The life of a walk-on

By Chris Williams, Publisher

Nobody pays attention to you. Many of your own coaches don’t know your name. None of the fans do. You’re too slow. You’re too small. There’s nothing flashy about you. You’ve always been overlooked and you’re constantly being disrespected.

You’re a walk-on in a Big 12 football program.

Welcome to the show boys. But let me tell you one thing. This isn’t your PS3. There’s nothing glamorous in this story.

These underdogs have become a major part of Iowa State’s football program under head coach Paul Rhoads. Since Rhoads arrived in Ames, he’s awarded scholarships to 12 walk-ons including current Cyclones: Mike O’Connell (FS), Jake Williams (WR), Taylor Mansfield (DT), Jeff Woody (RB), Preston Kaufmann (LB), Sean Smith (OL), Matt Morton (LB), Dan Kuehl (P) and Drew Mitchell (TE).

Things worked out pretty well for those men listed above. But most aren’t so fortunate.

All about that chip

Any football coach will tell you that his walk-ons are treated equally to scholarship players. I hate to call those men liars but in this case, they are lying!

“As a walk-on, you don’t get the same things that scholarship players get, or maybe some of the same attention,” said Iowa State’s starting SAM linebacker Matt Morton. “A lot of walk-ons get down on that and accept that. I didn’t. I continued to strive to be the best every day. I worked hard in practice and gave it everything I had.”

In fact, Jeff Woody, a redshirt freshman out of Southeast Polk (who ran for 42 yards in Saturday’s loss to Kansas State) almost quit the team due to the many difficulties and frustrations of being a walk-on in a BCS program.

“It got to me. I’ll admit it,” Woody said. “If you’re going as hard as you are and you’re not getting looked at or you feel that you’re not being treated fairly, everyone is going to put so much into it and say that ‘I am done.’”

Support from his family and coaching staff helped get Woody through the tough times, but that chip on his shoulder was ultimately the key.

“Division one, division two, Iowa schools, out of state schools, they didn’t think I could play offense,” Woody said. “They didn’t think I could play college football at all. That puts a chip on your shoulder. It is just there. The more that you focus on the fact that nobody likes me, that chip just becomes a gap and a divot. You’re not able to actually accomplish anything.”

“As long as you’re able to keep that chip and say that ‘I can do it and nobody thought I could do it,’ that chip then becomes a useful tool in your motivational capabilities and your attitude towards what you are getting into.

The risk factor

What’s the appeal of being ignored? Because when you make the decision to join a Big 12 football program without a scholarship, that is generally what happens.

In most cases, these prospects have offers at lower divisions of football.

So why put yourself through the walk-on process? Why turn down guaranteed scholarship money at a lower level only to have to scratch and claw your way into relevance? It’s all about faith to these athletes, who in many cases are the most relentless men on a team.

“I wanted to challenge myself to get on this team instead of playing for a different team of lesser prestige to get on the field earlier,” said Morton. “I was shooting for the stars. Some people would look at that as a mistake. That is what I wanted. I wanted to challenge myself to get to a high level.”

Morton, who hails from Henderson, Texas didn’t have one scholarship offer at any level when he decided to come to Iowa State. He recorded nine tackles in Saturday’s loss against Kansas State.

Woody had scholarship offers from two of the top division two football programs in America in Nebraska-Omaha and Northwest Missouri State. That wasn’t enough though. Woody, like many of these “preferred walk-ons,” wanted more. There was a thirst to play big time college football, regardless of what his critics preached.

“The atmosphere in a division two program didn’t seem as intense as a division one program. When you walk around and can say ‘I’m a Cyclone football player,’ that says something,” Woody said. “If you say, ‘I’m a UNO Maverick,’ it’s like, where is that at? When you have six to eight thousand people at a game, some people care, some people don’t. At Iowa State, there are 55,000 people at Jack Trice nearly every week. People care about what you are doing, which is a positive reinforcement to the hard work that you put in.”

For Morton, it was more of a spiritual decision.

“I came up here and I just loved the place,” Morton said. “It was kind of a God thing for me. I felt like I was supposed to be here.”

In addition to Morton and Woody, other walk-ons contributed heavily on Saturday too. Jake Williams caught four passes for 36 yards and a touchdown. Mike O’Connell recorded five tackles and Taylor Mansfield played significant minutes on the defensive line.

It never ends

It doesn’t matter what a walk-on does during his time on campus. He could never take a snap or he could play meaningful Big 12 minutes. Heck, he could even be an All-Big 12 linebacker like Jesse Smith.

Eliminating that walk-on tag is impossible.

“Control what you can control,” Woody said. “There is no sense in ‘oh this guy is really good,’ or ‘I’m way better than him.’”

Woody knows first hand what that is all about. While he was on his way to earning a scholarship though hard work and fierce dedication, Iowa State’s coaching staff was bringing in talented and highly recruited prospects such as Shontrelle Johnson and Duran Hollis.

Woody averaged over 7.2 yards per carry against Kansas State on Saturday but there are still those who second-guess him. Why? It has nothing to do with his ability. It’s because he’s a former walk-on.

“Hype can go so far for myself and for Shontrelle and for A-Rob or for James or whoever it might be,” Woody said. “It is hard work and pure dedication. All of us are putting that in. I got that nod that time. Shontrelle got the nod in the Iowa game. It is whomever they feel makes the best matchup and whoever they feel is working hard.”

The foundation

Walk-ons might not be the most talented football players on a roster but they are the scrappiest. The sense of urgency that they bring to a program is invaluable.

Seven former walk-ons were in Iowa State’s two-deep when it was released on Monday morning. Three of them are in the starting lineup.

Programs miss in recruiting all of the time. In today’s game, schools feel the pressure to offer early and in many cases, these coaches swing and miss on evaluation. That’s where your preferred walk-ons, your guys who develop late in their high school careers, really pay off. They fill that void.

Paul Rhoads gets that and Iowa State is a better program because of it.