Walk-ons are college football’s dreamers.
Most, content to imagine some Rudy-like moment on an autumn afternoon, endure all the game’s thankless rigors while enjoying little of its glory. The more ambitious hope to shine brightly enough to earn scholarships. And a few – inspired by the long-shot stories of Antonio Brown, J.J. Watt, and others – envision themselves on NFL rosters.
While the motivations of walk-ons haven’t changed much since Amos Alonzo Stagg devised the concept of athletic scholarships in 1892, their prominence has.
Thanks primarily to Rudy, the rousing 1993 movie about Notre Dame’s Rudy Ruettiger, and the professional stardom of onetime walk-ons like Brown, Watt, Jordy Nelson, and Clay Matthews, the subject has moved out of the shadows.
Books, newspapers, and magazines regularly chronicle the best of these football fairy tales. Several websites are devoted to the subject. Next month, Greater, a film about Arkansas’ Brandon Burlsworth, who went from walk-on to all-American before dying in a 1999 car crash, is scheduled to be released.
And since 2010, the Burlsworth Trophy has been awarded to the top collegiate player who began as a walk-on, an honor that this year went to Oklahoma State quarterback Baker Mayfield.
“There’s no question that we’re hearing more about walk-ons than ever before,” said Dave Frank, vice-president of Athnet, a company that advises and tracks these athletes. “The Internet and social media help get these stories out there.”
Locally, Penn State defensive end Carl Nassib, a walk-on from Malvern Prep, led the nation in sacks, won the Lombardi (best lineman) and Hendricks (best defensive end) Awards and was a Burlsworth Trophy finalist. And at Temple, New Jersey’s Will Hayes became the starting strong safety and a respected leader for the bowl-bound Owls.
“Starting out as a walk-on definitely was a tough challenge,” said Hayes, who as a two-way star at Howell High attracted no interest from Division I or II schools. “But I would recommend it to anyone. If you’re really convinced you’re as good as you think you are, you shouldn’t settle for something less.”
Nassib, whose grit earned him a scholarship at a time when NCAA sanctions limited Penn State to just 65, said that even as an undersize, walk-on freshman, he never doubted himself.
“You need to have that,” he said. “You can’t second-guess yourself or you’ll get pummeled by 300-pound guys.”
No one knows precisely how many walk-ons there are at the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, where scholarships are capped at 85 but rosters frequently top 100. But by any estimate the number is well over 1,000.
“They’re always going to be needed because they give coaches plenty of bodies to practice with, plenty of scout-team players to simulate other team’s offense, defense, and sets,” said Rick Allen, a former college-athletics compliance officer who operates a consulting business, Informed Athlete, that counsels potential walk-ons and their parents.
Players like Hayes and Nassib, who get scholarships, are the exceptions. Though the NCAA compiles no specific data on walk-ons, experts believe the vast majority quit after a short time.
“That happens all the time when these guys realize they’re never going to get off the practice squad,” said Frank, “or that they’re going to have to do this for two or three years just to maybe get into a game their senior year.”
Hayes and Nassib also had the advantage of being “preferred” or “recruited” walk-ons in a two-tiered system.
Those “preferred” or “recruited” usually arrive with guaranteed roster spots. Other hopefuls must try out in the spring.
“At one school, ‘preferred’ might mean you have a guaranteed spot for a year,” said Allen. “But at another it might mean that while you don’t have to go through an open tryout, there’s still no roster guarantee.
“Another distinction is that Division I walk-ons deemed to have been recruited who then want to transfer to another Division I school must sit out a year, just like scholarship players.”
Typically, walk-ons are entitled to the same medical, training, dining, and equipment benefits as scholarship athletes. But occasionally, especially at smaller, non-FBS colleges, they’re relegated to substandard locker-room annexes or denied access to the main training table.
“It still happens,” said Allen, “but not so much anymore at the Power Five conference schools.”
Nassib was focused on eventually going to medical school when Penn State contacted him about walking on. The brother of New York Giants backup quarterback Ryan Nassib, he was thrilled to get an opportunity at a major program in his home state.
“I was like, ‘Oh, definitely coming here,’ ” he said.
He added considerable weight to his 6-foot-7 frame and worked so tirelessly that in 2013 then-coach Bill O’Brien granted him a scholarship.
Hayes, meanwhile, was a 5-9 defensive back who drew interest from only Division III schools. Unwilling to give up his Division I dream, he took the advice of a former Howell teammate and played a year at a prep school, New York’s Milford Academy.
Milford went 9-2, Hayes led the team in interceptions, and then-Temple coach Steve Addazio offered him a preferred walk-on spot.
“Even though I didn’t have a scholarship, I felt like I could get one and become a starter,” Hayes said. “I worked as hard as I could in practice to get noticed. My sophomore year Coach [Matt] Rhule . . . gave me an opportunity to contribute on special teams. And from there I just progressed until I got my scholarship.”
Most who walk on, said Allen, are smitten by the prospect of running onto a stadium field in uniform. Blinded by that goal, they often don’t investigate further.
“They and their parents don’t always do the research,” he said. “They need to know how they’ll be treated and whether the coach will be interested in them as individuals. What I hear from a lot of parents of walk-ons is, ‘Our son chose this place because it was his dream school.’ “
And whether a walk-on ends his career satisfied or not probably depends on the scope of his dream.
“If you don’t have big dreams,” said Hayes, who hopes to play in the NFL, “why even try?”
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This article was republished with permission from the original author, Frank Fitzpatrick, and the original publisher, The Philadelphia Inquirer.