A rare breed of tough-minded, stubborn and dedicated college athlete is flourishing these days. He's the walk-on, and sometimes he gets walked on. He arrives on campus with no scholarship, no reputation and, quite often, no chance. He just shows up and says, "I want to play." He's the ultimate odds-beater. He pays his own freight, carries his own weight and, in some quarters, sparks a lot of debate.
Last season walk-ons accounted for all of Missouri's points in a 10-0 upset of Oklahoma. A walk-on fullback led the Western Athletic Conference in rushing last year, and a walk-on kicker led the Southwest Conference in scoring. Walk-ons started at fullback, tight end, middle guard, defensive end, strongside linebacker and monster for the nation's No. 2 team, Nebraska. The country's best tight end is a walk-on at Colorado State. Miami of Ohio's top three quarterbacks last season were all walk-ons, and two are still in Oxford. They'll throw to a walk-on split end who broke the school's single-season reception record. And so it goes. There will be walk-on starters at virtually every position in every conference this year.
And what a strange cast of characters they are. They include the healthy, like Auburn defensive end Kevin Greene, whose 500-pound bench press is a team record; the wealthy, like Florida placekicker Bobby Raymond, who refused a scholarship because his parents are well off; and the wise, like the defensive end who turned down financial aid at Dartmouth to walk on at Nebraska. That's premed student Scott Strasburger.
Then there's UCLA junior wide receiver Mike Sherrard, whom Bruin offensive coordinator Homer Smith considers more of a "stroll-on" than a walk-on. "He strolled into our office with a girl on each arm," says Smith. "He's skin and bones, girls hanging on, and he tells us he can play football for UCLA." Turns out he could. Last season Sherrard led the Bruins in receiving with 48 catches for 709 yards and was named second-team All-America.
September 4, 1984
Tulsa has a walk-on, Jason Staurovsky, who thought he would be the student manager but ended up as the first-string placekicker. Defensive end Derek Turner walked on at Baylor because he saw the coach on a television show, and a walk-on wide receiver, Billy Getchell, is at Alabama because he worked as a counselor at Joe Namath's football camp and got Broadway's recommendation. The Southwest Conference has a two-time walk-on quarterback. Anthony Sciaraffa, who got the walk-around when he walked on at Texas, upped and walked away and walked on at TCU, where he won the starting job. "Walk-ons are the salt of the earth," says Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. Adds Southern California coach Ted Tollner, "We need them. We want them."
So walk on, walk-on, with hope in your heart, and you'll never walk alone. Well, not exactly never. For every walk-on who elbows his way into the limelight and wins a scholarship, legions of others don't fare as well. They remain anonymous players who spend their practice time holding blocking bags and their game time holding down space on the bench—in short, walk-ons who get walked on their entire career. This is a story about both kinds of walk-ons.
Colleges could give an unlimited number of football scholarships until 1973, when the NCAA decided that no more than 30 could be awarded per year. In 1977 the NCAA set the maximum number of players a school can have on scholarship at one time at 95. Thus, most coaches need warm bodies, warm walk-on bodies who aren't getting financial aid, to fill their practice needs. If you think that 95 scholarship players should be enough, you're not a coach and you're not familiar with the battalionlike size of contemporary teams. As many as 150 players suit up for Nebraska practices, and another 95 play on the freshman squad.
Some coaches find the politics of dealing with walk-ons difficult. Virginia Tech's Bill Dooley says some walk-ons "use us to get into school, then drop off the team," meaning that they get assistance from the football office to obtain admission to the university without really intending to play. Even Bowden, a fan of walk-ons, says he has lost friends over trying to help walk-ons. "I probably get more bad letters in regard to the walk-on players we try to be nice to than I get about anything else," he says.
Many coaches don't pursue walk-ons because of a built-in problem—high tuition. A school like, say, Duke might be expected to have a lot of walk-ons, academic types who stumbled onto the practice field one day while looking for the chem lab. But only four of Duke's 98 players last season were walk-ons, largely because of the school's $12,000 annual tab. Walk-ons may enjoy punishment more than most, but they're not necessarily monetary masochists.
However, the coaches with solid walk-on programs wouldn't want it any other way. "I'd never cut a walk-on," says Texas Tech's Jerry Moore. "Once they're out there, they're there until they want to quit." Adds Jim Lambright, who coordinates Washington's excellent walk-on program, "The productivity you get out of walk-ons is amazing. We have a lot of players, so we can have two or three scout teams. That means we get many more repetitions at practice because we're not wearing down the same 11 guys."
Just who are these extras? Do they conform to a certain physical type? Are their Rorschachs similar? Do they ever get to date the cheerleaders? The common belief is that walk-ons are the Smurfs of college football, the "ungrowth ones" as Washington State coach Jim Walden calls them, players who were denied scholarships out of high school because nobody believed they could play with the big boys. Colorado State sophomore Steve Bartalo, the WAC's leading rusher last fall with 1,113 yards in 10 games, was passed over largely because of his 5'9", 185-pound dimensions as a schoolboy quarterback. Missouri walk-on split end Andy Hill is only 5'9", 164 pounds, but he averaged 21 yards per catch in 1983 and teamed up with quarterback Marlon Adler, also a walk-on, for the touchdown that helped beat Oklahoma 10-0. Walk-on placekicker Brad Burditt added the extra point and the field goal.
One of the nation's smallest make-good walk-ons is 5'7", 150-pound tailback Eddie Lewis, who'll key Utah's rush-oriented attack this season. He follows in the small footprints of Tony Lindsay, a 5'8", 185-pound walk-on who from 1977 to 1980 set the Utes' career rushing mark. In the SEC 5'6", 196-pound Kenneth (B.B.) Cooper should play an important role in Tennessee's rushing game. Walk-on linemen with pro size include guards Jeff Ostrowski (6'2", 262 pounds) of Auburn and Calvin Switzer (6 feet, 268) of Kansas State and tackle Greg Schwab (6'7", 250) of Oregon.
Walk-ons most frequently shine as placekickers and punters. Because kickers are so unpredictable, and their talents so subject to factors like the phases of the moon, many coaches don't like to risk scholarships on them. Among the top placekickers returning are Texas's Jeff Ward, Illinois's Chris White, West Virginia's Paul Woodside, Alabama's Van Tiffin, Washington's Jeff Jaeger, Michigan's Bob Bergeron and Maryland's Jess Atkinson. There's no common thread to their stories, as befits the fact that there's usually nothing common about kickers. Ward, for instance, was a schoolboy soccer star in Austin who dreamed of playing for the hometown team. White was a Division II basketball prospect who didn't play football in high school. His father, Illini coach Mike White, laughed at him when Chris said he was going to make the team as a freshman kicker, but that's exactly what Chris did. Woodside was a stutterer three years ago when he presented himself to a West Virginia assistant coach and gave him a card with the Stutterer's Creed before he uttered a word.
The top walk-on punters are no less unusual. Lewis Colbert of Auburn was born with a clubfoot and didn't begin kicking until he was in the 12th grade. Vanderbilt's Ricky Anderson got an earlier start; he began kicking over a miniature goalpost given to him by his grandfather when Ricky was five. BYU's Lee Johnson, a left-footer, punts barefooted but place-kicks with a shoe. When Cougar coach La Veil Edwards debates whether to punt or try a field goal, Johnson must keep his shoe half on—and half off.
There's little question that many walk-ons are walk-ons simply because the evaluation system broke down, pointing to what UCLA coach Terry Donahue, a former Bruin walk-on defensive tackle, calls "the imperfect science of recruiting." Chuck Nelson, now with the Los Angeles Rams, was being wooed by Washington State, but the coach, Warren Powers, left and, says Nelson, "took the recruiting files with him." So he walked on at Washington and later set numerous NCAA placekicking records. The problems of tight end Keli McGregor, who walked on at Colorado State and is now a preseason All-America, started at the other end. His high school coach left after football season, and no one was around to send McGregor's films to inquiring college coaches. Nebraska middle guard Ken Graeber was a well-known football talent and state wrestling champion in Minneapolis but wasn't offered a scholarship by then Minnesota coach Joe Salem because, according to Graeber, "he didn't think there was any worthwhile talent in the state." So Graeber walked on at Nebraska and is now a starter.
Many times an athlete just doesn't get showcased enough in high school. That might happen to, say, a wide receiver on a team that throws only seven or eight times a game. And sometimes a high school coach simply isn't shrewd enough to judge talent. Recruiters tend to be wary of injuries, too. That's how linebacker Tim Anderson, highly coveted in his junior year at Pioneer High in Ann Arbor but largely ignored as a senior following knee surgery, wound up as a Michigan walk-on. Recruiters also seem to be scared off by athletes who sit out a year of football in high school. Are they lazy? Don't they have any desire? Redshirt freshman tight end Fred Davis, who's trying to follow McGregor's path from walk-on to scholarship star at Colorado State, thought he got a lazy tag because he didn't play his junior season at Boulder High.
Family ties also play a big part in creating walk-ons. Often a player will turn down scholarships to walk on at a campus with a familial connection. A high school quarterback who had a few offers, Derrick Sheppard decided to walk on at Oklahoma because his brothers, Woodie and Darrell, had played there. He's slated to start this season at split end. During his two years as a starting strong safety at Tennessee-Martin, David Valletto's thoughts were with Alabama, where his father, Carl, had been a starting offensive and defensive end on Bear Bryant's first Crimson Tide team, in 1958. David had to know if he could make it at Alabama, so he transferred, sat out the obligatory year and walked on last season. He's now on scholarship.
Without doubt, though, the No. 1 reason a walk-on walks on is intense loyalty to a particular institution. He may have other scholarship offers, but if he has been dreaming of playing for good ol' State U his whole life, then that's where he's going to play, even if he has to pay his own way. That kind of devotion is the reason Nebraska, the quintessential State U, stands helmet and cleats above the rest in making walk-ons an integral part of the program. "I guess we're sort of the Mecca of walk-ons," says Cornhusker coach Tom Osborne. No coach would deny that assessment. Certainly not former Nebraska assistants Powers (now the head coach at Missouri), Jerry Pettibone (assistant head coach at Texas A&M) and Texas Tech's Moore, all of whom are trying to bring the Husker walk-on magic to their campuses. The most innovative has been Moore, who in 1982 oversaw the printing and statewide distribution of a poster that showed an infant dragging a Texas Tech helmet. The caption read: Some people just can't wait to walk on at Texas Tech!
The Cornhuskers' success—this season walk-ons are expected to start at defensive end, middle guard, strongside linebacker, monster, offensive guard and tackle—begins with a commitment from Osborne, who was a walk-on himself. Though an outstanding schoolboy athlete in Nebraska, Osborne passed up several free rides to enroll at Hastings College in his hometown. Nebraska's first famous walk-on was I.M. Hipp, who arrived in Lincoln in 1975, unexpected and unheralded. Hipp had watched the Cornhuskers beat Oklahoma in a memorable 1971 game for the national championship and couldn't get the Huskers out of his mind. So he borrowed money from his girl friend in Chapin, S.C. and came west to ask for a chance. "Who's that?" Osborne asked one of his assistants one day. "Oh, some guy named Isaiah Hipp or something like that," was the answer. The rest is walk-on history: Hipp became Nebraska's leading career rusher (his record has since been broken by Mike Rozier). Hipp also got a scholarship in his junior year.
Many coaches bad-mouth the Cornhuskers' walk-on program by spreading tales about so-called "county scholarships" in Nebraska. Says former Indiana coach Sam Wyche, who's now coaching the Cincinnati Bengals, "What happens is that a great player gets his county's nonathletic scholarship, which frees up a football scholarship for someone else." In fact, county scholarships do not exist in Nebraska, and the university's office of financial aid is at a loss to explain how such a rumor got started.
By Osborne's reckoning, 90% to 95% of Husker walk-ons are home-state products who simply wanted to play for Nebraska from the time they made their first crab block in bootees. Unlike most major football schools, the Cornhuskers have no intrastate competition of any consequence. Nebraska has only its sister institution, Nebraska-Omaha, a school with an excellent Division II program but one that furnishes as much recruiting competition as, say, Muhlenberg gives Penn State. "Nebraska football is the thing in this state," says senior Tom Morrow, a walk-on from Lincoln who'll start at offensive tackle this season. "That's just the way it is." Osborne lists other factors critical to the success of his walk-on program: a freshman team that practices together and plays a five-game schedule ("They're not just bag-holders their first year," he says); the Huskers' nationally acclaimed weight program ("I knew I needed a lot of work, and this was where I could get it," says Morrow); and Osborne's policy of holding back about five scholarships per year for walk-ons, a true motivational carrot.
Nebraska-Omaha coach Sandy Buda has considerable insight into the walk-on phenomenon at Lincoln. Many a player has spurned his school to walk on at Lincoln. Conversely, Buda has accepted others who became disenchanted as Cornhusker walk-ons. "The first reason they're successful is that they have a great football reputation and a great reputation with walk-ons," says Buda. "Also, as the only major college football power in the state, they have incredibly good alumni and booster connections all across the state. They're able to get kids summer jobs that pay well, and that's entirely legal. We can give a kid a limited amount of aid, but the same kid can walk on at Lincoln, pay his own way and still make out better because they'll get him a good summer job. What's misleading about their walk-on program is this: You tend to hear only about the ones that make it. They do a good job of publicizing them. That's fine. But the other 77 who don't make it call me."
One such player was Tim Slobodnik, an Omaha native who transferred to Nebraska-Omaha after spending two years as a walk-on at Lincoln. Slobodnik was what the NCAA considers a "recruited walk-on," that is, the Cornhuskers recruited him out of high school—visits, phone calls, letters, etc.—but didn't give him a scholarship. That's all fine and legal. But as soon as a recruited walk-on plays one second as a varsity player, he must be counted among the 95 players on scholarship, if he's receiving any non-athletic aid from the school.
Says Slobodnik, a defensive back who was redshirted as a freshman in 1978 and never played a down for the Nebraska varsity the following fall, "It may come down to politics. If you're of the same ability, or maybe just a little better than a scholarship player, you won't get the job because they'll have to give you a scholarship." Adds Osborne, "Every time a player is near being a starter, he's going to think politics are involved. As I recall, Tim might not have been as close to starting as he thought."
Almost every walk-on considers transferring at one time or another. Some, like Slobodnik, are glad they did—he was a two-year starter for Nebraska-Omaha—others are glad they stayed. But they all have a list of ways that they're made to feel like second-class citizens. First, there's the jersey-number problem. Washington's Blaise Chappell, a walk-on defensive back who plays mainly on special teams, has been through three numbers in two years. Other schools don't issue walk-ons a number so they can differentiate them from the scholarship players. "It's weird having nothing on your back," says Colorado State's Davis. Except a monkey.
Many schools don't have the locker-room facilities to accommodate all the bodies, so guess who dresses under the leaky faucets. "You might be on the eighth team, but if you're on scholarship you're in the varsity locker room," says Nelson, who literally had to kick his way in to dress with the big boys at Washington.
There are other piddling distinctions. "You're never sure if you should jump in and be a part of things," says McGregor. "I can remember being hesitant about the team photo, for example." Some meetings are just for scholarship players, others just for walk-ons. Walk-ons at some schools may eat with the team, but, if the school is doing things legally, they have to pay for the meal. In some cases walk-ons have to be excused early from practice to conform to dorm eating schedules. "There were so many times I asked myself, 'Why am I doing this? What am I doing here?' " says Michigan's Anderson. "Here I am spending all this time, passing up times I could be studying or socializing, and I'm not even able to go to the training table."
The larger problem is, of course, political. Coaches pay lip service to treating all players equally, without regard to race, color or financial investment, but doing so is almost an impossibility. "Coaches think they must give the scholarship player a longer look before they go to a walk-on," says Wyche. "It makes a coach look a little bad if he has a scholarship player sitting on the bench and a walk-on starting. Human nature says a coach wants to confirm his evaluation of players out of high school."
Certainly that seemed to be the case with North Carolina State defensive back John McRorie, whom coach Tom Reed tried to run off when he took over before the 1983 season. Reed didn't think McRorie was good enough to stick, but McRorie changed Reed's mind with his tenacious play in practice. He's expected to be one of the Wolfpack's leaders on defense this season.
"You've got to beat a regular player in every phase of the game to get a chance," says Washington's Chappell. "If you're a walk-on, you only get one chance," says Tennessee's Cooper. "A walk-on is a combination of perhaps being too stupid to know he doesn't belong and dumb enough and brave enough to come out and try something like that," says Terry Theodore, a walk-on long snapper at UCLA. "I didn't realize what it was like. You can earn a scholarship and they still never let you forget you're a walk-on. Once you're branded a walk-on, that's the way it is, no matter how good you may be."
But if a walk-on's climb is steeper, the rewards are usually greater. For one thing, his sights are set considerably lower than those of a high school hotshot, who's bound to find disappointment if he isn't a star. "One of my major goals was to run out of the tunnel for a game," says Nelson.
The routine is never routine for a walk-on, not even the barest notice from a coach. "The most welcome sound to a walk-on is a coach barking at him," says Mark Napolitan, a walk-on who'll start at center for Michigan State this season. Notoriety in a game is simply off the scale. "When I got the ball, I didn't ever want to let it go," says USC walk-on Brian Cook of an interception he made against Cal two years ago. Considering where they come from, we can allow walk-ons a little corniness.
The proudest moment for a walk-on, of course, is earning a scholarship. Small wonder that Wisconsin coach Dave McClain said he never saw a happier player than his walk-on offensive lineman, Dave Mielke, when McClain told him last season that he had earned a scholarship. "It's not the money so much," says Nelson, "but the feeling that you're a major college player."
Walk-ons who win scholarships have a right to feel that way. After all, their aid is based strictly on performance, not potential or high school press clippings. "I can't help thinking," says Al Robertson, a walk-on guard at Washington, "that I earned my position more than a lot of other guys."
Walk like a man, walk-on, walk like a man.
As Davis discovered last spring, walking-on at Colorado State can mean solitary workouts; eating with your roommate, fellow walk-on
Treve Suazo, at the mess hall, not the training table; getting backside views of coaches; and enduring frustrating moments on the held.
THE '84 ALL-WALK-ON TEAM
Tight End—Keli McGregor, Colorado State
Tackles—Greg Schwab, Oregon; John Ivemeyer, Georgia Tech
Guards—Dave Mielke, Wisconsin; Greg Orton, Nebraska
Center—Yann Cowart, Auburn
Quarterback—Marlon Adler, Missouri
Running Backs—Eddie Lewis, Utah; Steve Bartalo, Colorado State
Receivers—Mike Sherrard, UCLA; Tom Murphy, Miami of Ohio
Placekicker—Paul Woodside, West Virginia
Linemen—Scott Strasburger, Nebraska; Derek Turner, Baylor; Dave Zyzda, Indiana
Linebackers—Matt Monger, Okla. State; Mark Daum, Nebraska; Kevin Sumlin, Purdue; Bob Daniels, Kansas State
Defensive Backs—Jerome Caver, Missouri; Joe Hennelly, Memphis State; David Ast, Kansas State; John McRorie, N.C. State
Punter—Lee Johnson, Brigham Young