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.