again.
But football at Tarleton has been anything but smooth sailing since 2009, and the going has been tough on Bettiol individually, too. Especially from a physical standpoint.
Just before national signing day in February 2010, Tarleton head coach Sam McElroy left to become an assistant at Texas Tech. Bettiol is among the group of Tarleton verbal commits who remained committed to the Texans, signed their national letters of intent, and are still on campus as fifth year seniors today.
A pre-med and biomedical science student from College Station, Bettiol has seen Tarleton go 3-8 in its first year under head coach Cary Fowler, who replaced McElroy in 2010, and has been part of a conference title, as the Texans split the LSC crown with Eastern New Mexico in 2013.
"We kind of all started over together, and the program's been like a child," explained Bettiol, who is spending the bulk of his summer on campus preparing for his senior campaign. "We've molded it, worked on it, and it's been a process, with many people inside the program and even some outside of it having an impact on its progress. It's been a wild journey."
One that included many doubts and questions before his letter of intent was even signed, one that has included numerous injuries and one that will in the end include a degree and the opportunity to apply for medical school. And hopefully more football accolades along the way.
"When I first came here on my visit, I had taken visits to two other schools in the conference," Bettiol said. "But I just felt like this school and this area were good fits for me. Stephenville's a great town, and Coach Fowler wanted to let me play defense, which was a big pull for me coming here. Seeing the adversity he faced coming to Tarleton from Midwestern and then taking over as head coach and trying to build the program the right way, it just made me that much more hungry to compete for him."
First he had to be sure that's who he would compete for at all.
"There was definitely worry with Coach McElroy leaving, because there was just the great unknown," he said. "I hoped Coach Fowler would get the job, but nobody really knew for sure."
But Bettiol remained committed. Even while redshirting through a 3-8 campaign in Fowler's first season.
"We all kind of started over together. They won the conference title the year before, but a lot of that team and even the coaches were gone. I had never been part of a team with less than a .750 win percentage," Bettiol said. "It was tough, but Coach Fowler kept us together, and we as freshmen were having our own meetings where we discussed doing the things we needed to become the leaders of the future."
A future he says began with a school-record 62-point beat down.
"When Abilene Christian beat us 65-3 (in 2010), Coach Fowler told us we had reached the bottom, we knew where we were at and we knew where we had to go from there," Bettiol said. "He told us some of us would figure out what needed to be done and commit to it, and some wouldn't and those guys wouldn't be here. You look around now, and the guys who were really committed are the guys who are still here."
Guys such as wide receiver Clifton Rhodes, defensive backs Charles Moore and Devin Figures, linebacker Alex Anderson, defensive linemen Juan Gonzales and Brian Ngwa and tight end Will McClain. They join Bettiol as the fifth-year seniors Fowler and staff will rely on for leadership this season.
"Those guys are my brothers, because we've been through it all together," Bettiol said. "Those are the guys who stuck by me, and I stuck by them, and whatever comes up years down the road, we'll still be there for each other and always look favorably upon one another when we think back to this time now."
And they progressed together, going 6-5 in Fowler's second season, 6-4 in his third and winning the conference while going 7-3 overall last year.
"We were happy to be conference champs, but we were happy with the way last season ended," said Bettiol, alluding to Tarleton dropping three of its last five games then having its trip to the CHAMPS Heart of Texas Bowl canceled due to inclement weather. "We know we can do even more. We know we have the talent that if we do things right - if we put in the work and preparation to win - that there's no reason we can end our careers in Kansas City playing for the national championship."
It's the resolve of a group that signed on for a team at the top, quickly experienced plummeting to near the bottom and has risen again. The resolve, Fowler says, of champions.
"I can't think of a better group to go to battle with because they are the ones I started this with," says Fowler of the fifth-year seniors. "I know those guys are going to fight tooth and nail on the field, I know they're going to represent our program and our university in a way that will make us all proud, and I know we have the capability to do some special things this fall with them leading the way. It's going to be a fun season, and those guys are going to be a big reason why."
For Bettiol, just physically reaching his senior season has been an accomplishment.
"Coming out of my redshirt year, I felt like I was about to take off. I was rotating with the 1s and 2s (starters and backups) and things were going well," he said. "Then I had a freak injury, tearing two ligaments in my ankle."
Bettiol still deep snapped for the Texans, then he had to play through another injury as a redshirt sophomore. He tore two ligaments in his ankle as a redshirt freshman, tore the labrum in his hip as a sophomore, experienced microfractures in his pelvis before his junior year and has also had a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his elbow.
"Last year there wasn't a lot I didn't have hurt," said Bettiol, who has since recovered and is healthy for the first time since high school. "Now I'm the healthiest I've been entering a season in a long time, and I'm ready to come out and have a great year playing a game I love with my brothers."
And hopefully celebrating more success along the way.
"Tarleton is an unbelievable place with a great student atmosphere. It's one of the best campuses this size in the state of Texas in my opinion, and we want to represent it the right way. There's no doubt in my mind that is is the place I was meant to be and that nothing for a long time will touch the experience I've had here."
"I want to go out a champion," he added. "We want to bring home a championship to Tarleton, and not just a conference championship."
Tarleton has come full circle.
Now Bettiol wants to help it climb the mountain.