ALAMO — PSJA High’s J.D. Vera, one of the Valley’s top pass blockers and a key piece of the Bears’ talented senior class on the gridiron, signed his national letter of intent to play college football at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor surrounded by friends and family at a signing ceremony at his family home Saturday evening.

“It’s amazing. I’ve always dreamed of the opportunity to play at the next level and with my coaches and family behind me, it’s just made everything awesome,” Vera said. “I’ve been waiting for this day my whole life, and I’m just excited to go up there and play.

“It felt like home to me. The city, Belton, is a beautiful city. UMHB just really felt like the place to be and I loved them.”

Vera, who started at left tackle for the Bears, anchored PJSA High’s offensive line as its only returning starter and veteran leader.

Even new starters and some mid-season position changes, though, Vera helped turn the Bears’ offensive line from a preseason question mark into an unquestionable strength for the team by season’s end.

“Our O-line didn’t start out so well this season, but my coach pulled me aside and said, ‘Can you step up and be a great leader?’ I took the initiative and took advantage of the opportunity to push my teammates as the veteran of the O-linemen this year. I just told them, ‘We can be a lot better than what we’ve shown, and we showed it on the field with what we did,” he said.

“We had some experimenting to do. As the only returner, we had to find four new guys so over the summer we were just watching who was in there putting in the work. My coach sat down to talk to me and said, ‘Who do you believe should lead our starting line?’ I just gave him my word and my truth and told him who I thought it should be, and we put in the work and it showed as we progressed throughout the season.”

Vera was also part of a very accomplished, talented and deep senior class at PSJA High that captured football district titles as a freshman team in 2016 and back-to-back District 30-6A titles as juniors and seniors. 

Vera’s class has produced multiple high-level college athletes in football, baseball and track from the trenches of the offensive and defensive lines to the linebacking corp and senior speedsters at receiver.

“I’ve been playing with these guys since I was little in football and baseball. Being able to watch them accomplish and make their dreams come true makes me really happy to see them succeed,” he said. “We always pushed each other every day at practice, no matter what sport it was or what they played, we were all always pushing each other to do the best.”

A swarming defense and a high-octane, up-tempo offense made the Bears one of the Valley’s toughest teams to top in 2019.

With a senior signal caller and a slew of senior track stars on the perimeter, Vera and PSJA’s stability along the offensive line helped the team’s offense become one of the highest scoring units in the RGV.

During his junior and senior seasons, Vera provided invaluable pass protection that allowed the Bears to average 30.8 points per game and 9,756 yards of total offense during that two-year stretch.

“We’re used to winning. Our parents have been coaching us since we were little and we’re used to it,” Vera said. “That’s also why I chose UMHB. They’re a winning team and anyone can see they have a winning tradition.

Vera will be jumping from one program that embodies success to another when he joins Mary Hardin-Baylor, a Division III school in Belton, Texas, that has gained a reputation in recent years as a perennial power at the DIII level.

The Cru have won 15 straight American Southwest Conference championships and 17 of the league’s last 18 titles. UMHB also won the Stagg Bowl, the NCAA’s DIII National Championship game, in 2016 and 2018, while finishing as the national runners-up in 2017.

“I’m nervous and excited, but I just want to continue that winning tradition,” Vera said. “Wherever they want me to be, I’ll be. I just want to help them win. That’s my goal.”

Vera, who said he was drawn to UMHB because of its internal competitive culture, has continued strength training in preparation for the upcoming season and offseason workouts.

But being an offensive tackle in the midst of a state-wide lockdown due to the coronavirus, he had to get creative to keep upping the intensity.

“It’s been adventurous. I’m trying to put on more weight and I’m getting stronger, I’m just trying to find what I can put on the bar so it can be heavier, but I’m finding ways and it’s been a really fun process as far as trying to go heavier with the amount of weights I have,” Vera said. “To squat, I actually filled water buckets up, put them on the sides, so that added about 60 pounds. I was nervous, but it worked.”

amcculloch@themonitor.com