Dominique Whaley doesn't make sandwiches on Lindsey Street and Jenkins Avenue anymore, but that's only because he can't. Last year the Subway at that intersection in Norman, Okla.—just kitty-corner from the Sooners' practice facility—was razed to make room for new athletic housing, thereby terminating the quickest and most curious commute that an elite athlete at Oklahoma has ever had. During the spring of 2010, Whaley, a tailback, would often wake up in his on-campus dorm, go to class, head to the field, practice for three hours, put on his work-issued polo and khakis, cross the street and man the Subway counter until dusk. For months, surrounded by cold cuts, the power rusher starred in a Peyton Manning commercial (Cut! That! Meat!) turned upside down.
This is an article from the Oct. 17, 2011 issue
It all might have seemed embarrassing to Whaley, except that not even die-hard fans recognized the stocky 5'10" employee—an unrecruited walk-on—who was composing their footlong Italian B.M.T.'s. "Except for my coworkers who knew I was on the team, I went under the radar," says Whaley. "Nobody really knew who I was back then."
Last Saturday afternoon in Dallas his anonymity went the way of the bulldozed workplace. No less than 96,009 fans sold out the Cotton Bowl—bypassing the state fair's giant fiberglass cowboy, livestock auction and innumerable fried Twinkies—and watched No. 3 Oklahoma obliterate No. 11 Texas 55--17 in the 106th edition of the Red River Rivalry.
Yes, that was Whaley, starting in the Sooners' backfield two years after leaving NAIA Langston (Okla.) University, where he'd spent one season as a backup on full academic scholarship. That was Whaley, the junior whose photo isn't even in the 2011 team media guide, gaining 132 yards and a touchdown on 18 touches to help keep Oklahoma on track for the BCS title game. And that was Whaley—ostensibly an ancillary weapon in quarterback Landry Jones's relentless air attack (367 yards, three scores)—padding his team-high rushing total to 462 yards and tying for the Big 12 lead with his eighth TD. "People are like, Oh, he's just a walk-on," junior defensive tackle Casey Walker says. "Noooo. He keeps surprising us. That dude is one of a kind."
Or so it would seem. Says Brett Manning, Whaley's offensive coordinator at Lawton (Okla.) MacArthur High and a former quarterback at Division II Central Oklahoma, "A lot of freshmen I went to college with came in their first year, thought they were Division I and left to go walk on somewhere. It never, ever worked out."
But now, somehow, it has—and not only for Whaley at Oklahoma but also for dozens of other players across college football this season. "Whaley's smart, had the grades, had everything you needed, and he's on top of the world," says Mickey Joseph, the interim coach at Langston and an erstwhile starting quarterback at Nebraska. "So everybody keeps asking me the same thing: How'd y'all lose Whaley? I mean, shoot... . The real question is, How'd he even get to Langston University?"
To visualize a walk-on is to imagine Notre Dame's Daniel (Rudy) Ruettiger: a terrier of a man—five-foot-nothin', a hundred-and-nothin'—whose life's highlight is a single, entirely symbolic play in his final home game. He is a dreamer willing to be scout-team fodder, stuck so far down the depth chart that a start would induce the bends. While plenty of walk-ons still call Rudy to mind, a growing collection of skill players is updating that image. "It used to be, you had as many walk-ons as you had locker space for and wanted to put up with," says Merv Johnson, Oklahoma's director of football operations and the offensive coordinator in South Bend during Ruettiger's fateful senior season (1975). "There were really good guys who couldn't play dead, but you'd try to help them stick around. Now you have to be much more selective."
With suppressed roster sizes (legislated gender-equity ratios have helped cut the average FBS team from 126.4 players in 1984--85 to 119.3 players in 2009--10) and a shrinking NCAA scholarship limit (from unlimited as late as 1976, to 95 in '77, to 85 since '94), coaches need walk-ons who can develop into impact players, not Rudy-type dreamers. With this in mind, many high school seniors are shunning a free ride in the lower divisions for an increasingly high-stakes shot at the top. "Really, a walk-on is a mistake," explains Hawaii coach Greg McMackin, a former defensive coordinator at Miami and assistant at seven other FBS schools. "Everyone made a mistake and didn't offer him a scholarship. And if he develops, then he might be better than the four-star [recruits] out there."
McMackin would know. Last season Hawaii started seven players who had begun as walk-ons. This year all four captains—quarterback Bryant Moniz, linebacker Corey Paredes, safety Richard Torres and receiver Royce Pollard—are former walk-ons, going from ramen noodles for dinner to the head of the training table. (By NCAA decree, only scholarship players are permitted to eat team meals.) In Moniz's case, he was busy delivering pizzas for Papa John's in late 2008 when coaches caught wind of the then unenrolled quarterback's bio and invited him to try out. One year earlier Moniz threw for 2,268 yards and 18 touchdowns as the starting quarterback at Fresno City College, but the birth of his daughter had sent him back home to Hawaii after just a semester. In 2009, his first season with the Warriors, he rose from seventh string to starter. This year Moniz has passed for 1,578 yards with 15 touchdowns against only one interception this season. (He happily quit the pizza biz when he got his scholarship in January 2010.)
The mainland is rife with stories too. At Stanford, wideout Ryan Whalen, a captain, went from walk-on to being the Bengals' sixth-round draft pick last April. He left behind still another walk-on receiver named Whalen, Griff (no relation)—a quarterback at Southview High in Sylvania, Ohio, who has since become Heisman candidate Andrew Luck's roommate and a go-to target for the seventh-ranked Cardinal, gaining 92 yards and a TD in a 48--7 win over Colorado last week. (Griff's top alternative? "I'd been talking to Toledo a little bit, but I don't know if they ever officially offered me a scholarship," recalls the senior, who has tutored, worked in a sporting goods store and interned at a private equity firm to help with expenses. The annual tuition in Palo Alto is $40,050, but Whalen is on scholarship now.) Stanford's starting long snapper, meanwhile, is Andrew Fowler, an art history major—the football program's first—who walked on after transferring from Division III Williams College. As Cardinal offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton sums it up, "Productivity on game day. That trumps everything else."
Such a philosophy justifies why No. 14 Nebraska has been starting three offensive linemen (center Mike Caputo, left guard Seung Hoon Choi and right guard Spencer Long) who began their careers as walk-ons; Choi and Long are still not on scholarship. And why No. 11 Michigan starts former walk-ons at strong safety (Jordan Kovacs), defensive end (Will Heininger) and fullback (John McColgan). And why No. 4 Wisconsin starts a current walk-on at receiver (Jared Abbrederis) and another at defensive tackle (Ethan Hemer). And why Connecticut quarterback Johnny McEntee has suddenly gone from tossing footballs into faraway buckets in viral trick-shot videos to passing to real Huskies receivers. And on, and on.
Aspiring walk-ons need to meet such high standards that in January 2010, when Whaley showed up at Oklahoma's football offices to introduce himself, Johnson wasn't exactly raring to snap up the newly accepted student. "I like to think that a guy good enough to play here should've been a star at Langston," admits Johnson, who noticed that Whaley, as a reserve, had rushed for 258 measly yards in his lone season, 2008. But then the running back began listing things that piqued the coach's interest: how high he could jump, how much he could lift and how fast he could run.
"If you can actually do all that stuff," Johnson told Whaley, with more than a hint of skepticism, "then you should have no problem here."
They tried. Whaley's coaches at MacArthur High had sent out transcripts and game tape. A principal with a son who played at Navy reached out to Annapolis, trying to sell the Midshipmen on a kid who'd followed his mother and stepfather, both in the Army, across five states and two countries. The response always came back the same: No thanks. Whaley, after all, had arrived in Lawton from Ansbach, Germany, as a junior, and he was the second option in MacArthur's backfield behind classmate Javon Harris—now the No. 1 free safety on the Sooners' depth chart—while doubling as a defensive back. Equally damaging, Whaley himself had no idea how the modern recruiting industrial complex worked. Kansas State, for instance, had actually invited him to its 2007 summer camp. There's no way I'm asking my mom to drive all the way up to Kansas for just a camp, Whaley thought. Thus the rising senior worked at a Goodyear tire factory that summer, never knowing that the invitation was the closest he'd come then to a Division I sniff.
Whaley wound up picking Langston over Division II Emporia (Kans.) State, lasting less than a year. In early 2009 his mom, Sgt. 1st Class Damaris Hardy, and his stepdad, M. Sgt. Kelius Hardy, were deployed to Iraq, so that spring Whaley left Langston to move in with his grandmother in Killeen, Texas, where he helped care for his two brothers and two sisters. But rather than enroll at a community college as he had planned, Whaley decided to spend the fall in intensive training with a local track coach named Robert Griffin Jr.—the father of Baylor star quarterback Robert Griffin III, who had been a middle school classmate. ("I'd race every new kid," recalls Robert III, who is also an Olympic-level hurdler, "and Dominique Whaley was the only one who almost beat me.") Whaley pored over a list of affordable transfer options—all of them in Texas or in Oklahoma, ranging from Sam Houston State to Oklahoma State to Texas—that would allow him to stay within driving distance of his longtime girlfriend in Lawton, Monique Atkinson (now his fiancée), and their young son.
But no matter where Whaley landed, at least one thing, however unlikely, was settled. "I decided that I was going to make the team, no matter what," he says now. "No ifs, ands or buts." And Oklahoma, thanks to Harris's presence and its 90-minute drive from Lawton, wound up being the best fit.
In Whaley's first spring in Norman, jaws dropped. "Javon told us how good and how hard a worker Dominique was, but we didn't know anything else about him," sophomore center Gabe Ikard says. "Then he started breaking these 50- and 60-yard runs. We were all saying, What is going on?" Whaley emerged as the team's leading rusher in each of the last two springs, so tearing up the vaunted Oklahoma defense, coach Bob Stoops likes to joke, that trainers needed to give the exhausted sandwich artist an IV. (The Sooners' D, notably, outscored the Texas offense last Saturday 21--10.) "I started to feel like, O.K., I can do this," says Whaley. "I felt confident that I could make a difference."
The 21-year-old has since outplayed teammates Brennan Clay (a five-star recruit in 2010), Roy Finch (four stars in '10) and Brandon Williams (five stars in '11) to become the starter. He's gained 20 pounds of muscle, bringing him up to 210. And as for his claims to Johnson? Whaley's done something even more unthinkable, breaking Adrian Peterson's records in the standing broad jump (11'1"), vertical jump (40½ inches), squat lift (525 pounds) and hang clean (355)—while also pushing the NFL star's mark in the 40 (4.39 seconds to Peterson's 4.37). So maybe it shouldn't have been surprising that Whaley's long-awaited Oklahoma debut resulted in 131 yards and four touchdowns in a 47--14 win over Tulsa on Sept. 3. Or that he gashed the Longhorns for a 64-yard run. "Now I just wish Dominique had come right after his first year at Langston," Johnson says. "That way he'd have three years of eligibility here instead of two."
Yet one familiar problem lingers. Yes, Whaley's rise has gained him recognition across the Big 12, and his Facebook and Twitter accounts have exploded, and fans in Norman now routinely approach, asking to take pictures. But popularity won't pay off the junior's latest set of loans. The most staggering element of Whaley's ascent is that unlike Hawaii's walk-ons, and Stanford's, and Michigan's, he still hasn't received a scholarship. For 13 years, Stoops says, team policy has been to award free rides exclusively to "guys who have started a whole year and are expected to be the starter the next year. That's the only way I know how to be fair about it."
Naturally, this has done little to satisfy Whaley's legion of fans. "Come on, man," says Whaley's father, Jeff, a onetime semipro football player who now works at a Cheesecake Factory in Brandon, Fla. "What does my son need to do to get a scholarship? Gain 300 yards against Texas?"
The G.I. Bill, via Damaris—who recently learned that she's being deployed to Afghanistan at the end of this month—only goes so far to cover Dominique's expenses, which, including yearly tuition of $7,854, come to about $20,000 annually. Not to mention the bills of his fiancée, who's training to be a nurse, and of their now two little boys, a three-year-old and a four-month-old.
So it is that the starting tailback for the nation's third-ranked team worked a nine-to-nine shift bundling PVC pipe at a plastic factory in Lawton this summer—and recently asked the university's office of career services for help putting together a résumé. Whaley says, without any hint of bitterness, that he's just applied for jobs at a hotel in Norman, aiming to do pretty much anything: "Work the front desk, do maintenance, yard work, tend the grass." (He's waiting to officially hear back before clearing this with his coaches, noting that the job will have to comply with NCAA guidelines.)
In the meantime, teammates can only look on, dumbfounded. "What he does shouldn't be possible," Ikard says. "Literally. For any normal person, it's too much. If you think about it: We're already working out in the morning, then going to class, meetings, practice, doing homework—and he's watching extra film, every day? And he has all that other stuff? And he paid his way here?"
It's a muggy Tuesday evening in Norman, four days before the blowout against Texas, and Ikard, sitting in a hallway in Oklahoma's football offices after practice, pauses. The lineman has just noticed a blur outside the window, down on the field. "He's still out there, right now," a stunned Ikard says.
Everyone else has long gone. But, by choice, Dominique Whaley keeps sweating near the intersection of Lindsey Street and Jenkins Avenue. Still a walk-on. Still at work.
From Connecticut to Hawaii, players who started their careers as walk-ons—and in some cases still haven't received a scholarship—are now mainstays on their teams.
The triggerman in the Warriors' pass-happy scheme ranks ninth in the country in total offense (340.8 yards a game) and has thrown for 9,014 yards and 68 touchdowns in two-plus seasons.
Perhaps Whalen gets some of his athletic ability from his great uncle, Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver. After walking on in 2008, Whalen has made 37 receptions for 502 yards in 31 games.
The son of a former Wolverines walk-on, Kovacs ranks first on the team in sacks (three), second in tackles for loss (4½) and third in tackles (36). He has 227 tackles in 31 games, 27 of them as a starter.
A two-year starter, the 6'1" 275-pounder was the smallest player on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the nation's top center. He earned a scholarship before the '09 campaign.
Known more for his trick-shot video (more than 6.1 million hits), McEntee had played in just two games in two years before starting all six games this fall. He has thrown six touchdowns for the 2--4 Huskies.
The Badgers' second leading receiver (20 catches, 328 yards, two touchdowns) is still paying his own way and is one of five current or former walk-ons starting for No. 4 Wisconsin.