|Baylor Mullins, Carson Embry, Blake Jackson, Teidrick Smith and Matt Cody show Brielle DiFrancesca and her parents, Heidi and Mark, how to properly root on the Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders.
Photo courtesy DiFrancesca family
"Her outlook at life at just six years old is a lot better than a lot of ours," says Matt Cody. "We see what she’s overcome, so we try to apply that."
Photo courtesy DiFrancesca family
By Adam Turer
A No. 1 ranking. Home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The South Region Offensive and Defensive Players and Coach of the Year.
You’d think that Mary Hardin-Baylor doesn’t need a secret weapon. But, they have a very special one who has inspired and motivated the Crusaders beyond their already impressive on-field performances.
Three days before the playoffs began, five Cru players — Blake Jackson, Matt Cody, Baylor Mullins, Teidrick Smith, and Carson Embry — made a trip to McLane Children’s Scott & White Hospital. It was there that they met 6-year-old Brielle DiFrancesca. Their new biggest fan has been their most supportive cheerleader through the first three rounds of the postseason.
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Before each game, Brielle, who has Down syndrome and has endured numerous heart and intestinal surgeries since the day she was born, dons a Cru jersey that she calls her “football dress.” She grabs her purple pom-poms as she and her parents head to Crusader Stadium to cheer on her favorite team.
“It’s been a huge impact on her. She loves these boys,” said Brielle’s mother Heidi, a natural sciences associate dean and assistant professor of biology at UMHB. “She is inspired and feels like one of the team. She finds great purpose and fulfilment in being a part of the team.”
The inspiration goes both ways. The team that did not face a great deal of on-field adversity during a dominant regular season has battled through three tough challenges to advance to the semifinals. When they faced adversity on the field — uncharacteristic turnovers against Redlands, a driving rainstorm and tough defense against Wheaton — the Crusaders stayed the course. They know all about overcoming adversity, thanks to Brielle.
“The way she approaches her condition and always has a smile just brightens your day. It’s something that we’ve embraced,” said Cody, a senior linebacker. “Her outlook at life at just six years old is a lot better than a lot of ours. We see what she’s overcome, so we try to apply that. Anytime we can help out Brielle with a win, because she’s our biggest fan, anything to help her is why we go out now and play.”
The five players were asked to visit Brielle by university president Randy O’Rear. They didn’t hesitate to make the trip to the hospital, but never expected how much it would impact them.
“Whenever we get a chance to give back to someone, we always want to take advantage of the opportunity,” said senior quarterback Jackson, the South Region Offensive Player of the Year. “We just fell in love with this little girl. She’s an amazing person. She has the spirit that she has, the attitude that she has, her personality is so contagious. If you walk into that room, her smile can make everyone else in the room smile.”
The players were so impressed by Brielle that they didn’t want to keep her to themselves. They asked their coaches if they could bring their new friend to the team’s devotional meeting the night before a playoff game. Brielle and her parents attended. The Crusaders surprised Brielle with a homemade birthday card signed by the players, then sang her happy birthday.
“Words somehow seem empty and hollow in trying to capture the impact that this has had on us as a family. We are extremely grateful for these exceptional young men who have embraced our family without any reservations,” said Heidi. “We are overwhelmed with how they have accepted and honored our daughter. Many times, individuals with special needs are unnoticed or disregarded. But, the Cru football team has excellent young men who, for whatever reason, have embraced Brielle despite her health and intellectual disabilities, which has given her a respite from the day-to-day challenges that she faces.
“In many ways, the Cru has given us, as her parents, a new perspective of her impact reciprocated. It seems as though she means as much to the team as the team means to her.”
This year’s Crusaders team felt special before the players met Brielle. Adding an inspirational little sister to the already tight brotherhood has taken the Cru’s bond to another level.
“It’s not even a team anymore. It’s just a big old family. I’ve never played with a team that’s this close-knit on every side of the ball,” said Cody. “The family aspect is incredible. I think that’s a big reason why we’re winning. Everyone wants to protect this family. We know that our days as football players are limited and that this family is limited, so we just want to keep it going for as long as possible.”
Thanks to an undefeated regular season in which the Crusaders led the nation in scoring and defensive touchdowns, Mary Hardin-Baylor secured home field advantage throughout the playoffs. This Saturday will be the final home game of the season. The Cru hopes that they have one more game to play together and know that if they make it to Salem, Brielle will be cheering them on from afar.
|Brielle, in her 'football dress,' takes in a recent UMHB playoff game.
Photo courtesy DiFrancesca family
“Once you meet her, you understand the impact that she has on everybody she comes into contact with. She’s just an incredible personality,” said UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg. “Sometimes you take things for granted. When you see someone with that personality and all the battles that she’s fighting, it humbles you. It certainly has impacted our players and our team and she’s made an incredible impression on all of us.”
The players are aware of the eye-popping numbers, the lopsided victories, and the loud home crowds that cheer them on. They understand that all of that pales in comparison to the real reasons why they play. They know what is at stake on Saturday, but won’t let that distract them. The Crusaders, inspired by Brielle, are appreciative of the opportunity to strap it up one more time on their home field with their brothers. They even have a newfound appreciation for practice.
“This team is a great brotherhood. Everybody sees each other as brothers. A great thing about this team is that we’re all leaders,” said Jackson. “Not everybody is blessed with the opportunity or ability to play football, and some people take that for granted some times. [Being around Brielle] strengthens your mentality and makes you want to attack every day, appreciate every day and everything that God has blessed you with throughout this day.”
The Crusaders have been a blessing for Brielle and her family. The toughness and tenacity that she brings to each day in spite of her young lifetime of adversity is something the Crusaders hope to take into their showdown with Mount Union on Saturday.
They will be spurred on by one small voice rising above the rest on Saturday, shouting “Let’s go Cru!”