Leading with silence: Walk-ons savor opportunity at Michigan

Thursday, September 17, 2015 - 8:49pm

Kenny Allen has earned a starting position as a former walk-on.

Kenny Allen has earned a starting position as a former walk-on. Buy this photo
James Coller/Daily

 

The road to glory is paved with AstroTurf and illuminated by early-morning street lights.

If you want to walk onto the Michigan football team, you’ll find that out quickly. You’ll also find out that practice starts at 4:45 a.m., not the listed 5:00 start time. You’ll only make that mistake once.

You’ll soon realize that the road to glory is also paved with pain. Maybe it’s getting blown up on the scout team by a future NFL linebacker, maybe it’s holding a 45-pound plate over your head just because coach said so, or maybe it’s sitting in your room at home while your teammates enjoy a trip to Salt Lake City. Regardless, without a scholarship, the coaches don’t owe you anything, and they aren’t afraid to remind you.

Walk-on football players are buried in pads, buried in student loans and buried on the depth chart. Free time and energy are as scarce as playing time and recognition.

But the largely anonymous Wolverines lace up their cleats and savor it anyways, and Michigan simply wouldn’t be the same without them.

* * *

There’s no way to offer someone a walk-on opportunity without it being awkward.

You can try to tell a linebacker that he’s undersized, or assure a cornerback that you just want to see how he recovers from injury, or tell a fullback that fullbacks don’t get scholarships anymore.

You can tell them whatever you want, but every walk-on can read between your lines: Your team has a limit to how many scholarships it can give out, and you didn’t make the cut.

“When you go in as a walk-on, you don't expect anything,” said ex-linebacker Mark Lawson, who walked onto the 2012 team after being an all-state linebacker in high school. “You really start from the bottom. You’re on the team, but you have the extra motive that, technically, you weren’t good enough for them to give you a scholarship, and you have to prove to everyone that you deserve to be there.”

Even with the slight, it was tough for Lawson to consider anywhere but Michigan. Few schools can offer a top-flight education, are close to his Grand Rapids home and happen to boast a football team he grew up rooting for.

Lawson is hardly alone, either. Of the 38 walk-ons on Michigan’s latest roster, 25 are from the state of Michigan. Many of them turned down financial aid elsewhere to don the winged helmet.

Among those to make such a decision was kicker Kenny Allen, a senior from Fenton. The kicker had scholarship offers to Oregon State and Central Michigan and was in talks with other Big Ten schools, but he was drawn to Ann Arbor after years of spring games and football Saturdays.

“For me it was pretty easy — I always knew I wanted to come here,” Allen said. “It’s my dream school. I’ve always wanted to play for Michigan.

“It’s always in the back of everyone’s mind who’s still paying tuition, but I don’t think it was my first priority. I’m fine paying my student loans. I just want to play football and contribute.”

Fueled by pride with an opportunity in tow, Allen, Lawson and dozens more make the trek to Schembechler Hall. They know they’re the underdogs yearning for playing time, but they’re prepared to go after the starters’ jobs anyway.

* * *

The term ‘walk-on’ is an overstatement these days.

Generations ago, Michigan would carry as many scholarship football players as it could afford, often over 150, so any player on the team who didn’t earn a scholarship joined only by walking to practice one day and making a tryout — literally walking on.

But with many schools facing budget crises after the advent of Title IX and smaller schools struggling to make it in a sport dominated by dynasties, the NCAA limited scholarships to 105 in 1973. They ruled to bring that total down to 95 in 1978 and 85 in 1992, a cap that remains in place today.

Suddenly the walk-ons were players previously offered scholarships, and the days when an athlete could literally walk on to the Michigan football team were effectively over.

Today, players have to hustle their way through discussions with coaches and recruiters, run through drills at camps and jump through hoops just to get noticed enough for a spot at practice.

“I felt like I really had to sell myself,” said one former player who spoke to the Daily on the condition of anonymity. “I was a three-star recruit, and (Michigan) State was ready to welcome me with open arms, but I had to heckle Michigan with my highlight video before they even noticed.”

The vast majority of walk-ons at Michigan could have taken a scholarship elsewhere, but instead took the uphill option with the Wolverines.

If they’re talented enough to play but not talented enough to earn a scholarship, they join 20 or so others — known as preferred walk-ons — who make the initial 105-man roster.

Preferred walk-ons join the team in June, and are able to train with the team all summer and attend training camp with the scholarship players. They receive access to facilities, training tables, tutors and most other scholarship benefits — except the free tuition.

Despite the distinction, the preferred walk-ons are welcomed by the rest of the team, on one condition: effort.

“Once you’re on the team, they don’t care about your title,” Allen said. “They care about if you are going to put in effort. You could be from Alaska, you could be a negative-five-star recruit for all they care. But if you come in and you give everything you’ve got, they respect you.”

Added senior Antonio Whitfield, who played for the team from January 2014 until last week: “As a walk-on, your opportunities might not be as as frequent as guys with a scholarship, but you’re going to get opportunities. … If you look at scout team as an opportunity to prove yourself, they’ll notice that, and they’ll find a way to get you onto the field.”

Respect is earned in football. But what if you never get that chance?

* * *

For the non-preferred walk-ons, life isn’t as easy.

The “regular” walk-ons aren't allowed in training camp and preseason, so they have to wait for the roster limit to be removed at the start of the school year to formally try out. Even then, gaining acceptance is no picnic.

“They make you go through the worst workouts, both physically and mentally,” Lawson said. “Like seeing how long you can hold up a 40-pound plate.”

And that’s just on the first day.

“They kind of try to kill you to see what your motivation is,” Whitfield said. “You have to do 5 a.m. workouts for a full year and kind of get your butt kicked just to show that this is something that you want to do, instead of just going out there and saying ‘I’m on the football team, look at my jersey.’ ”

Most actually do quit. But, already behind in conditioning and game planning, even those who stay have virtually no shot at becoming champions that season. Instead, they’re automatically delegated to the scout team. It’s still Michigan football, but the agency is lost. Rather than having a jersey number, they wear their opponents’.

“I hated scout team. I openly hated it,” Whitfield said. “But you have to channel that, and I tried to channel that into basically kicking the ass of anyone who lined up against me or trying to make the defense look as bad as possible whenever I got the ball.”

Earning respect is equally hard. Players are skeptical of newcomers without a full summer of practicing and do their best to test out the new guys.

Whitfield remembered this clearly. During practice, he broke through a hole in the line with plenty of daylight. That daylight was sealed quickly by linebacker Jake Ryan, now a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers. The 6-foot-3 Ryan crushed the 5-foot-4 Whitfield’s body, but not his spirit.

“A lot of people were looking at me seeing how I would handle being popped like that,” Whitfield said. “I got right back up, and after that, people kind of joked about it, but I think they saw then that I wasn’t going to quit — I was a part of the team.”

Getting hit by Ryan is tough, but the mental perseverance of pushing yourself even though you won’t see the field all season, maybe ever, is the tougher challenge. If you can’t find the motivation yourself, you don’t have to look far at Michigan.

* * *

Michigan has been among the premier collegiate football programs in the country for some time, and its walk-on players are no exception.

Former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler famously pushed his scout team and walk-ons harder than other schools, even chasing down scout team quarterback John Paciorek in 1985 when he heard Paciorek planned on quitting.

He eventually gave the gunslinger his blessing to leave the program, but the message was clear.

“That Bo would even take the time out for a guy like me means more than you could ever imagine,” Paciorek told The Michigan Today in 2011.

Astute Michigan fans will know that the starting quarterback the year Paciorek quit was current Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. Though a scholarship player, Harbaugh himself spent 1982 on the scout team and never lost track of the importance of the walk-ons.

This came to fruition after Harbaugh’s first win as a coach at Michigan. After defeating Oregon State, 35-7, Harbaugh took all of 30 seconds in his press conference before mentioning the key to success.

“I thought this (game) was won with the week of practice,” Harbaugh said. “Everybody contributed. The look team, the scout team, had its best week. Guys really challenging (the starters) made those practices extremely good.

“Hopefully this shows our team that these games can be won during the week. ... Our look squad was playing inspired. They were challenging, not just out there.” 

Harbaugh’s boss, Interim Athletic Director Jim Hackett, stood off to the side, beaming. Schembechler once called him “the best demo team center in the whole country.”

Never mind that it had been decades since Hackett’s playing days. The effort had bubbled through the depth chart to the surface for Schembechler, and Harbaugh was having similar sentiments with his 2015 team.

Some may dismiss the words as coach talk, but Whitfield, who went through the coach’s famous ‘submarine’ training camp, insists Harbaugh practices what he preaches, and that walk-ons and future NFL draft picks have a chance to shine.

“During this fall camp, it was the only time I’ve seen or heard of a scout team that had so many moving parts and so many starters taking reps on the scout team,” Whitfield said. “Literally any day, anyone could be on scout team, so we were constantly competing and constantly rolling that depth chart.”

* * *

The dream for every walk-on is to shed that title. With players retiring, graduating or not making it to campus, occasional scholarship openings come up.

Just before the Oregon State game, Allen and senior linebacker Dan Liesman were the fortunate ones to live that dream.

Through gimmicks, surprises and viral videos, other programs make a fuss about walk-ons getting scholarships. Under Harbaugh, who avoids gimmicks like the plague, it’s nothing more than a brief meeting and a handshake.

It may seem callous or unappreciative, but on the inside, it’s simply the recognition that walk-ons were a part of the team all along.

Fifth-year senior fullback Joe Kerridge, who earned his scholarship two years and one day before being named team captain for this season, thinks this is the way to go. Kerridge nearly ended his career in high school due to a knee injury, but he earned an opportunity at Michigan. From then on, he was a nameless face sweating it all out in training camp, finding motivation in the quotes his father sent him every day. 

Among them:

Lead with silence, let your success do the talking.

For Kerridge, the light turned on. Suddenly the seemingly futile scout-team reps, the Friday workouts while the team traveled and the lack of scholarship meant something: The success doesn’t come from being noticed, it comes from contributing every day.

“It’s been a climb for me over these years,” Kerridge said. “Starting out as a walk-on, I tore my ACL in high school, I came in and had to fight through everything, finally was awarded that scholarship.”

It may seem like a lot of effort to be on the team, but that’s just how the walk-ons like it.