Luke Stice knows the path from walk-on to wanted. He's traveled it twice, first at Houston, where he went from wannabe to can't-get-off-the-field special teamer to the Cougars' starting fullback in 2013. And now, at Texas Tech, the west Texas native has gone from unknown to team captain, earning the respect of his teammates almost from the second he set foot on the Lubbock campus after a fifth-year graduate transfer. He's emerged from the walk-on pool twice, receiving scholarships at both Houston and Texas Tech.
Stice is studying sports management, but could teach classes on perseverance. He's a legend in the weight room. "He's beyond intenseâ€”you can feel his presence when you're in there," says Talor Nunez, a defensive lineman who played with Stice in high school. "He makes you want to put extra weight on the bar and do more reps, or even just yell with him." In the locker room, he's Mr. Congeniality. "In my 25-year career, he's far and away one of the greatest teammates I've ever observed," says Red Raiders defensive coordinator David Gibbs, praising Stice's likability.
But mostly, Stice says, he's doing all thisâ€”representing Midland Lee High, wearing No. 37 and pushing himself to the point of exhaustion every dayâ€”because someone else taught him the value of it. And that someone isn't around anymore, so Stice better honor his memory.
Stice met Jacob Young as freshmen at Midland Lee, and formed a fast friendship. They shared a love of going all in, and then going a little further. One day after Rebels practice, Lee Young, Jacob's father, stood on the sideline and shook his head. What did those boys do now to get a punishment of extra 50-yard wind sprints? He wondered, as he watched them fly back and forth down the field. Afterward, Luke and Jacob explained: We weren't in trouble. We wanted the extra work.
They looked for an edge any and everywhere. Soon, more teammates joined them. "It became a team epidemic," Lee recalls. At Midland Lee High, a group of retired football junkies like to sit in their lawn chairs and watch practice ever day, grumbling about football and life. "They're just twisted that way," the old men would mutter about Luke and Jacob, in awe of how two teenagers could be wired to always strive for more. "They pushed each other and drove each other," Lee Young says, "to do something extra ordinary."
Nunez, Luke and Jacob's high school quarterback, remembers one hot summer day, when he gathered his receivers to work on route running. Suddenly, Luke appeared, wearing a weight vest. He had just finished his second weight lifting session, but felt an itch to keep competing. So then he ran routes, with the weight vest, to work on his conditioning and ball skills.
When Jacob, a longtime fullback, got switched to defense his senior season at Midland Lee, a local report asked how he felt about the move. "I'd rather play with Luke than against him," Jacob says. "Practice will be more fun now." Probably less painful, tooâ€”Luke was known for big, bone-cracking hits, the product of a never-ending motor and his insatiable love of lifting.
Then graduation came. Luke got his diploma but didn't walk, choosing to enroll early at Houston (and get in the weight room immediately). A graduate assistant had discovered his highlight reel and said he should walk on. But before the season started, Luke was leveled with horrible news the night of July 3, 2012: Jacob had been killed in a car accident on his way home from work. He was just 18.
Luke dedicated his football career to Jacob after that. "When that happened, it became and all-or-nothing mentality for me," Luke says. Failure was off the table, because he had to keep going, for Jacob. He called Lee and Staci Young, Jacob's parents, and asked their permission to wear No. 37, Jacob's number when they were both team captains at Midland Lee High. The gesture moved Lee and Staci to tears. Through an incurable and overpowering ache of a child lost, they suddenly felt a little closer to their son's friend now living halfway across the state.
Soon, wearing No. 37, Luke found himself as a linebacker and special teams performer. When Doug Meacham arrived as Houston's offensive coordinator in 2013, he talked about the need for a fullback. Luke told Meacham he'd do whatever he could to help the team, then spent the offseason packing 30 pounds of muscle onto his 6-foot frame. By 2013 he was the Cougars' starting fullback.
The position fit Stice's affinity for old school, smash mouth football. "There's no doubt, what I try to bring to a team is a physical toughness," Stice says. "That west Texas work ethic, I take pride in that. Fullback, it fits with the culture and attitude that I like to play with."
Courtesy of Texas Tech athletics
He finished the season as Houston's top special teams tackler, and was nominated for the Burlsworth Trophy, awarded annually to the nation's top walk-on. When Tom Herman took over in 2015, he sat down with Luke, who expressed a desire to get back to the defensive side of the ball. He laughs now when asked about; yes, he missed hitting people. Herman said he'd be open to the move, and together they agreed Luke would take the season to redshirt andâ€”surprise, surpriseâ€”spend time in the weight room.
"When I was 6, my late grandfather told me, 'Always make sure you do your pushups before you go to bed,'" Stice explains. "I learned early on that the weight room is where you can transform your body. I really bought into that, and I've always tried to maximize my opportunities in thereâ€”literally."
After Houston's 13â€“1 season that ended with the Cougars thumping college football juggernaut Florida State in the Peach Bowl, Herman and Luke decided a transfer would be best if he wanted to play defense. So he followed Gibbs, formerly Houston's defensive coordinator, back toward home, and enrolled at Texas Tech in the spring.
Stice had an immediate impact on his teammates, diving into offseason workouts with the enthusiasm of a top NFL prospect. "The way he grinds, it's just unreal," says Gibbs, who had limited interaction with Stice at Houston. When Stice showed up at Tech and told Gibbs he was there to play defense, Gibbs initially hesitated. "The difference between offense and defense is, on defense you don't know where you're going till the ball is snapped," Gibbs says. "He'd actually be a really good offensive player for us because whatever you ask of him, he does exactly that. I mean, he hadn't really ever played linebacker in college."
But Gibbs, himself a former walk-on who developed into a defensive starter for 1990 national champion Colorado, has a weakness for players who don't know how to quit. He brought Stice onto the defense. By the start of the 2016 season, Stice had earned another scholarship and been voted team captain. He says the second accomplishment means more than the first ever could.
When he called home to share the news that his teammates elected him a leader, news of earning financial aid was an afterthought. "When I told them it was like, 'Oh and by the way, we haven't really talked about this but we don't have to worry about paying anymore,'" Stice laughs.
He's started just one game this season, and has notched 11 total tackles for the Red Raiders. That might seem underwhelmingâ€”much like the Texas Tech defense as a whole. TTU ranks 124th nationally in total defense, giving up a staggering 531.3 yards per game. It's a startling contrast to the Red Raiders' offense, which averages 678.7 yards per game, second-best in college football behind only Louisville.
But Stice, ever the optimist, isn't about to let outside chatter pull him down. "Personally, I've been overlooked my whole life, and I know how to fight through that adversity," he says. "Trust me. We're going to bring some pride back to this defense."
That defensive upgrade can start Thursday, when TTU hosts Kansas in both teams' Big 12 opener. Gibbs says that while Stice absolutely has to improve as an individual, he the type of player who can lead Texas Tech out of the cellar.
"There is no question that we need him," Gibbs says. "And it's not just because he'll put in all the time and effort you can imagineâ€”it's because he inspires other guys to come with him."
Coming to Texas Tech has been a homecoming of sorts for Stice, partially because his family is just 90 minutes away. But they're not the only ones who make the drive into Lubbock. Lee and Staci Young, along with their daughter Kaylee, a junior at Texas Tech, attend every home game. Even after four years, watching No. 37 run on the field brings tears to Staci's eyes. "It's just good to see how he's carrying on a legacy. Not so much for Jacob, but for himself," she says. "But he carries Jacob with him."
Lee says that if Jacob were still here, he knows his son would be playing college ball somewhere, and meeting up with Luke to work out in the offseason, pushing each other and thriving off each other's passion. Luke says they still do.
Luke is a creature of habit. He still does his pushups at night, up and down until his arms shake, just like his grandpa taught him. And after every Texas Tech practice, no matter how hard it was or how much they already ran, Luke walks over the end zone by himself, sets his feet on the line and takes off, gasping as he sprints 50-yarders up and down the field.
He does it now because he did it before. But also because in those moments, he feels like Jacob is still running right next to him.
Know a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com