|The Fredenburg family, including Kori, in the white coat.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
The similarities are obvious: another 14-0 start and a third consecutive trip to the Stagg Bowl.
But the 2018 season has been anything but typical for Pete Fredenburg and his Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders.
The only head coach in the program’s 21-year history missed the first three games of the season while serving a self-imposed suspension for NCAA violations. He missed a practice during the week of the Cru’s national semifinal game, for a very different reason.
While serving the season-opening suspension, which followed a three-month offseason suspension, Fredenburg was able to spend additional time with his family. That was more important to him than ever this year, providing a silver lining while he missed his football family.
Leaving Belton on the Wednesday before the UW-Whitewater game was not an easy decision, but one that Fredenburg made without hesitation.
That was the day his daughter, Kori, received a kidney transplant.
“The prayers and the thoughts and the sacrifice of so many has made this such an emotional time for us. Certainly we’re very blessed and my daughter is doing great,” said Fredenburg. “Our players were aware and they were overwhelmingly supportive of me and my family. It was just an incredible time.”
Kori received the organ donation from her best friend, Heather Nay. The women grew up together and were volleyball teammates in high school before attending Baylor University.
“It’s amazing that my donor would be willing to do this. Her selflessness is just unheard of,” said Kori. “It’s opened all of our hearts up to know that there are so many kind people out there.”
While the Fredenburg family was experiencing a life-changing week, the Cru still had to prepare for their toughest test of the season. There were many goals at stake: returning to the Stagg Bowl to avenge last year’s bitter 12-0 loss, earning the right to play in the first Stagg Bowl held in their home state, and playing one more game for Kori to attend this season.
“We knew it would be sweet for him to get the win. We were praying for him every single day. It meant everything,” said senior running back Markeith Miller. “I know Coach Fred loves his daughter so much and we know what he and his family do for us each and every day. It’s an awesome feeling knowing that she’s going to be there to root on her dad and all of us.”
While she was crestfallen to miss a game, especially a home playoff game with a Stagg Bowl berth on the line, Kori understood her doctors’ orders. The hardest part was resisting her natural inclination to get loud while cheering on the Cru as she watched the game on her laptop.
“It was torture having to watch it on my computer,” she said. “It’s hard having abdominal surgery to scream and yell. That was tough. It will be better this week.”
The transplant was scheduled back in September, and the date was looming all throughout football season. While the family would have preferred a date after the Stagg Bowl, the doctors did what they had to do. That also meant that Kori knew what her dad and his team had to do immediately following her procedure.
“He was so worried about me. I kept saying, ‘All you need to do is coach a team and make it to the championship,’” she said. “I knew I was going to miss the semifinal, so I told him, ‘You have to win. There’s no losing this game.’ I knew we were going to win.”
A dominant defensive performance in the first half keyed the 31-14 win over UW-Whitewater. It was Mary Hardin-Baylor’s first victory over the Warhawks in six tries. Miller carried 33 times for 168 yards and two touchdowns to clinch the spot in the Stagg Bowl in nearby Shenandoah.
“You just can’t imagine what a relief it is,” said Fredenburg. “She’s probably my biggest fan. For her to be able to be at the Stagg Bowl is an added emotion for all of us.”
|Photo by Joe Fusco, d3photography.com
For the players, taking care of business in their final home game of the season came with an added sense of duty to the coach who has done so much for them in their time on campus.
“For everything Coach Fred has done for his players, to know we were able to do something for him and his family is amazing,” said senior receiver T.J. Josey. “We’re there to support him. He didn’t want it to cause a distraction to the football team, but we know that that’s a big thing for him. We came together and said prayers for him and his family. We made sure we went out there and got that win on Saturday so she could see us play again.”
Kori has received an outpouring of support from Cru football alumni, including many teammates of her younger brother, Cody.
“It’s been remarkable how supportive and gracious all of them are. It’s hard to put into words,” she said. “I know it’s really touched my dad to see the outpouring of support, and it has for me as well. People really respect him and they really value their relationship with him, which falls on to me. It’s really like a family.”
Nearly a week later, Fredenburg still gets choked up every time he is asked about his daughter, her successful transplant, and her recovery. He is coaching in his fourth Stagg Bowl this week with a clear mind, full of gratitude.
“Any time you talk about your family in a life and death situation, it’s very difficult,” said Fredenburg. “It’s been amazing the support that I got not only from friends and relatives, but from my team and my coaches. It’s been incredible. It certainly makes you appreciate the love that people have and share together.”
When the Cru celebrated on the field following Saturday’s win, Fredenburg embraced his wife, Karen, and they wept together. It was a cathartic moment after a very emotional week, in a very emotional season.
The suspension, followed by the scheduling of the transplant, then finally the transplant itself weighed on the family throughout the entire season. Now, they can look forward to focusing on football one more time, in their home state and on the biggest stage.
“I think maybe it gave Dad strength to fight through this season. He’s used my struggles to get through. I do think it’s very valuable that we had it scheduled through football season,” said Kori. “The waiting part is the worst part. Football kept us distracted. Looking forward to games and going to the games really helped me. It took everything he had to leave the hospital on Wednesday. I was in so much pain and he didn’t want to leave, but we all know how football is. Other people may not seem to understand, but football is a really big thing for our family. It’s been an emotional year all around.”
Just as she was confident the Cru would make it to the Stagg Bowl, Kori believed that her doctors would take care of her so that she can attend. She’ll be there Friday night, cheering as loud as she can for her favorite coach and her favorite team.
“I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”