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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.