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."