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What I Learned in Aggieland

A country star who drove a bus around campus. An Aggie Dance Team captain who became a soap opera staple. National reporters who got their start at The Battalion. Eight extraordinary former students share life-changing lessons from their time at Texas A&M.

By Bailey Payne '19
Photography by Josh Huskin

Every Aggie has a story to tell from their years on campus. Hundreds of thousands of dreamers and doers have called Texas A&M University home, each one experiencing their own trials, tribulations, and triumphs on the road to graduation and beyond. We asked eight former students with extraordinary careers to share the lessons they still carry from their time at Texas A&M. Whether they became a bestselling author or a Blue Angel pilot, each has a unique answer to one critical question: What did you learn in Aggieland?

Jacobs Crawley ’11, saddle bronc riding world champion

Saddle bronc riding is, at its heart, a test of muscle memory. Riders have more control in the saddle than they do on bare horseback, but they need to demonstrate style and keep perfect rhythm with the horse if they want to win. When the gate pulls back and the horse rears its legs, all its passenger can do is trust their body’s instinct to convert preparation into practice.

Jacobs Crawley ’11 has built much of his life around these eight-second thrill rides. Coming of age in Stephenville, Texas, Crawley demonstrated an aptitude for various rodeo events. “I did everything back then,” he said. “Riding bulls, all that stuff. By the time I tried saddle bronc riding when I was 15, I had already built the foundational skills doing other events.” Crawley continued competing at Texas A&M, where he studied industrial engineering while riding for the Texas Aggie Rodeo team.

Crawley’s college schedule was unrelenting. If he wasn’t studying, he was practicing or competing with little free time in between. “I learned to keep my nose down and keep working,” he said. At the end of his senior year, he even presented his capstone project over Skype on the morning of a national rodeo competition in Las Vegas.

The work ethic Crawley developed in Aggieland transferred well to the professional circuit. In 2015, he won the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Saddle Bronc Riding World Championship and has placed at and won various events across the country since. “Texas A&M taught me to solve problems and do things one day at a time. If you do that long enough, you eventually find yourself looking up one day and saying, ‘Holy cow, how did I manage all this?’”

Photo of Jacobs Crawley

“Texas A&M taught me to solve problems and do things one day at a time. If you do that long enough, you eventually find yourself looking up one day and saying, ‘Holy cow, how did I manage all this?’”
- Jacobs Crawley ’11

Roger Creager ’93, Texas country singer-songwriter

In fall 1998, students shuffled onto the Aggie Spirit bus, where an enthusiastic 27-year-old student greeted them from behind the wheel. The driver liked his job. It paid well, the hours were flexible and the campus bus drivers comprised a unique community, not unlike the Corps of Cadets, which he had cherished participating in years before. Occasionally, it even helped promote his music. The local country station, 98.3 KORA, ran ads for his debut album and weekly bar gigs saying, “Get your tickets for Roger Creager at Hurricane Harry's!” On cue, the driver turned to his captive audience and yelled, “Hey, that's me! Y'all come see me tonight!”

Creager ’93 first came to Texas A&M as a freshman in 1989, joining the Corps and quickly embracing the university's famed “other education”—at the detriment of its regular education. “I didn't really apply myself then,” he admitted. Creager drifted in and out of scholastic probation, but he doesn't look back on that time and see wasted years. “The Corps gave me a sense of pride and self-respect that followed me the rest of my life.”

Ultimately, Creager’s grade struggles forced him to finish his business degree at Sam Houston State University. After a few years at an unfulfilling office job, he hit the reset button and returned to Aggieland. This time, he was hyper-focused on fulfilling two lifelong dreams: getting a Texas A&M degree and playing music for a living. Studying agricultural development by day and working on his first album, “Having Fun All Wrong,” by night, Creager successfully released his record in August 1998 and graduated that December.

The album proved a hit, and Creager has been on tour ever since. An adventurist at heart, he treasures the opportunities music has given him to fish, ski, fly, and hike his way around the world. He's even participated in the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, on multiple occasions. Though he has plenty of advice to offer Aggies pursuing their passion, he has none for potential bull runners. “There are a few things in the world I'm just naturally good at,” he remarked, “and getting out of the way of a dang bull is one of them.”

Photo of Roger Creager

“There are a few things in the world I’m just naturally good at, and getting out of the way of a dang bull is one of them.”
- Roger Creager ’93

Tony Liberto ’86, President & CEO of Ricos Products

It seems obvious now, as things often do in hindsight, but when the late entrepreneur Frank Liberto first pitched nachos, the classic Tex-Mex staple, as a concession stand snack at Arlington Stadium in 1976, he was met with skepticism. “They didn’t want him to cut into their popcorn and hot dog sales,” said Tony Liberto ’86, Frank’s son and protégé. Nevertheless, his father haggled his way into setting up a homemade cart during a Texas Rangers baseball game, and the snack was a raucous success. Not only was the simple, messy dish popular, but it even drove up sales for the more traditional fare. “The spice from the jalapeños makes you want to buy another drink or snack to cool down.” Thus, the Ricos nachos empire was born.

Tony grew up in the business, working with his father as their modestly successful family operation, which dates to Tony’s great-grandparents, rapidly took over ballparks and movie theaters across the country. Near the end of high school, while his brother and sister looked toward careers in other fields, Tony expressed interest in succeeding his dad. He enrolled at Texas A&M to study management, taking to the university’s culture like a fish to water. “The traditions, the brotherhood, the Aggie Spirit—it all appealed to me,” he said.

After spending two decades learning under his father post-graduation, Tony took the reins of Ricos in 2006, dutifully maintaining Frank’s leadership philosophy. “He taught me to treat every employee as a member of our extended family,” Tony said. That thinking has proved hugely successful; Ricos products can be found in all 50 states and 57 countries. Introducing nachos to international markets has had its unique challenges (“In Germany, people asked, ‘Where’s the knife and fork?’”), but Tony finds endless joy in sharing his family’s cheese-laden legacy with sports fans, moviegoers and midnight snackers around the world.

Photo of Tony Liberto

“The traditions, the brotherhood, the Aggie Spirit—it all appealed to me.”
- Tony Liberto ’86

Martha Madison ’99, soap opera star

The life of the average soap opera character is notoriously grueling, traumatic, and utterly absurd. Martha Madison ’99 knows this more than most. Her character, Belle Black Brady, on NBC’s landmark soap opera “Days of our Lives” has gone through the wringer since Madison started playing her in 2004. “Belle has been married three times and divorced twice,” Madison explained. “Her daughter has been committed to a mental institution, both of her parents have died and come back to life, and she recently got possessed by the Devil!” Thankfully, Madison has lived a quiet life in comparison, though not without its challenges.

Growing up performing musical theatre in Houston, Madison saw herself as more of a dancer than an actor or singer and sought to hone her talents as a dance major at Texas Tech University. After a semester in Lubbock, though, she transferred to Texas A&M to study psychology closer to home. Shortly after, she found a spot on the Aggie Dance Team and eventually became captain during her senior year. “I loved it,” Madison said. “It was like a cross between a sorority and a full-time job.” After graduation, Madison accepted an offer to a prestigious musical theatre program in New York City, but an ankle injury cut her dance dreams short a year in.

Determined to pivot quickly, she found a television agent and moved to Los Angeles, where she soon found her role on “Days,” a historically long-running show that held a personal connection. “I used to watch it with my sisters during the summers and got hooked,” she said. Though the storylines can be winkingly far-fetched, the work schedule is no joke. Whereas most prime time shows shoot a single episode over a week, Madison and crew often shoot eight episodes in the same time frame. “It takes discipline and team spirit, both of which I practiced at Texas A&M,” she stated. Now, no matter where her story goes, she knows she can hit her mark at a moment’s notice.

Photo of Martha Madison

“It takes discipline and team spirit, both of which I practiced at Texas A&M.”
- Martha Madison ’99

Roland Martin ’91, award-winning multimedia journalist

Roland Martin ’91 grew up with his head on a swivel. His parents co-founded a civic club for their Houston neighborhood to involve their neighbors in local affairs, while his father frequently binged broadcast news. “He watched the newscasts in the morning, at noon, at six o’clock and ten o’clock,” Martin recalled. This commitment to engagement, combined with Martin’s experience working for his grandmother’s catering business, gave him the personality of a watchful, detail-oriented hard worker always looking to learn something new. In other words, the ideal reporter.

Studying at a magnet high school focused on journalism, Martin feverously tackled school newspaper editorials and media projects, eventually graduating at the top of his class. When he arrived at Texas A&M to study journalism with his brother in the late 1980s, he made his presence known, contributing to The Battalion and The Eagle as well as the local television station KBTX. “I essentially created my own curriculum,” Martin said. His unrelenting drive earned respect from professors, who encouraged him to hold himself to a higher standard.

Martin went on to earn a master’s degree at Louisiana Baptist University and worked as the executive editor of The Chicago Defender before contributing on-air for years at CNN and TV One. His uncompromising persona and penchant for challenging bigotry head-on earned him two NAACP Image Awards in 2018. “It’s easy to stay in your own world and let hatred go unchallenged,” Martin said. “I refuse to do that.” The same year, he shifted to an innovative market, building his own broadcast network entirely on YouTube, headed by his daily show “Roland Martin Unfiltered.” Having amassed more than 800,000 followers already, Martin is finding success the same way he did three decades ago: by creating his own curriculum.

Photo of Roland Martin

“It’s easy to stay in your own world and let hatred go unchallenged. I refuse to do that.”
- Roland Martin ’91

Charean Williams ’86, veteran NFL sportswriter

Charean Williams ’86 was walking with her parents into her junior high in Beaumont, Texas, when she came across two boys in a heated argument. “One turned to me and said, ‘Hey, Charean, what number does Lee Roy Jordan on the Cowboys wear?’” Williams remembered: “I looked at him like he was stupid and said, ‘55!’ That boy turned to the other, saying, ‘I told you so!’ and the other boy gave him a dollar.”

Everyone in town knew Williams was the authority on Dallas Cowboys knowledge. At age 8, she made the local paper when she told her teacher she would marry star quarterback Roger Staubach. For as long as Williams could remember, she wanted to become a journalist and cover the Cowboys. “I was just so in love with the game itself,” she said. When she landed at Texas A&M, she latched onto The Battalion’s sports beat, applying her same enthusiasm and attention to detail while covering Aggie football and basketball. “The Aggie Spirit is real. It’s not hard to fall for the university while you’re there,” she said.

Post-graduation, Williams built up her resume by writing for local newspapers before securing her first gig following an NFL team at the Orlando Sentinel, where she covered the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She reported on the team for six years, building rapport with stars like Warren Sapp, John Lynch, and Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy. Then, in 1999, she got the call that made her real dream come true: the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wanted her to cover her beloved Cowboys. “I got the call,” she remembered, “and I just thought, ‘Wow, I made it.’”

Williams reported on the Cowboys for 17 seasons before taking on her current role writing for Pro Football Talk. Along the way, she became the first woman to have a vote for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the first woman to serve as president of the Pro Football Writers of America, also receiving their highest honor, the Bill Nunn Award (formerly the Dick McCann Award), in 2018. Other women working in the NFL have credited her as an influence on their careers. “I never thought I would inspire others,” she said. “It was never a goal for me when I started out, but I’m just so blessed to be in this position and encourage women to take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way.”

Photo of Charean Williams

“The Aggie Spirit is real. It’s not hard to fall for the university while you’re there.”
- Charean Williams ’86

Martha Wells ’86, New York Times bestselling sci-fi/fantasy author

Before she could even read, Martha Wells ’86 found herself drawn to science fiction. “My family always had a lot of books in our house, and I was fascinated by ‘The Time Machine’ by H.G. Wells because I recognized our last name on the cover,” she recalled. Later, Wells absorbed reruns of classic sci-fi shows like “Lost in Space” and “Land of the Giants.”

“There weren’t science fiction ‘fandoms’ like those online today, so I got connected through magazines like ‘Starlog,’” she said. Between the publication’s numerous articles about “Star Trek,” she saw advertisements for a student-run sci-fi/fantasy convention called AggieCon, which partially inspired her to attend Texas A&M.

While studying anthropology in Aggieland, Wells got involved in Cepheid Variable, the student organization responsible for AggieCon. “I eventually became the chairman for AggieCon my senior year,” she said. “At that point, it was the biggest conference of its kind in the Southwest.” Wells had already taken to reading and writing sci-fi/fantasy literature in high school. Meeting popular authors and hearing about their journeys showed her that she could make a career out of her passion. She published her first novel, “The Element of Fire,” in 1993 and quickly followed it with various stories about shapeshifters, necromancers, and journeys to the center of the Earth.

Her biggest breakthrough came in “The Murderbot Diaries,” a series of futuristic novellas about a snarky security android who gains independence. The series’ first installment, “All Systems Red,” reached The New York Times Bestseller List for Audio and won the Hugo Award, the most prestigious award in science fiction, in 2018. As sci-fi and fantasy stories increasingly take over the mainstream, Wells encourages aspiring storytellers to learn their industry inside and out if they want to follow their dreams. “You have so much information at your fingertips these days. Keep learning from others and reading stories for fun, and never stop expanding your comfort zone.”

Photo of Martha Wells

“You have so much information at your fingertips these days. Keep learning from others and reading stories for fun, and never stop expanding your comfort zone.”
- Martha Wells ’86

Frank Zastoupil ’09, Blue Angels demonstration pilot

Before he climbs into the cockpit of his FA-18 Super Hornet, Blue Angels pilot Frank Zastoupil ’09 makes a routine but profound gesture: He shakes his crew chief’s hand. “That handshake is the final bond between pilot and crew chief,” Zastoupil stated. “They do all the plane’s maintenance and make sure it’s safe to fly. The crowd may not realize it, but that handshake is our way of saying, ‘I trust you with my life.’” Trust is paramount within the Blue Angels, and Zastoupil has spent his life preparing to become the pilot his teammates can trust with their lives, too.

In 1990, when Zastoupil was 4 years old, his father took him to a Blue Angels show and passed down a childhood dream. “He wanted to be a pilot when he was a kid, but he had a surgery that prevented him from flying,” Zastoupil said. Fascinated by the Angels’ maneuvers, he took up his father’s desire to serve his country from above. Hailing from a long line of Aggies, including his great-grandfather, aunt, uncle, and four cousins, he knew he could pursue his sky-high ambitions at Texas A&M.

Unlike most students with military aspirations, Zastoupil didn't join the Corps of Cadets but still credits his experience in Aggieland for preparing him for his current role. “Attending Texas A&M was one of the best decisions I ever made,” he declared. “Everyone there affirmed my moral character, fed my drive and taught me I could overcome any obstacle.” Zastoupil commissioned as an officer in the United States Marine Corps before finding his way onto the same Blue Angels demonstration team that inspired him three decades before.

Though Zastoupil takes pride in perfecting his electrifying flight routine with his team, he cherishes the community outreach aspect of the Blue Angels above all else. “Just this morning, I was getting breakfast at our hotel when a little girl my daughter’s age saw us and said, ‘Mommy, I want to meet a Blue Angel,’” he said. “I ended up talking with her for 10 minutes. It’s like that everywhere we go, and it just warms my heart to put on that blue suit, inspire others, and be part of something bigger than myself.”

Photo of Frank Zastoupil

“Attending Texas A&M was one of the best decisions I ever made. Everyone there affirmed my moral character, fed my drive and taught me I could overcome any obstacle.”
- Frank Zastoupil ’09

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