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A rare breed of tough-minded, stubborn and dedicated college athlete is flourishing these days. He's the walk-on, and sometimes he gets walked on. He arrives on campus with no scholarship, no reputation and, quite often, no chance. He just shows up and says, "I want to play." He's the ultimate odds-beater. He pays his own freight, carries his own weight and, in some quarters, sparks a lot of debate.
Last season walk-ons accounted for all of Missouri's points in a 10-0 upset of Oklahoma. A walk-on fullback led the Western Athletic Conference in rushing last year, and a walk-on kicker led the Southwest Conference in scoring. Walk-ons started at fullback, tight end, middle guard, defensive end, strongside linebacker and monster for the nation's No. 2 team, Nebraska. The country's best tight end is a walk-on at Colorado State. Miami of Ohio's top three quarterbacks last season were all walk-ons, and two are still in Oxford. They'll throw to a walk-on split end who broke the school's single-season reception record. And so it goes. There will be walk-on starters at virtually every position in every conference this year.
And what a strange cast of characters they are. They include the healthy, like Auburn defensive end Kevin Greene, whose 500-pound bench press is a team record; the wealthy, like Florida placekicker Bobby Raymond, who refused a scholarship because his parents are well off; and the wise, like the defensive end who turned down financial aid at Dartmouth to walk on at Nebraska. That's premed student Scott Strasburger.
Then there's UCLA junior wide receiver Mike Sherrard, whom Bruin offensive coordinator Homer Smith considers more of a "stroll-on" than a walk-on. "He strolled into our office with a girl on each arm," says Smith. "He's skin and bones, girls hanging on, and he tells us he can play football for UCLA." Turns out he could. Last season Sherrard led the Bruins in receiving with 48 catches for 709 yards and was named second-team All-America.
Tulsa has a walk-on, Jason Staurovsky, who thought he would be the student manager but ended up as the first-string placekicker. Defensive end Derek Turner walked on at Baylor because he saw the coach on a television show, and a walk-on wide receiver, Billy Getchell, is at Alabama because he worked as a counselor at Joe Namath's football camp and got Broadway's recommendation. The Southwest Conference has a two-time walk-on quarterback. Anthony Sciaraffa, who got the walk-around when he walked on at Texas, upped and walked away and walked on at TCU, where he won the starting job. "Walk-ons are the salt of the earth," says Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. Adds Southern California coach Ted Tollner, "We need them. We want them."
So walk on, walk-on, with hope in your heart, and you'll never walk alone. Well, not exactly never. For every walk-on who elbows his way into the limelight and wins a scholarship, legions of others don't fare as well. They remain anonymous players who spend their practice time holding blocking bags and their game time holding down space on the bench—in short, walk-ons who get walked on their entire career. This is a story about both kinds of walk-ons.
Colleges could give an unlimited number of football scholarships until 1973, when the NCAA decided that no more than 30 could be awarded per year. In 1977 the NCAA set the maximum number of players a school can have on scholarship at one time at 95. Thus, most coaches need warm bodies, warm walk-on bodies who aren't getting financial aid, to fill their practice needs. If you think that 95 scholarship players should be enough, you're not a coach and you're not familiar with the battalionlike size of contemporary teams. As many as 150 players suit up for Nebraska practices, and another 95 play on the freshman squad.
Some coaches find the politics of dealing with walk-ons difficult. Virginia Tech's Bill Dooley says some walk-ons "use us to get into school, then drop off the team," meaning that they get assistance from the football office to obtain admission to the university without really intending to play. Even Bowden, a fan of walk-ons, says he has lost friends over trying to help walk-ons. "I probably get more bad letters in regard to the walk-on players we try to be nice to than I get about anything else," he says.
Many coaches don't pursue walk-ons because of a built-in problem—high tuition. A school like, say, Duke might be expected to have a lot of walk-ons, academic types who stumbled onto the practice field one day while looking for the chem lab. But only four of Duke's 98 players last season were walk-ons, largely because of the school's $12,000 annual tab. Walk-ons may enjoy punishment more than most, but they're not necessarily monetary masochists.
However, the coaches with solid walk-on programs wouldn't want it any other way. "I'd never cut a walk-on," says Texas Tech's Jerry Moore. "Once they're out there, they're there until they want to quit." Adds Jim Lambright, who coordinates Washington's excellent walk-on program, "The productivity you get out of walk-ons is amazing. We have a lot of players, so we can have two or three scout teams. That means we get many more repetitions at practice because we're not wearing down the same 11 guys."