PULLMAN, Wash. — The lowest point of Luke Falk's walk-on career came here, at Washington State's athletic facilities, in summer 2014, when the gangly, 6' 4" quarterback hopeful pulled on his summer uniform.
No, not his football jersey. He left that uniform behind in his apartment that hot day, forced to skip 7-on-7 drills because work called. So he pulled on his catering uniform with the assignment to wait on a table full of VIPs. No one knew his name or his background when he took their plates and filled their water glasses. No one including the most important person at that table, Washington State athletic director Bill Moos.
"Uuuuuuugh," Falk groans at the memory, closing his steely blue eyes in mock horror.
Rest assured, Moos knows who Falk is now. As the best player on an upstart Cougars team poised for a breakout season and a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate, Falk is what one might call recognizable. He thrives in Mike Leach's pass-happy offense, praised by teammates for being the ideal Air Raid quarterback.
"He's like the Messiah of the Palouse," says wideout Gabe Marks, one of Falk's favorite targets. "It's like, 'Set my people free!' Except, you know, it's 'Set my receivers free.'"
And that the Cougars do, sending pass-catchers deep and wide, giving Falk an array of options every snap. Arm strength and accuracy are part of why Pro Football Focus predicts Falk will be a top-10 quarterback this season, with a chance to lead the Cougars to the Pac-12 title game. Not bad for a kid who didn't have a Division-I scholarship offer coming out of high school.
Falk has never brought that day up with Moos. "I don't want to relive it," he says. But make no mistake, he's not ashamed of his journey either.
"I try to take that same approach, as a walk-on," Falk says. "I lived in that mindset forever, worried that if I made a mistake, I'd get cut. It's like, there's no financial investment, so why make him better? I still have that insecure feeling that if I do something wrong, I'm going to lose my job.
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It wasn't supposed to go like this for smalltown boy wonder Luke Falk.
After completing 132 of 210 passes for 1,486 yards with 17 touchdowns (and just four interceptions) as a sophomore at Logan High in Logan, Utah—he split snaps that season with eventual Utah State signal caller D.J. Nelson—Falk received his first scholarship offer from ACC power Florida State. He and his parents figured it would start an avalanche of recruiting mail. But they also wondered if Logan, a town of less than 50,000 people, was the right place to groom a college quarterback.
Over the last two decades, it's becoming increasingly common for promising youth athletes to take stock of their surroundings, decide they need to be in a more competitive environment and pack their suitcase for what they often term "a better situation." Nevermind that they are typically in their early teen years and that there's no guarantee of success at a higher level of high school, let alone in college. Parents will fork over tens of thousands of dollars—sometimes totaling more than actual college tuition—for private coaches and personal trainers if it means their child could possibly gain an edge. In July,
CampusRush.com reported on the rise of private quarterback coaches, their role in developing elite-level prospects ... and how there's no real data to suggest they actually help. In that story, Robert Hall, a high school coach in Texas, explained it like this: "I'm talking about parents selling $300,000–$400,000 homes and changing jobs just so their kid can be the starter. We're not playing for the fun of it. This is a business."
Count the Falks among those who treated it as such. In December 2010, following Falk's sophomore season at Logan, the family moved to Conejo Valley, Calif., so he could attend and play football at Oaks Christian High, a private football factory sometimes referred to as "Hollywood High." At the time, annual tuition was almost $25,000 (it is now a shade under $30,000). Oaks Christian opened in 2000, located in a ritzy part of Los Angeles County. For almost 17 years, it has been the school of choice for the rich and famous, with celebrities and child prodigies alike strolling the halls. A sampling of its alumni talent: Nick Montana, Trevor Gretzky and Trey Smith (son of actor Will Smith). Arizona Cardinals quarterback Jimmy Clausen, formerly of Notre Dame, is another graduate.
By fall 2011, Falk had won the starting job at Oaks Christian. In his first game, on his first series, he threw an interception. By the third game he had been benched in favor of Brandon Dawkins, now a sophomore quarterback at Arizona. By October, he was back in Logan. But Falk insists it didn't take losing his starting role to kickstart his desire to return home. "The first week I was there, I bought a plane ticket with my own money to go back to Logan because I just didn't like it at all," he says. "I'm a Utah boy and then I was at a celebrity school. I didn't fit in. I made three attempts to move during the season. When my parents said we'd move back, it was the greatest thing ever."
Falk says the move to California was not solely for him. His older sisters, Alexa and Natalee, are aspiring performers, and the music industry in L.A. was a draw. (The sisters are currently located in Nashville, and you can watch a video of them singing on their website.) His father, Mike, wanted to expand his commercial real estate business. But they'd made a mistake, they said—and it got plenty of attention. For months, the Salt Lake Tribune chronicled Falk's rise and fall, even sending a reporter to California to check in on him.
Because of the Utah State High School Athletic Association's single-season rule, Falk was deemed ineligible for his junior year. Longtime Logan High coach Mike Favero turned him into "a graduate assistant, basically" and tasked Falk with watching and breaking down game film. "Here's a kid who had an offer from Florida State, who can't even be on the practice squad, who's been relegated to film guy," says Favero, who stepped down as Logan's coach in January. "While this is happening, our team is having tremendous success. We went 14–0, won the state championship, were nationally ranked. And he was the ultimate team player."
Falk humbled himself in front of his teammates, ultimately winning back their respect and trust. But it was mostly a miserable season for him. Remember the children's book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? It could have been renamed for Falk. He lived it, on repeat, for a whole year. "I would have played junior varsity if they let me," Falk says. He ached to play, so much so that now, during sweltering practices when his Washington State teammates complain about the heat, Falk finds himself thinking, Remember how much you missed this when you didn't have it. Be grateful! Favero gives Falk credit for coming back and mending relationships, instead of running away to a different, small-town Utah school. Falk says now that it prepared him for coping with adverse situations.
Falk had a spectacular senior season at Logan, throwing for 3,618 yards and 36 touchdowns. But gaudy numbers—he set Utah high school single-season records for pass attempts (562) and completions (330)—weren't enough to entice coaches. The summer before his senior year, he attended a Florida State camp, only to have Seminole coaches tell him they were pulling his scholarship offer. "Tallahassee to Salt Lake City was a loooooong flight home," he says. With no junior film to send around, he found himself offer-less. College coaches told Favero they questioned Falk's character and commitment and referred to the Oaks Christian situation as a "red flag." It's also likely that no college coach was wild about the fact that Falk's parents had been profiled on a CNN special entitled, "Extreme Parenting."
"No one would touch him, and I was just baffled," Favero says. "I kept hearing, 'Nobody wants this kid.' Well, why not? He has Division-I talent, and his character is a 10."
An offer from Idaho appeared, then evaporated when a new staff took over. Falk received news that while he did not get a scholarship offer from Cornell (Ivy League institutions don't offer athletic aid), he got into the school. He made plans to go there until another coaching change nixed that idea.
Then a preferred walk-on offer from Washington State arrived and Falk, who ran a similar system to Mike Leach's Air Raid attack while at Logan, decided he wanted to join the Cougars.
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Falk chuckles at the memory now. Originally discovered by then quality control coach Eric Mele, Falk was told Washington State had a dearth of quarterbacks and that he'd be given a chance to compete immediately. "I walk into the first quarterback meeting, and sure enough, we've got seven," Falk laughs. "I was like, 'O.K., here we go, life of a walk-on!'" Fortunately, a situation from high school had taught him the value of being highly competitive.
During Falk's sophomore year at Logan, he shared time with Nelson. Looking for a way to incorporate both his D-I quarterback prospects, Favero designed the Plus-1 system. It was simple, fool-proof and guaranteed to keep complaints to a minimum: If the quarterback on the field led the team to a score, he got Plus-1, another series. If he didn't score, the other quarterback rotated in. It worked perfectly. In Logan's first game of Falk's sophomore season, Nelson, a junior, led the team to a 49–0 halftime lead. It resulted in a blowout win and a running clock. "The next game, Luke got his chance, and don't you know—he scored seven touchdowns in a row," Favero says. "Pretty soon, we were scoring at a clip of almost 80%."
Falk channeled that passion and drive into his new competition at Washington State. He redshirted in 2013, took the catering job in summer 2014 and was put on scholarship just before the '14 season started. It was decidedly anticlimactic. Leach asked him to stay after a meeting, and then, in the sort of off-hand, tangential style Leach is known for, told Falk, "Oh, we're putting you on scholarship. Go sign some papers."
"I thought he'd get a scholarship when he got here," says Leach, adding that Falk is probably the best walk-on he's ever coached. "From the beginning, I thought he was a Division I quarterback. We didn't give him a scholarship because we were out of them. But my thought was that he kind of saw it coming. In spring (2014), he was having a significantly better spring than (former four-star prospect) Tyler Bruggman. He played looser and better, and suddenly, he was the back-up."
Before Falk scribbled his signature on scholarship papers that afternoon, he asked a support staff member to snap a photo to commemorate his "signing day." He sent it to Favero, who instantly uploaded it on Falk's contact in his phone. Whenever Falk calls Favero, which he does regularly, Favero's phone lights up with that picture. Falk kept it together when he called to share the scholarship news with his parents, but alone in his apartment that afternoon, he wept.
"I take a lot of pride in being a walk-on," he says. "Anytime I hear a story about someone being put on scholarship, there's a special place in my heart for that. I know the hard work it takes, how you're paying to play, paying for school, books.… I remember going to the bookstore for the first time as a redshirt freshman. All my buddies who are on scholarship just pick up their books, and I get slapped with a $400 bill. I can never get that out of my head, but I love it because it motivates me."
Falk is continually learning how to let fear spur greatness instead of control him. So far, it seems to be working. He got his shot at Oregon State in 2014, starting in place of the injured Connor Halliday and leading Washington State to a win after completing 44 of 61 pass attempts for 471 yards with five touchdowns, school records for a Cougar quarterback's first career start. Last season, as a sophomore, he connected on 448 of 645 attempts, totaling 4,566 yards, 38 touchdowns and eight interceptions, while leading the nation in passing average at 380.5 yards per game.
Falk has long been a believer in inspiration boards, the Pinterest-y exercise of pasting pictures and words onto a bulletin board and looking at it daily. The idea, inspired by the book The Secret, is that a regular reminder keeps you focused on goals as they seep into your subconscious. When Falk arrived at Washington State, he pinned a giant money sign onto his inspiration board. When he got his scholarship, he got to take that sign down. Goal achieved.
"Whoa, I've never been in this room! This is for recruits only. I see why—it's fancy."
On a warm August day, Falk walks into a conference room at Washington State's new football operations building, a glass-walled area with a long wooden table and plush leather chairs. This is where they wine and dine recruits, he jokes. He never got to see this room when he came to visit. With a sly smile he asks, is he even allowed in here now?
Falk relishes playing the outsider, and it extends beyond his circuitous path to college football stardom. He's obsessed with three things: Tom Brady (his favorite player), fitness (he has considered following in Brady's footsteps and snacking on avocado ice cream) and essential oils (this one has nothing to do with Brady). He studies video after video of the New England Patriots quarterback's games, dissecting every read and throw, trying to emulate him. As a result, Falk sometimes winds up overcomplicating Washington State's system. Leach has a reputation for giving eccentric, long-winded answers to every question imaginable but is typically brief with his quarterback. He constantly reminds Falk to keep it simple. Often, when Falk comes to the sideline during a critical drive and asks, "What are we going to do, coach?" Leach responds with, "We're gonna score a touchdown. Just throw it to the open guy."
"It's no secret we're pass first, and it's fun because the game is on your shoulders," Falk says. "If you're a quarterback, what other offense would you want to be in? I have so much freedom."
This off-season, he committed to packing on 15 pounds and says proudly that he came into fall camp weighing 217. When someone remarks that he still looks thin to the point of being frail, he deadpans, "It's the shirt I'm wearing. Black is slimming." Then he smiles and explains that all that extra weight wound up in his legs.
The essential oils kick started a few years ago, when his mom and sister Alexa started selling them. Now, he's fully committed. Before every drive, he goes over to one of the equipment guys to get his Frankincense oil and put some under his nose. "It just triggers something in my mind, puts me in the zone," Falk explains. In the Bible, Frankincense is one of the gifts given to baby Jesus by the three wise men. "If it's good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me," Falk says. "Next I've gotta get some mirh."
Yeah, maybe in the NFL. Falk isn't sure what happens after his football career, but he's in a position where he doesn't have to worry about that yet. Barring a major injury, he's a shoo-in for the 2016 NFL draft. For now he'll keep quietly encouraging other walk-ons, assuring them that, yes, they can do it, and he's proof. He not-so-quietly chastises teammates who complain, reminding them how lucky they are to be here, on scholarship. And always, he tells people about his journey.
"Greek life is big here, and people ask if I'm in the system," he says. "I always say, 'Yeah, I am. I'm in the walk-on fraternity.'"
It's pretty special, he acknowledges. And it comes with perks, like everyone knowing who you are—including the athletic director.
Know a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com.