Small-town Texas runner looks forward to his final Texas Relays

Leah Vann

In 2012, high school senior Zack Bilderback walked into Texas Relays with aspirations of returning to campus as a student. But walking out, the faint idea of returning as a collegiate athlete crossed
his mind. 

Bilderback’s main focus was playing safety and wide receiver for Celina High School’s varsity football team. But at Celina High School, every football player was required to run track. 

“I mostly just used track as training to get ready for football,” Bilderback said. “They put me on all the relays for three because they were double the points, but I started running the open 400 my senior year.” 

Bilderback’s 4×400 relay from the 3A Celina High School gave a record-breaking performance at Texas Relays, beating out 5A schools such as DeSoto and Mansfield Timberview. With Bilderback at anchor, Celina High School had the fastest high school time in the nation at 3:14.08. Before the Texas Relays, Bilderback hadn’t been heavily recruited, having only a few Division Two football offers. As a member of the top 10 percent of his class, Bilderback already planned to go to the University of Texas for academics. 

However, on May 5, 2012, Bilderback signed a letter of intent to run track at the University of Texas. Bilderback’s recruitment story and impact on the team has earned him the nickname the “silent assassin.”

“He’s one of those people who doesn’t say a whole lot but leads by example,” said Mario Sategna, Texas track and field coach.

During his freshman year, Bilderback placed third in the outdoor Big 12 Championships and qualified for the NCAA Championships, where he didn’t qualify for finals. 

“I felt like he was very talented,” sprinting coach Tonja Buford-Bailey said. “But it was key to get him confident enough to believe he belonged in a national final.”

With her help, Bilderback became a four-time Big 12 Champion in the indoor and outdoor 400-meter. On March 19, Bilderback became the first Longhorn in school history to win the NCAA title in the indoor 400-meter. 

“When he won that 400 indoor national race, it was one of the proudest moments I’ve ever had as a coach,” Bailey said.

Unlike his first appearance at Texas Relays, it is no surprise that Bilderback will be attracting a crowd of fans this weekend. Many of his coaches and family will be in town, in addition to his high school team, who will also be competing. It has been four years since Bilderback first set foot on the Texas track, and as he prepares for his last Texas Relays, he hopes he can send a message.

“I just want to be a role model and show that even athletes from small towns can come here if they work hard enough,” Bilderback said.