A look at Kansas State football's storied walk-on culture
Stanton Weber looks at it like this: He had no choice but to be a Kansas State football player.
It's not just because the senior receiver, a former walk-on, was raised by a K-State quarterback (his father, Stan, played from 1980 to '84) or that he has been attending Wildcats games practically since he was born (without hesitation, he can tell you he grew up in section 14, row 32, seat 8). It's also because if you graduate high school in the Midwest, have dreams of playing Division I football and don't receive any scholarship offers, you should probably find your way to Manhattan, Kan.
Lots of programs pride themselves on being walk-on friendly. But the walk-on program at Kansas State is part of the team's identity, and has been since coach Bill Snyder took over in 1989 and engineered one of the biggest turnarounds in college football history. In Manhattan, walk-ons become captains, all-conference standouts and NFL mainstays. For players like defensive back Jon McGraw (1998–2001) who went on to play 12 years in the pros, and wideout Jordy Nelson ('05–07), an All-America for the Wildcats and a Pro Bowler for the Green Bay Packers, the words walk-on and winner are intertwined. Thirty-three walk-ons have started for K-State since 1989, including current sophomore quarterback Joe Hubener. All-America center B.J Finney, who started a record 52 consecutive games for the Wildcats from 2011 to '14, came to Manhattan without a scholarship. This year alone, a staggering 50 of Kansas State's 122 roster spots belong to current or former walk-ons.
"We can't go through all of them or we'd be here for days," Snyder says. "I so admire young guys who have a love for the game, who will forgo so much to get invested in [our] program. They have a great discipline about them. That doesn't mean that scholarship players don't. It just takes a different type of discipline."
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From his two lengthy stints as coach at K-State (from 1989 to '05 and from '09 to the present), it's tough for Snyder to pick a favorite walk-on story. Two stand out: He made his son, Sean, walk on as a punter in 1991. (Asked how this went over with Sean's mom, Bill laughs, "That's another story for another day!") Sean earned All-America honors in '92 and still holds the school single-season record for punting yardage (3,572). Now the associate head coach, he has been part of the Wildcats' football program for the last 21 years.
The other story is about a linebacker in whom no one believed. No one, that is, except Bill Snyder.
Reza Tanha was a 6-foot, 190-pounder from Gridley, Kan., population 300. They play eight-man football in Gridley, and Tanha dreamed of becoming an engineer. He walked on at Emporia (Kan.) State, then an NAIA Division II school. But he wanted a greater academic challenge, so he transferred to Kansas State in 1988. Full of moxie, he believed he had the talent to join the Wildcats. His coach at Emporia State, Larry Kramer, didn't agree. "I know you're not gonna get cut because you're tough enough to make it through my program," Kramer told him. "But you'll never play a down in the Big 8."
Tanha ignored Kramer and earned a spot on the K-State roster under then coach Stan Parrish. In 2015, the chances of an NAIA player making the jump to FBS are almost zero. But in 1988, Tanha says, the move made sense. "Let me tell you something, the team I played on at Emporia, we woulda whipped 'em!"
Tanha redshirted his first year, as the Wildcats went 0–11. Snyder took over in November. A few weeks into the 1989 season, Tanha approached him.
Tanha told Snyder that he had to say thanks. Before Snyder arrived, walk-ons got hand-me-down practice gear and shoes. They dressed in a separate locker room, and played only in practices. There was a clear divide between the haves and the have-nots. But when Snyder got to K-State he told his assistants that he didn't want to know which players had the team's 45 scholarships, or who was on aid versus who wasn't. (He still tries to do this.) "I just want to tell you how much I appreciate you," Tanha told Snyder. "I haven't played much, but you've got me into three games so far—and I know I'm not a very good player. But you treat us just like everyone else."
Twenty-six years later, Snyder recalls this conversation warmly. Tanha's gratitude made a lasting impression, Snyder says, and he thinks back on it often. Snyder's memory both astounds Tanha and doesn't surprise him at all. He says the Wildcats coach had a "steel trap of a mind," and could recall parents' names and players' birthdays. In the summer, Snyder frequently sent handwritten notes to his players' families, updating them on their son's progress.
Eight years ago, Tanha—now living in a Chicago suburb—returned to Kansas to go turkey hunting. While there he accompanied a fellow K-State graduate to a local banquet where Snyder was the keynote speaker. Tanha approached Snyder before the event to say hello, and stuck out his hand. "Hey, coach, you probably don't remember me, but I'm …"
"Reza Tanha," Snyder interjected. "Linebacker. It's so good to see you!"
"It was the first time he had seen me in almost 20 years," Tanha says. "And probably 2,000 kids have gone through the program since then."
Courtesy of Reza Tanha
Tanha played just the 1989 season before graduating. Each weekend, he unfurls his Wildcats flag, pulls on his K-State T-shirt and finds his team on TV. Almost three decades removed from playing, he feels a special connection to every walk-on who comes through the program. At most schools, the walk-on label signifies a perceived lack of talent. In Manhattan, it's an elevated status of sorts. A special fraternity, Weber calls it.
Weber remembers well his first few days as a walk-on, when he told himself that he had to prove he belonged because he had no backup plan. As a scout team regular in preseason camp in 2011, Weber had caught the attention of teammates—mostly by being annoying. "When you're on scout team, you're just trying to not get yelled at by coaches," Weber laughs. "My first year, I was competing to a point where guys are getting mad, pulling down my facemask, talking trash and trying to get into my head. I remember running right past a starting corner and he was so pissed. But I kept thinking, 'I'm not letting up.' Because that's how you get noticed."
That August, Weber was on his way back to the dorms to get "a bad night's sleep" after two-a-days. "Everyone gets depressed around that time because it's just awful," Weber says. "Even the starting quarterback is like, Do I really want to do this?"
As he choked down Gatorade infused with salt—a drink served to keep players extra hydrated—Randall Evans, a former walk-on nickelback, turned to Weber and asked if he had received a scholarship yet. Weber shook his head. Evans clapped Weber on the back and told him that his time would come. Weber shook his head again, convinced he'd never be good enough. Three years later, when Snyder awarded Weber a full-ride, Evans was the first person to wrap Weber in a hug.
Now, when Weber, the scholarship player, lines up across from a walk-on at practice—the type of hungry kid who "is going as hard as he can, which means I have to work my butt off like it's a game"—he doesn't yell or talk smack or take cheap shots. He tells the wannabe to keep it up, because K-State's program was built on the backs of guys like him. Twenty-six years ago it started with Tanha. It hasn't stopped yet.
Know a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com.