Sam Houston junior quarterback Eric Schmid was hit so hard on one play during the Bearkats’ playoff win over Incarnate Word that an opposing defensive player, seeing Schmid lying on the turf, told a Sam Houston player: “He’s not gonna get up.”

Years from now, when former Bearkats players and proud Sam Houston alumni of all ages return to Huntsville to celebrate the school’s greatest era of football—and its greatest quarterback—that’s sure to be among the stories they’ll tell about a team that enters this weekend three victories away from a second straight FCS national championship.

“Oh, he’s gonna get up,” Bearkats wide receiver Cody Chrest told the opponent, adding: “It doesn’t matter how many times you hit him. I promise you: he will get up.”

Schmid did get back to his feet, and just as he’d done in last spring’s 2020 championship game, he led the Bearkats to victory. Schmid went down the field in a game-winning drive in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. On that final drive, with the game tied 42–42, Schmid completed a pair of third-down throws and finished things by waltzing into the end zone with 2:07 remaining in a game that ended 49–42. (Schmid had a more spectacular touchdown run in the second quarter, when he executed a leaping somersault over Incarnate Word defenders.)

“He’s the toughest guy I’ve ever met,” Chrest said. “Truly, his passion for the game is unmatched. When the game’s on the line, you see him doing front flips into the end zone, spitting out blood, all that sort of stuff. He’s an incredible leader, and it’s so easy to get behind a guy like that.”

This is Eric Schmid’s legacy at Sam Houston. Head coach K. C. Keeler—named one of college football’s 150 greatest coaches of all time by ESPN in 2019—has constructed a program that has achieved dazzling success. How dazzling? The Bearkats enter Saturday’s FCS quarterfinals game against Montana State riding a 22-game winning streak, with 21 of those coming in the 2021 calendar year.

Keeler is the first coach in FCS history to win championships at multiple institutions, having also won at Delaware in 2003. He was also the only coach in college football to offer the six-foot-one, 180-pound Schmid a scholarship when he graduated from The Woodlands High School in 2017.

“He’s the standard-bearer of this program because of how tough and competitive he is and because he has a skill set that’s so unique,” Keeler said. “He’s one of the toughest players I’ve ever coached, if not the toughest player I’ve ever coached. I think that translates so well with the team. He’s tough, he’s athletic, he’s fast.”

To repeat: Sam Houston is 21–0 in calendar year 2021. The Bearkats were 10–0 last spring in a season shortened by the pandemic and shifted to a February-to-May timeline. Now, back on a normal schedule this fall, Sam Houston is 11–0. To find the Bearkats’ last defeat, you have to go back to November 16, 2019, against Northwestern State. The winning streak began a week later with a 37–14 victory over Houston Baptist.

And that leads to the bottom line on Eric Schmid’s résumé: 50–4. That’s his combined record while playing for his dad, Mark Schmid, who was head coach at The Woodlands High School until 2018 (25–3), and now for Keeler at Sam Houston (25–1).

If you ask Sam Houston officials, they’ll say 25–0 is a more accurate reflection of Schmid’s record, because the one loss came when coaches were still determining who would be the Bearkats’ first-string quarterback, and Schmid didn’t play the entire game. Ever since Schmid got the job, Sam Houston has not lost. He has produced 7,046 passing yards, 900 rushing yards, and 60 touchdown passes in 35 career games, including those 26 starts and nine relief appearances.

He has played 10 of 11 games this season, sitting out one win over Stephen F. Austin after getting roughed up in a victory over Central Arkansas. He has been underestimated a few times before, in part because of his size, and also because of his blond hair and his quiet demeanor off the field. Those who know him best say it’s easy to be fooled.

“He’s calm,” Keeler said. “But there’s an edginess to him that you may not realize unless you’re really paying attention. Sometimes, we have to calm him down. When he scores, this calm demeanor all of a sudden explodes. He knows he has to be calm during the moment. After the moment, he’s pretty fired up. He’s understated. But don’t get fooled.”

Toughness? Last May, during the FCS championship game, Sam Houston was trailing South Dakota State 21–17 when the Bearkats got the ball back with 5:41 remaining in the fourth quarter. Schmid led a 65-yard scoring drive that included a pair of fourth-down conversions and a 10-yard touchdown pass with 16 seconds remaining.

Beyond what he did that day is how he did it. This is one very understandable definition of leadership. “He could hardly walk,” Keeler recalled. “One of their players gets hurt, and Eric uses the time to come to our sideline and gets his ankle re-taped. He then ran for a first down and threw the ball between four defenders on the last play of the game that changed all our lives.”

Asked how he calmed his nerves during the final drive, Schmid shrugged and said: “Honestly, I was too tired to even think anything other than just what is the play, trying to get out there, and run it how it’s supposed to be done.”

As for last week’s somersault into the end zone, the quarterback said: “Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking. I was just trying to score. I remember seeing the sideline on my left, and the guy in front of me was a lot bigger than me.”

Let’s get this out of the way: Schmid is uncomfortable with the attention that comes with an article like this one. He came to Sam Houston with a core group of players that have achieved remarkable success, and he believes the credit should be spread among them.

“That’s just who he is,” Chrest explained. “He tries to make it about us. I introduced him to my family after a game, and when my parents congratulated him, he told them I deserved the credit. It almost made my parents tear up.”

Schmid wasn’t sure how much quarterback he’d get to play when he arrived at Sam Houston. He was recruited as a quarterback, but because of his speed (4.4 in the 40-yard dash) and perceived lack of arm strength, some believed his future was at wide receiver. “We were gonna give him every chance to play quarterback,” Keeler said. “There was always just enough there that you wanted to see how this whole thing was gonna work out. I think maybe even he thought he’d end up at wide receiver. We all realized that he just has a special skill set. We decided we needed to keep on developing his pocket passing abilities. He has done that.”

Schmid’s father saw some of the same traits at The Woodlands, where the team reached the Class 6A Division I state championship game in 2016. “The thing that separated him was just his ability to make plays when you needed them,” said Mark Schmid, now the head coach at Oak Ridge High School. “He was able to deliver when you needed it, whether running or passing. He can do both, and those guys are tough to defend. I think he has the instincts to know when to pull it down and go or when to make the throw.”

Plenty of Eric Schmid’s understanding of the game was honed during the ninety-minute drives with his dad from the family home in Brenham to The Woodlands.  “When we’d get home, it was a father-son relationship,” Eric said. “But on those drives, we talked a lot of football.”

Although the sports world is rife with cautionary examples of fathers either coaching their sons too hard or showing favoritism to their children, Mark Schmid came to see his hybrid father-coach relationship with Eric as a significant advantage. “He would tell me things no other kid would ever tell me,” Mark said. “He’d say, ‘I know y’all like this concept, but I don’t feel comfortable with it.’ I wouldn’t have gotten that from a normal kid. They’re going to be ‘Yes sir; no sir,’ totally respectful.”

That comfort level extended onto the field. In one of Eric Schmid’s first games at The Woodlands, Mark signaled a play. “He just shook off the play like a pitcher shaking off the catcher,” Mark said. “I pointed at him and said, ‘Okay, what do you want?’ He’d call something he felt comfortable with. Those are things you don’t get a lot of times out of just a traditional coach-player relationship.”

I asked Mark if there was a moment when he began to grasp that Eric was good enough to play at Sam Houston. “It was the first play of the first game after the starting job really was his,” Mark said. “Against Incarnate Word in 2019, he escaped pressure and threw a sixty-four-yard touchdown pass. He threw for 531 yards and five touchdowns in that game.”

Mark Schmid blinks back a tear or two when he thinks about the scene after the national championship game in May. His son had played a career-defining game, and afterward, the magnitude of it all felt overwhelming. “Just to see how it affected everybody in the stadium,” Mark said. “It’s all these kids; it’s all these people who care about their alma mater. It was just, wow.”

Eric added: “It was like, ‘Is this really real?’ Once we came back to Huntsville, that’s when I really started noticing how it impacted a lot more people than you would think.”

As Schmid attempts to put the proper finishing touches on a remarkable 2021, he said he has taken a moment to wrap his mind around all of it. “What makes me love football is the guys around me,” he said. “That’s my favorite thing about it—going to work every day and playing together and trying to accomplish a goal. I hate losing more than anything in the world, and I’m blessed that I got to come here and win with these guys, because I think the world of them. They’ve made me a better person. I’m thoroughly blessed.”