COLLEGE STATION (AP) – Travis Labhart spent his freshman year on a practice squad that helped the Texas A&M women’s basketball team prepare for games.
After unsuccessful tryouts for the men’s basketball team and the football team, he finally made the football team as a walk-on and spent most of the first two seasons watching from the sideline.
On Saturday, the senior’s years of hard work finally paid off when he had 97 yards receiving to help No. 7 Texas A&M beat Mississippi.
“The journey makes zero sense,” Labhart said shaking his head.
But he delights in telling the story of his winding path since leaving high school in the tiny North Texas town of Whitesboro.
By his own admission, he wasn’t a particularly good high school player and was just 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds at graduation. Considering that, continuing his athletic career in college wasn’t something he counted on.
But he loved sports, so when a friend from bible study saw him playing intramural basketball and mentioned the practice squad for the women’s basketball team, he was intrigued. But also a little reticent, even after he decided to join the squad.
“I was a freshman and it was kind of cheesy that I was on the women’s basketball team,” he said. “I was a little nervous at first sharing it, but it ended up being great. Those girls are great. I had a newfound respect for women’s basketball after I got a chance to work with them.”
After failing to make both the men’s basketball team and the football team in the spring of his sophomore year, he thought about giving up. He decided to try out for the football team one more time in the fall and this time he made the cut.
He remembers his first day at practice when he ran a route against hard-hitting former defensive back Steven Campbell and was leveled.
“He just smoked me,” Labhart said. “I woke up the next morning and tried to look at my alarm clock and just turned my whole body because I couldn’t turn my neck, and I knew football was back.”
He quickly latched on to former receiver Ryan Swope after joining the team and tried to soak up all he could from his mentor. He never had a chance to showcase what he learned on the field in his first two seasons, though he did get plenty of work on the scout team.
The work ended up being beneficial because Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Manziel was the quarterback on the scout team during Labhart’s first season with the Aggies. He said the two of them had a good laugh about finally taking advantage of their scout-team chemistry this weekend.
“We love looking back and thinking about those times,” Labhart said. “So it was really cool to take that into a real game.”
Coach Kevin Sumlin rewarded Labhart with a scholarship at the start of this season, and delights in the progress he’s made.
“Travis is a great story for us and a great story for this team,” 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.”
Labhart didn’t have a reception in a game before this season, and his work had been limited until Saturday. He caught a touchdown pass against Sam Houston State, but that was one of only three receptions he’d had before his big game.
He said the performance has really helped him believe that he belongs on this team and can contribute in the future.
“Sometimes you second-guess yourself and you have a confidence issue,” he said. “In the past I’ve had that honestly. It was really great to see my teammates encourage me.”
Though Labhart’s breakout game came out of the blue to most, Sumlin knew what he was capable of.
“I know for a fact that four weeks ago, our quarterback felt as comfortable with him as anybody,” Sumlin said. “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.”
As the Aggies prepare for Saturday’s game with No. 24 Auburn, Labhart is still trying to process what happened last Saturday and called it a surreal experience.
He loves all the notice he’s getting this week, but had one small complaint after hearing from some high schools friends after the game. They were unhappy that the broadcasters said he was from Dallas instead of nearby Whitesboro. He’s very proud of his hometown and believes talking about it will help encourage other kids like him.
“Work hard and anything’s possible,” he said, “no matter how small you are or what school you go to.”
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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