From Burton to SA and quarterback to linebacker

Harmel’s position change has paid huge dividends for Trinity football

Texas high school football is a phenomenon. Small towns across the state shut down on Friday nights and fans of all ages file in to support their hometown team. If you’re thinking “Friday Night Lights” or “Varsity Blues,” you aren’t too far off.

This is the same setting where Caleb Harmel, senior linebacker on the Trinity football team, got his start. About 140 miles away in the small Texas town of Burton, Harmel was a star on the gridiron. Although Burton officially became a city ahead of the 2010 census, as of 2019, Burton was home to approximately 292 people. It sits some 85 miles from Houston, 80 miles from Austin and 40 miles from College Station. The town’s closest neighbor is Brenham, Texas (population 17,369), a little less than 15 miles down the road.

“I wouldn’t trade my high school career for anything,” Harmel said. “Going to a small school and having that family-like atmosphere throughout the whole town was something that I cherish and will continue to cherish for the rest of my life.”

In that atmosphere, he became an all-state player at the 2A classification and cemented himself as an all-time great Burton Panther. He played both quarterback and defensive line, and, while trying to recall how many total touchdowns he was responsible for, provided the number 195. About 100 passing touchdowns, 80-something rushing touchdowns and another handful of defensive touchdowns. In his senior year, he helped Burton to the UIL State Quarterfinals.

Harmel wanted to continue his career at the collegiate level and he wanted to do so as a quarterback. He took the steps to connect with college coaches at the end of his junior year and quickly found success.

“I got offered by, I want to say, 10 to 12 Division III schools to play quarterback and offered by a few Division II schools to play quarterback,” Harmel said.

Among those to offer him the position he wanted to play were the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor, currently the reigning Division III national champions, and Harding University, a highly ranked Division II school in Searcy, Arkansas.

Harmel had one other offer on the table, though. Not to play quarterback, but to come in as an athlete with the chance to play several different positions. That offer, of course, was from Trinity. The Tigers were the only team to offer Harmel as an athlete.

While the decision of which position to play was left to Harmel, it did not happen until he had already accepted Trinity’s offer.

“I honestly appreciate them. They basically gave me the decision if I wanted to play quarterback or linebacker. Mahalik, our defensive coordinator, talked to me about how he saw how much I loved playing defense from my high school film. We had a really great quarterback here at the time so I just thought I’d get a little bit more playing time on the defensive side of the ball,” Harmel said.

Coming in his first year, Harmel was not only making a transition from high school to college football but was also being asked to learn a new position. Most of his playing time would come on special teams as a first-year until an injury gave him more defensive snaps.

“We had two great linebackers at the time and unfortunately one got hurt. But that gave me the opportunity to go in and play and I feel like I made the best of my chances when I was in there and ended up starting the last five games of the season and playing a pretty big role in those games. And, you know, I haven’t looked back since,” Harmel said.

And that certainly is the truth. Now in his fourth year in the program, Harmel has become not just one of Trinity’s best linebackers, but one of the best linebackers in all of Division III. 2021 was the first full season since his first-year campaign, and he used it to nab Southern Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year honors while also being named to the All-American fourth team.

In this year’s 2022 campaign, Harmel was selected as a team captain and was named to the preseason All-American first team. While he’s anchoring the defense with numbers just as good as last year, he points to the teammates he has around him.

“I’d say it’s just a whole effort. I can say I’m the captain, I’m the leader of the defense. But without those other 10 guys on the field, we wouldn’t be able to do anything. So just loving the guys next to me, really appreciating how talented they are, how bought-in they are, how much they love the game just like me and just encouraging them,” Harmel said.

A year ago, Trinity returned to the NCAA Division III football championship for the first time in 10 years. Now, with more experience under his belt, Caleb Harmel will look to lead the Tigers there again, with hopes of making a bigger splash on the biggest stage.