A Walk-On Life

My story is not one for Hollywood.

I’d love to say that I can see myself as the next walk-on success story like JJ Watt, Antonio Brown or Clay Matthews, but I’m realistic. I know I’m not going to the NFL. D-I football is my last stop, and to be completely honest, I’m OK with that.

Every walk-on has, at some point, been told they’ll never make it, and I think that’s a big part of what keeps us going. Most of us are not playing to get noticed by scouts or to hear the crowd cheer our name. Many of us are paying tuition ourselves or being assisted by our parents. When I started college, my parents were already shouldering two other college tuitions at the same time.

We come from places all over the United States. Matt Swoyer hails from national powerhouse Southlake Carroll in Texas, while Trever Ryen came to Iowa State from the small town of Ida Grove, Iowa. Some of us were recruited, while others had to scratch and claw their way onto the team via tryout.

We’re the walk-ons. And contrary to what you have probably heard, we’re not used as tackling dummies. We each have our own unique story. but the majority of us have one common denominator: We’ve been overlooked. Some for lack of speed, some for lack of athleticism and some, like me, for a lack of size.

My sophomore year at Lemont High School, located in the suburbs of Chicago, I was 5’6” and 125 pounds. Not surprisingly, I was almost always the lightest guy on the varsity football field, and for the most part, I’m still the smallest guy on the field. It’s a bit intimidating to look across the line of scrimmage and into the eyes of a guy who is 6’3” and 235 pounds, but when you’re out there, you don’t think about it. Besides, once you hit somebody, those nerves go away. No matter how undersized you are, you can’t be scared that you’re going to get hurt, because that’s exactly how you do get hurt. That’s no way to play football and it’s no way to live your life.

I was fortunate enough to earn a spot as a walk-on on Iowa State football team. Unless you’ve been in those shoes, it’s hard to see the mental toughness it takes to keep many walk-ons from calling it quits. What we all go through is by no means easy. But people outside the program would sometimes look at me and say, Oh, you’re a walk-on? As though there’s something wrong with that — as though we haven’t worked just as hard as anyone else on the team.

But I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that people believe coaches and other players treat us like second-class citizens. From my experience, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Every coach and every player on my team has been so down to earth. My position coach, Tommy Mangino, treated every single one of us, walk-on or not, with the same sincere form of respect. Every one of us is treated like another member of the team

Still, the question I get the most is, Why? You’re not even seeing the field in the game. There’s the physical toll and the time commitment. Why put yourself through it, and what exactly are you getting out of it?

It’s almost impossible to pinpoint that one thing that keeps me pressing. Popular culture makes the life of a walk-on seem brutal, but also glamorous at times. I think that’s a simplistic way of looking at it. Not everybody is going to become the next Rudy, going from being the undersized walk-on to becoming a folk hero. That’s a great story, but I never really thought of myself as even trying to become something remotely close to that. I’ve always just wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself.

Again, this begs that same question: Why?

For me it was because of the people who told me I couldn’t. A big motivator for me is my brother. I love him to death, he’s a great brother, but for some reason he’s always doubted me. Even going into high school, he told me I wasn’t good enough to start for my high school team. I was constantly working to prove him wrong, to show him that he’s wrong. But he wasn’t my only doubter.

I remember during the summer going to into my senior year in high school. I was getting recruited by some smaller Division I schools. One school in particular told me that they loved my tape, but they said they wanted to see me perform at their camp to evaluate me before offering me a scholarship. I went to the camp and actually did extremely well. The coach told my mom and I afterwards that he wanted to talk to us privately. He went on to say I was the best player at my position at any of their camps and that the head coach watched me do one-on-one drills and told him, “I want that kid on my team.” After this, the coach went on to tell me that they wanted me to come walk-on.

Personally, I thought I deserved more than that, but he said they were finished offering scholarships to defensive backs in that recruiting class, which made sense. They only had so many scholarships, and their allotment for that position had been met. That’s hard to argue with.

A few weeks later, I read in the newspaper that this same school had just offered another defensive back from my area. Then, a week later, I read that they offered another defensive back.

This guy looked me straight in the eyes and lied to my face. I’m not sure how a 17-year-old kid is suppose to handle a situation like that, but it broke my heart. I had no idea where to go from there.

That was probably one of the tougher moments of my life.

It’s those kinds of moments that drive walk-ons to do what we do. The sad reality is there are other walk-ons who may not have gone through the exact same thing, but experienced something very similar.

In the end, that coach must have been right. I didn’t get any D-I scholarship offers. But I knew that wasn’t the end for me and that someday I’d get my chance. I’d just have to create it myself.

I didn’t start out like a lot of D-I walk-ons. I broke my ankle the week before my senior season, so naturally a lot of schools backed off of me. I had two brothers in college and I was going to make it three. I had multiple opportunities to walk on at about five Division I schools, but paying for three educations without a scholarship would have put a tremendous amount of financial pressure on my parents. With this in mind, I took a scholarship offer from the school that showed me the most interest, NAIA powerhouse St. Xavier University.

I was fortunate enough to play a lot as a true freshman. I loved all of the coaches and the guys on the team were some of the best people I’ve met. But something was missing. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know if I wanted to play football anymore. I wasn’t having success on the field and I was having problems with my ankle again. I’d come home from practice and think to myself, What happened? I felt like the speed and agility that I once had just wasn’t there.

I decided to leave St. Xavier thinking my football career was over. I told my mom right after I left that I still wanted to play football, but deep down, I was pretty sure I was ready to call it quits. I transferred to another small school, Benedictine University. I was going to leave football behind and go to school with my brother and prepare for the next chapter of my life. I told my mom I didn’t want a dorm of my own and that I would rather just sleep at my brother’s place.

Eventually, I missed the brotherhood and team aspect and had that itch to play again. I got in contact with coach Derek Day from Iowa State, and my life changed forever. It’s pretty crazy now to look back and see how far I’d gone from sleeping on a couch to becoming part of a Big 12 football program.

The craziest thing about being a walk-on, especially at the Division I level, is the risk-reward factor. There are few visible signs of success for some of us. As a part of the scout team, we work as hard as we can in practice because we want to give the defense the best look possible for Saturday’s game. The harder we play, the more prepared the starters will be.

That’s about the only thing my story has in common with Rudy: the work and the effort.

It’s gratifying to see our team win on Saturday and know that I was a part of that. Just like anyone else, I would love to be one of the guys who appears in the box score, but I can live without that. It’s the grind that makes being a walk-on so tough, but also so rewarding.

There were times when I just felt like quitting. At times you have get up at 5:30 a.m. You lift, you run and, of course, there’s practice. Through it all, when you look around, you see all these other guys getting their tuition paid for, and then there I am, doing exactly the same thing for nothing. If they get hurt, it’s like, OK, I’m hurt, but I’m still here and they’re still paying for my education.

Ultimately, that’s the biggest difference between scholarship players and walk-ons. The coaching staff treats us exactly the same and we do all the same things in the offseason and during game week, but the simple fact is, we’re missing one thing: a scholarship. People don’t often realize that, and for a long time. I didn’t think about it either. But now, I’ve finally had to.

About a month from our season opener against Northern Iowa, I went home to see my family. I was talking to my mom at the dinner table about my sister going to college. We were excited for her, but we came to the realization that paying for her college along with mine was going to be expensive.

After a few days off and much thinking, I decided to leave Iowa State and go somewhere that would be more cost-efficient for my family. My dad has worked two jobs for as long as I can remember and my mom has done everything in her power to set my brothers, sister and I up for success. They have always supported me in whatever I wanted to do, and I felt this was what was best for my family.

I left behind lot of things at Iowa State — a girlfriend, teammates, friends, coaches and arguably the most underrated fan base in college football. When I called our head coach at Iowa State, Paul Rhoads, to tell him I was leaving, he was very understanding. He thanked me for being a part of the program and for working as hard as I could. But in reality, I should be thanking him. He’s the one who gave me the opportunity to play Division I football and chase a dream. For that, I am forever grateful.

I enrolled at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. I had no guarantee if I would ever get to play football, but my mom told me to just keep praying. Sure enough, my prayers were answered. Coach Dino Babers gave me the opportunity to keep playing, and I’m ecstatic about that. I’m truly blessed to be a Falcon.

The reality is some of us walk-ons may never see the field, but that isn’t the end of the world for us. How many people can say they wake up every single morning and have the opportunity to chase their dream? Not a lot of people get to do so, and the thing is, there are thousands of people who would kill to be playing Division I football.

I just don’t want to be that guy who’s 45 years old and says, Man, I should’ve done that…

So the next time you see a walk-on highlighted on a depth chart or even on a television broadcast, don’t feel bad for them. Don’t look down on them. They’re giving everything they’ve got to that football team just like the biggest superstars, and no matter what the reason, they’re doing it because they love it. They’re the ones giving their all and not asking for anything in return. They’re the ones who make it all possible.

They’re the ones who truly help make college football so great.